The Real “Money” Issue In Our Family

The real stuff about our money conversation since we adopted The Cherubs has nothing to do with budgets. It has to do with the long process of realizing what makes the kids feel safe, and me figuring out how to be the kind of Mom they trust to take care of them. I realized how this all connected AS I wrote this post, so it winds around a bit. Thanks in advance for your patience.

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Let me start by saying, I had no idea that public school was so expensive. I mentioned this in yesterday’s post, as I remembered how alarmed I was to discover that every single after school activity The Cherubs signed up for cost somewhere between $35-$350. We had not planned for that kind of cash outlay, and it really threw us for a loop there in the beginning. Thankfully, every investment has been more than worth it. If I have unexpected expenses for my kids, that means I have kids. The miracle of that isn’t lost on me.

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As I thought more about this, I realized that my frustration about the “cost of school” isn’t really about money. That’s just an easy thing to point to. My true frustration is the amount of time and attention the school wants from me, and the surprising things I’m learning about what makes my kids feel safe.

I have 6.5 hours/5x a week when I’m not responsible for keeping the kids alive or responding to their immediate needs. Anything requiring focus needs to happen during these hours. On good weeks, I have a routine.

I feel like the school conspires to wreck my routine, every. single. week.

I’ll confess, I want to cry each time they email me ANOTHER reminder to log into the special parent portal to read the “virtual backpack” of flyers that used to come home with kids in actual backpacks. If you plan to fly my child to London Tuesday and need me to send her that morning with a check for $1300 & a pair of wellies, PLEASE don’t hide that information behind a password I forgot back in September?

I flat out don’t want to attend the online, audio-only training required to access my kids’ report cards. If I send them in with a piece of paper, will you print me a copy? Even a hand-written scrawl, something like, On track to graduate with his class would be fine.

Just this week, I’ll miss two different things, one at each of the kids schools: I couldn’t attend last night’s mandatory meeting to tell me that if I sign my kid up for a sport, he’s supposed to come to practice. And I can’t make tonight’s event where parents will learn about the curriculum. But since I’m neither qualified nor inclined to homeschool, my absence is probably a win for both of us, because what would be my option if I didn’t like it?

(On a total side note…Telling the kids we might try homeschooling turned out to be a MIRACLE CURE for lackadaisical academic effort! I mentioned this once as a joke, describing my unique educational program of memoir writing & baton twirling. Both kids BUCKLED RIGHT DOWN and got to work. It was incredible.)

And the only thing that has ever made me wonder if I might be a horrible parent is my knee-jerk reaction to the weekly PTO emails. I don’t want to sell wrapping paper, calendars, candles, half-full buckets of cookie dough, or candy bars. It all feels a bit like multi-level marketing, but without the teamwork, parties, or profit. I think a dance would be a disaster for my child at this stage of her development, so you probably don’t want me planning one. And since I’m just learning to feed my family, you don’t want me baking special treats for the teachers.

Digging down, I see that my frustration isn’t even about time. It’s about feeling caught in this wave of demands and finding it hard to get my feet planted back on the ground. I use up so many no’s each day with the kids (they are BOLD askers…either one of them could have a brilliant career in sales), it’s hard to have to spend so many more on the school, when I’m really so grateful for all they do.

And here’s the other thing I don’t know how to explain to the school: Not only do I want to be doing work that isn’t just about housekeeping, school & parenting, it’s a key part of earning my kids’ trust.

For my kids, a stay-at-home mom isn’t a wonderful gift of love. It’s a woman with too much time on her hands, time they can’t account for. They don’t trust me if I can’t say what I did all day, because they’ve had experiences where grown-ups get into trouble when the kids aren’t around to keep an eye on them. #2 Cherub in particular was angry that first summer when she learned I wasn’t churning out a steady stream of books to be published. “But you said you’re an author!” she demanded. “Why aren’t you author-ing?” To her, author-ing isn’t just writing a bit every day. It’s generating tangible, revenue-producing products. It’s getting paid for your work. And you know what? She has a point.

One day I received a check for $98 for copies of my book that sold. I made a small joke about bringing home the big bucks, but then I looked up and saw pure relief on my kids’ faces. So you CAN earn money, their expressions said. Later, one of them said faux-casually, If something happened to Dad, you could make more money with your books, right? And then I realized what their real question is: Can you REALLY take care of us, or will we be on our own again? 

What I thought I was doing so sacrificially was making my kids feel incredibly unsafe.

A lot of what I do is unpaid work (see: church planting), and it’s a gift to have that option. But because of the Cherubs’ obvious concern, now I’m doubling down on writing, too. I’m not sure I can generate books at QUITE the pace #2 expects. But I can pick up production. And I can do smaller things, too. For example, now my links here on the blog (for books & other stuff) are Amazon affiliate links. Which means if you click through and order – either what I posted or something else –  I get a tiny bit of credit. It doesn’t cost you anything. But over time, I hope it lets me say to the kids, “Hey, my blog earned enough today to get the special hair styling goop you asked for!”

