Growing up without: Looking back on a childhood with very little
Jody Gifford in 1982. “I wanted a Cabbage Patch Doll but got this instead.” (Photo courtesy of Jody Gifford, background via Canva)
I remember very little about my childhood. My parents divorced when I was 6, and I have fond memories of my dad— like tinkering in his garage and bringing his treasured street rod to car shows — but very few of my mom.
To be honest, I don’t remember a lot of good things about my mom. The divorce made her bitter, and at times she appeared more interested in the single life over single mom-ing. I can’t blame her for wanting a life of her own, but I was still along for the ride, whether she wanted me there or not.
In her defense, she did work hard and often at more than one job at a time. In the years I was at home, she managed a photography studio and a restaurant, bartended, waited tables, worked retail, at a convenience store and also a bowling alley. She barely had a high school degree, so an office job was out of the question. I don’t remember her ever having insurance or a retirement plan. No savings, either.
No child should know struggle that intimately. It’s not “character-building” and it doesn’t make you resilient, either.
My dad, on the other hand, worked at the same electric supply store nearly all of his career, retiring from there in his mid-60s. He didn’t have much either, but what he had, he watched closely and spent wisely.
Growing up, I understood how little money we had. I wore hand-me-downs, got free lunch at school and couldn’t participate in activities that weren’t free or school-sanctioned. When I outgrew my bike, my dad salvaged one from the junk yard. When I outgrew my shoes, I’d wear my mom’s until we could afford to buy a new pair. Sometimes, that day never came. Sometimes, I’d wait until Christmas so it was a “gift.” I felt less guilt that way.
Still, I had some incredible opportunities growing up. I was smart and the combination of intelligence and a low-income family meant that I was a candidate for the Upward Bound program (now TRIO) at Iowa State University. Upward Bound serves junior high and high school students with the end goal of preparing them for post-secondary education. It’s safe to say that without Upward Bound, I would never have attended college. I was the first in my family to do so.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as my 16 year-old begins her march toward college. She’s not even halfway through her junior year and we’re already talking ACT scores and college visits. I’m grateful for the resources she has at her disposal and for the people helping her on her journey. It takes a village to navigate that process.
I’ve also been reflecting on what it was like to grow up without. Yes, it was a bummer not to have new shoes or to skip extracurriculars, even more so when there wasn’t enough food in the fridge or phone service because my mom couldn’t pay the bill.
No child should know struggle that intimately. It’s not “character-building” and it doesn’t make you resilient, either. That kind of awareness and responsibility at such a young age creates trauma that can take years to understand and repair. Children are not made stronger by having to take care of themselves. It’s a parent’s job to feed, clothe, house, provide medical care and education, but also to attend to a child’s emotional needs. You don’t get credit for doing half the job. In the end, it’s always the child who suffers.
My dad passed away almost a decade ago and I haven’t heard from my mom in years. It’s certainly easier now to separate myself from my childhood experience. Admittedly, I’ve done the work to overcome a lot of that early trauma. And my kids have benefitted from that work, as well.
I work hard to be a good mom, to not only take care of my children’s basic physical needs but also their emotional ones. Most of the time, it’s like paddling without an oar — you just have to figure out how to do it as you go.
Would I say that growing up without gave me the tools I needed to be a good mom? Definitely not. I experienced a lot of things that I hope my children never do. I prefer to think that growing up with all they need will help shape them into incredible humans. Simple as that.
What inspires me?
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