I'll never forget when my daughter and I were getting the grand tour of a friend's new mansion when Aria, six at the time, slinked down the spiral staircase and muttered to my friend's daughter, also six, "My daddy has two bathrooms."
I felt sick, sad and alarmingly ashamed. But it wasn't until we entered the bedrooms of the daughters—three- and six-years-old, each with their own room—when it really went to hell. Aria's eyes widened like Charlie upon entering the chocolate factory. Hot pink canopied queen beds were covered in fabric that matched the wallpaper. There were built-in shelves stuffed with dolls from Bonpoint. The walk-in closet was bigger than our kitchen. There was nary an IKEA item in sight.
Aria and the sisters jumped on the bed, bonding over giggles but I could see what was under Aria's nervous laughs. My daughter had caught a wicked case of the "haves."
After a romp in the playground-sized structure, manned by the uniformed nanny, we retreated toward my dented and soiled RAV 4. Aria's head hung low, sluggishly hopping from stone to beautiful stone in the gorgeous driveway. She peeked back at the mansion to get one last look. In that moment, my heart broke. She put it together. We were not like her friends at school, or my friends, or anyone we know. We are "the have-nots."
We live in an apartment. The same one I've lived in since I was single. We are two parents and two kids. My son is three and Aria is now seven, and they share the master bedroom. My husband and I share the small one. There is one bathroom. The four-plex building was built in the 1930s and it hasn't been painted since I moved in thirteen years ago. Kitchen drawers require Fonz-like moves to open. Things are chipping everywhere. I don't know a single family at my stage in life—let's call it grown-up—who still live in their sex-with-everyone-in-the-city, singles-era pad. My kids' parents are artists and it shows. And now Aria is old enough to get it.
Frankly the pressure of being a "have-not" in a "have" town starts to take its toll.
Why don't we live in a house?
Why don't we have a pool?
Will we live in a house one day? A BIG house? With a yard?
This is a tough moment for me. And that's because the honest answer is, "No, we probably won't." How do I tell her that I made a choice to be an artist and never amassed the kind of income to buy a house, and most likely never will? How do I explain that those parents made different choices. They chose careers with a different math to them. The kind where hard work plus time equals financial payoff, and that translates to a home, sometimes a pool and most likely furniture that didn't come in a box with fifty pieces and Swedish instructions.
The arts have an equation that defy mathematical rules. Actors can work for years on their craft, be spoiled with talent, looks and brains and still be in the same place 20 years later. Same for writers, painters, dancers, filmmakers and musicians. I have been toiling for 20 years now at almost all of those. There are up years and down years, and a career in the arts means you just never know. You never know what's next, or if you will ever work again. Now that I am a parent, I can say with all honesty I wish I had done it different.
I can't tell Aria that I have no idea how I will come up with next month's rent. She is not old enough to understand the complex nuances of a conversation about material things, life choices, success and failures. Ultimately it circles back to what appears to be not "having enough" when all of our friends, hers and mine appear to "have" and have in spades. I wish I could say something here about being rich in love, values and spirit. But frankly the pressure of being a "have-not" in a "have" town starts to take its toll. A bohemian artist living on the fringe can be what your 20s is about. When that defines your adulthood and family life, it starts to feel like "Where did I go wrong?"
I've been doing my best to articulate the value of money to Aria, who not-so-coincidentally, wants to either be an artist or "run a store where everything is free" when she grows up.
This year she's insisting we have her birthday party at either our apartment or her dad's. He (we were never married) lives in a small one bedroom. I explain, it's impossible. Not because I'm ashamed about being a have-not but rather the simple math; neither her dad nor I have enough room for all the kids and parents. She can't wrap her head around it, "Of course we can! Daddy has two bathrooms."