For all the talk you hear about parenting & self-sacrifice, I think self-definition is equally important. There are simply too many options vying for our time to not have some sort of internal guidelines that automate some of the decision making process. I’ve felt especially awkward about the whole “I’m not someone who does PTO” thing, because I have friends and family members who contribute huge amounts of time & energy to their kids’ schools through these committees.  But then I step back and realize, they’re making choices, too. When they say yes to the PTO, it means they’re saying no to something else, just like I am. Maybe what their kids need is a mom who is in the school, who knows what’s going on. We’re all making choices based on different circumstances, most of which aren’t observable from the outside. This has helped me more than I can describe. It’s one of those rare areas of life where pretty much whichever you choose (so long as it’s not illegal)? That’s okay.

How Adoption Affected our Finances (Part 2)

By the time we started the process that led to adopting the Cherubs, we were in a better financial position than when we had Princess Peach. Steve had recovered the lost ground on his career trajectory. We’d bought a two family house in the suburbs with Steve’s parents. And I took a part-time job in the flooring department at Home Depot that paid almost enough to get my hair highlighted once a month. It’s surprising how a few changes make a huge difference.

But in terms of context, I think the biggest difference for us between our two experiences with the foster care system was that this time, we didn’t deal directly with DCF. We worked with an agency instead, and they were incredible. They did our training, our home study, our matching process. And in an AMAZING turn of events, they were also handling the adoption search for our kids. So they were there as a guide and a buffer every step of the way.

Added to that, this was a different DCF office, one with a stellar reputation for treating everyone really well and keeping the best interest of the kids at the top of the page. So I suspect that even if we hadn’t been in a better financial position, we would have had much more bandwidth this time around to think creatively (which is what you need most when money is tight) without the stress of fighting DCF’s ever-shifting demands. I think we could have made it work.

But looking at how things actually played out, here’s where we spent money, both on things we expected and things that threw us for a bit of a loop:

Before the kids arrives:

Construction: We weren’t sure if we’d be matched with 2 kids or 3 (our home study approved us for 3), so we had to fill in a weird doorway between the little front office & the living room in case we needed it for the world’s smallest bedroom. (Let’s be honest, the “we” in that sentence is Steve. All I did to make that wall was add two coats of paint.)

Furniture: I found a gorgeous mahogany dresser at Salvation Army for #1, and my father-in-law donated the dresser below from his bachelor days for #2. One of our early family projects was sanding that one down to paint it a shade of blue #2 selected. It’s called – no kidding –  JA BLAM!

I bought two identical twin mattresses from Bernie & Phyl’s, and bedding from Target. Two months later I decided NOT to fight the kids’ deep hatred of top sheets (they like fuzzy blankets as the first layer, and really, they’re kind of right) and decided to buy bottom sheets only for the foreseeable future.

As  you might expect, the costs picked up during our two month transition process and the summer they moved in:

Clothes: This was the biggest budget item. Our kids pretty much needed everything. At first, both of them were a little awed by the shopping experience. #1 in particular seemed surprised that we’d buy more than one pair of pants & t-shirts. And #2 (who loves to shop) briefly thought we were the BEST PEOPLE EVER if this was how we rolled. This became a fine balancing act between wanting them to know that we would provide for their needs…and explaining that UGG boots are not a need when you’re eleven.

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Remember when I dug THIS awesome pile of smelliness out of #1’s gorgeous mahogany dresser? 

Our kids came to us with no concept of how money works. They knew a lot about not having what they needed, and a fair amount about random extravagant splurges by various adults in their lives. But there was no sense of how one might determine that today, we’ll buy two shirts and one pair of jeans because that’s what we can afford, and if we really like that other sweater, we’ll save up for it and hope it’s here when we come back.

But here’s the truth: In the early days, those larger lessons about budgeting and want vs. need were beyond us. Our kids needed everything, and so I shopped sales at Target and used coupons at Bob’s. I trolled every Marshall’s within a 30 mile radius because they carried the Michael Jordan stuff that was “in” for #1 back then. I used math skills for the first time in two decades trying to keep it all fair (#2’s full coverage bathing suit from Land’s End cost $92 whereas #1’s was $10 at Old Navy, but #1’s cleats cost 5x as much as the cheap flats #2 liked from Payless.) #1 begged for special socks that cost $14 a pair. Please DO NOT TELL MY PARENTS, but I bought them for him. The kid doesn’t ask for much.

