I grew up poor. At the same time, I also grew up middle-class rich.
How? I was the child of divorced parents.
When my parents were together, my father was the breadwinner. He and my mother had emigrated to Canada in the 1970s in search of work in my father's field. He was successful, yet my mother had trouble finding meaningful work as her training was minimal, network disconnected due to the move and foreign work history deemed irrelevant by employers.
My parents divorced when I was 6 and I continued to live with my mother. My father went on to build a lucrative career while my mother struggled to find decent work. She figured it out - and I envy her industrious spirit - but was disadvantaged throughout her entire working life. Since I lived with my mother, I was economically disadvantaged by corollary.
We all hear about lucrative divorce settlements in the press, but my mother did not have this experience. She did receive some financial support from my father, but, despite her extreme frugality, she still struggled to pay the bills.
What many consider the staples of family life - a car, air conditioning, ample supply of food, vacations, summer camp, haircuts, and so on - were nonexistent for my mother and I. Indeed, I was a very skinny teenager and now wonder if I was undernourished. I recall being hungry and many times simply not eating because there was nothing in the house.
As a child, I was in a constant state of economic anxiety and this shaped my behavior as an adult. The mortgage was always the priority and everything else came second. Today, I am extremely frugal and always worry about the bottom dropping out, making me extremely risk-averse. This is reflected in my spending patterns, career path, portfolio and approach to debt. At heart I am an entrepreneur, but I've been held back by my focus on limiting downside.
After their separation, my father lived the life of a trendy bachelor. He bought clothes, dined out, traveled. Eventually, he met and married my stepmother - a doctor and professor - who gave birth to my half-sister when I was 13. This is where my alternate reality begins.
My second family, which I visited on occasional weekends and holidays, had all the things I lacked. My sister was privileged. With my dad and stepmother, she vacationed around the world and probably never had a home-made haircut. I wouldn't say she was spoiled, but she also never experienced the anxiety of possibly losing the roof over her head. However, this is not about my sister. Or stepmother. I'm trying to illustrate the juxtaposition of my two immediate families, one of which was my daily reality and the other my occasional respite. I was both poor and middle-class rich at the same time. As a teenager, I wasn't bitter at the contrasts - I simply basked in the sun while it shone.
My father did provide me an allowance and bought me things, so there was some degree of re-balancing between the two economic realities. However, today having kids and a house of my own, I recognize that this was merely supplemental to the real costs of family life. With family life comes a relentless onslaught of expenses that, for many, don't end even after post-secondary graduation. Some have the money to pay for these things, others borrow the money. For the most part, I was on my own - it took me over 15 years to pay off my student loans. The things I could have done if I wasn't immediately hamstrung by debt!
Despite any support received, the life my mother and I lived was compartmentalized from the life my father and his new family lived. Indeed, the separation was so absolute that I am not even sure my second family realized how broke my mother and I were. I think they were blissfully unaware and happy to lead their own family life.
The stress of such an arrangement fueled the occasional animosity between my mother and I. As I reached my early teenage years, the tension worsened and I asked my father if I could live with him. Without being so direct, he basically said no. Today, I somewhat empathize with his answer - why would he want a troubled youth to come in and alter the well-manicured dynamic of his new second family? However, I can't sympathize with why a parent would not want to live with his child. So the delineation remained clear - I was a member of my second family on a part-time basis...a fair-weather contract worker, if you will.
When I used to visit my second family, I'd silently hope to find more pictures of me on the fridge. A picture of me at the age of 4 or 5 was posted, but I think this was more to show people how similar my sister and I looked at the same age. That was it though. Frequently, if people visited while I was there I'd hear them say to my father in surprise, "I didn't know you had a son". Yep, I was the son that lived in a compartmentalized alternate reality of economic anxiety.
When I was 19 my father once flew me out to visit him when he lived in Vancouver for a couple years. That was a nice trip. When my sister was 11 years old (and I was 24) I was asked to join my second family on a vacation. I was asked back for the next summer vacation too. Those were amazing trips and forever etched in my memory. But, like a part-timer, those were the only three vacations I took with my father, stepmother and sister. I truly appreciate those vacations, however those were only 3 of dozens my second family took without me.
Twenty years have passed since those vacations, yet I have only thought of this lately. My relationship with my own children is uncovering the irregularities and inequities of my own upbringing. Today, I walk a fine line between resentment and appreciation. I wish I had more growing up, but without my second family I definitely would have had less.
I have met others who lived a similar life and feel the same way. I'm guessing this predicament is more common than you'd think, which is why I'm writing this today. I'm not seeking reparations and I don't necessarily blame anyone. I simply wish second families understood the circumstances of the first family they leave behind.
Finally, I want to emphasize that my father, sister and stepmother are all good people. My sister had no control over the situation and my stepmother was not responsible for a family she did not know. Indeed, I don't think they were even aware of the stark economic contrasts, much less my feelings as I'm only beginning to understand them myself.