We had three big clothing binges in that first year: When they first came to us in early summer, a few months later for back to school, and then Christmas, because they needed warm things for winter. Since then, it’s much more steady, grabbing things as the kids grow. (Which reminds me that all of #1’s pants are showing way to much of his $14 socks these days, and I need to roll by Bob’s today with my latest coupon.)

Activities: Our kids REALLY needed a day camp that first summer. Structure, planned activities, a chance to make new friends AND a guarantee they’d sleep well at night because they’d worked off most of their stress and had new adventures to think about? SO IMPORTANT.  This also limited the time between afternoon pickup at 5:00 and complaining about how awful our food was at 6:00. I can’t overstate the import of this to my psyche in those early days.

I was under the impression that YMCA camp was covered, or at least subsidized, for foster parents because DCF has a deal with the Y.  But that applied only when both parents worked outside the home full time. So that was a HUGE immediate hit we didn’t see coming. We put the kids in 2 days a week, and cut back on other things. It was totally worth the investment, for their sanity and for mine.

Stuff: We bought all the sports equipment in the Greater Boston region.  We bought a basketball hoop & ball, tennis rackets & a football. A street hockey net and two sticks, which were soon followed by gloves and a punching bag.

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Steve made a corn hole set, after which I learned from a BRILLIANT Amazon review that if you buy bean bags filled with corn, small animals will eat them. We bought every board game Target sells. We got a Wii, which paid for itself the day #2 challenged Steve to Just Dance.

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We saw a 25% increase in utility costs (gas, electric, water) and a 75%-100% increase in food.

But perhaps the biggest unexpected expense was school. More on that tomorrow.

How Has Adopting Affected Our Finances? (Part 1)

FullSizeRender 3I smiled when I saw this question from Liz. It reminded me of our Home Study application, which asked, “How do you think adopting will effect how much money you have?” To which I snarkily replied, “We’ll have the same amount of money. We’ll just spend it differently.”

That’s both the whole answer and entirely unhelpful.

We’ve had two very different experiences in terms of where we were financially when we entered the foster care/adoption world, and let’s be honest: when it comes to finances, context is everything. When Princess Peach came to live with us, we were in a tough place, living paycheck to paycheck. Later, when the Cherubs came, we had more breathing room.

I’ll tell both stories (one today, one in the next post), because in both situations, figuring out our new financial reality was like trying to stack cats: there was always some moving part that made the whole thing feel unstable.  And yet somehow it all worked out.

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The first time we entered the foster care world, we were pretty sure we’d be kicked right back out once DCF saw our apartment. We were grateful to HAVE an apartment (more on that in a minute) But the building was missing half its siding, and there were stacks of scrap metal all over the yard. There was a skunk that lived under a shed, a gigantic opossum that lived under a pile of ladders, and pigeons from all over the region perched at the front door. Then there were the piles of food scraps our landlord chucked out into the driveway to feed this wild menagerie. (And once you’ve seen a pigeon eat a chicken wing and then get devoured by a hawk, you never look at the circle of life the same way again…) Things were better on the inside. Even though there was only one bathroom and it was off the kitchen such that you could practically cook dinner while taking a shower…it was fine. It was clean. It had three bedrooms. It was just best not to look out the window, because who knew what you might see?

As you might have guessed, we were struggling a bit financially. We’d moved into that apartment after a fiasco where we relocated to New York to join the staff of a church. We now refer to that brief time as “The year we summered in the Finger Lakes Region,” because we were back in Cambridge after just four months, only without jobs or a place to live. We were grateful for the apartment. And for the dear mentor of Steve’s who rented it to us without a security deposit…and then let us move a 3 year old in overhead. (He called her “Happy Feet.”)

We were surprised to discover that every person from the state government who came to survey our humble abode agreed that Princess Peach had landed in rather fine accommodations.  Multiple DCF Social Workers, Princess Peach’s attorneys, her probation officer (yes, a child of three can have a probation officer. DCF had such a bad track record making sure kids were receiving minimally adequate care, the probation department checked up on their placements for the court). No one raised an eyebrow. This was a relief to us, but a bit depressing that this was considered high-level in this world.

Like most foster care transitions, Princess Peach came to live with us abruptly, with pretty much just the clothes on her back. I almost cried when her preschool told me I was supposed to leave two full backup outfits there in case she had an accident. Those first couple of weeks, I barely had enough clothes to get through all seven days.

I can’t tell you how much our family & friends came through for us. My mom took me shopping at Carter’s. My sister sent boxes of things my niece had outgrown. Friends left bags of used clothes on our doorstep. Those saved us. Because after we bought essentials – underwear, socks,etc. – and with the addition of Pull-Ups to our weekly budget, we were right at the edge. (I can’t tell you how much we spent on Pull-Ups. But I can tell you that kids who’ve been through trauma have a hard time holding it through the night.)

The other problem was that we didn’t have a washing machine.

Well, we did. But there was no hook up in our apartment, so when we moved back to Cambridge we donated it to the church. I thought maybe I’d do laundry there since I was often on site running classes and volunteering, but that never quite worked out.  So I saved our quarters and took our basic laundry to the laundromat once a week or so. But Thank God for Steve’s parents, who lived three doors away and let us wash Princess Peach’s bedding almost every day. (She had accidents almost nightly, and Pull-ups only hold so much.) I don’t know how we would have done it without them.

Are you catching the It takes a village vibe here? It’s for real.

Another huge benefit to foster care is that daycare/preschool is often covered. They have vouchers at various providers and can help with placement. I naively thought I’d have some choice in this because Cambridge has so many preschools. Nope. I simply received a call one day from a place in Somerville (the next town over), asking me to come in at my convenience to complete her enrollment.

When I first saw the facility, I was horrified. It was an old brick building with wire mesh in the widow glass. The kids had to walk six blocks through traffic to get to a playground. It was even worse inside – dark, musty and shabby, like an abandoned government building from the 1970s. I called my social worker and said, “Are there other options?” To which she sweetly replied, “Well if that placement doesn’t work, you can apply for a $50/week subsidy to cover alternative child care!” So in we went to the grim brick house of doom. I prayed that Princess Peach wouldn’t see the parallels I saw between this place and Miss Trunchbull’s school in Matilda.

A week later, I loved that school, and those teachers, like they’d been hand selected for Princess Peach by God Himself. Yes, the setting was grim. But the teachers who worked in that building ran that place like a haven of calm caring order. No matter what time of the day I came to pick her up (Princess Peach was in the custody of a particularly chaotic DCF office, and her social worker always seemed one half step away from complete breakdown, so she had appointments and visits and meetings at all different times of day)  I never once walked in on anything but purposeful, directed play and learning. It was incredible.

Princess Peach was so happy there! She had a best friend, along with a posse of other buddies. She made huge strides in every area (she didn’t even know her letters when she came to live with us), and came home each afternoon singing and telling me funny stories of things that had happened. There were students from Tufts who taught the kids reading, and the kind of true diversity folks were paying thousands for at fancy schools on the other side of the city.   All that to say, if you use a daycare placement from DCF and it looks unthinkably grim? Give the people inside a shot, because they’re the ones who set the real atmosphere of the place.  That school was such a bright spot for us.

Okay, back to finances. Having Princess Peach in preschool should have made it possible for me to have a job. But there were so many appointments due to the chaos in this case that there was no way I could have held any sort of a scheduled employment. I don’t think that’s the norm, though. We made the mistake of offering to help with some of the transportation, in the hopes we could develop some sort of partnership with the DCF office. This actually made things worse. I suspect that Princess Peach would have had a much more stable schedule if we’d left transportation to them and stayed out of it.

The good news was that we didn’t have to pay for any of those appointments. Children in foster care are covered 100% under Mass Health, and that includes medical, dental & mental health. (This coverage remains even after adoption and continues through their childhood.)

So the the primary specific expenses for Princess Peach were clothes, Pull-ups (all praise to God for the Market Basket brand, which were just as good as the others at 2/3 the price), a car seat (we bought one at Target. I don’t know if we got a good deal or not), gas (there was so much driving. We put thousands of miles on the car that year, just driving to meetings and appointments.)

She was worth every penny.

Things that cost less than they might have: Furniture (We saved hundreds here by accepting hand me downs from my family. Which worked out doubly well, because old furniture made of real wood withstands temper tantrums better than new fiberboard) and Toys (I thought this would be a big expense but it wasn’t. Princess Peach is an artist, so we set up a little table handed down from my brother to my sister to me, with boxes of crayons, markers & colored pencils. That and a stack of paper were really all she needed. Most of her other toys came as gifts.)

We lived on Steve’s salary which was enough to cover our bills if we kept things tight, and the foster care stipend we got from the state, which covered Pull Ups. (A slight exaggeration, but not much).  As the foster parent of a young child, we received just under $19/day to cover expenses.  There was a quarterly clothing allowance (about $100), along with $50 for Christmas and her birthday. I could have made more than that working two hours a day at any minimum wage job, but I won’t lie, it helped.

All told, it wasn’t that expensive. It was just stressful because we had no margin. But millions of  families live this way. It just required us to develop some different skills. And let’s be honest – taking a three year old out to dinner and calling it a date is like walking your dog around the block and calling it a safari; it’s not like we were having expensive nights out. So this was entirely doable.  Had we had a better experience with the legal side of the case, I actually don’t think the financial piece would have been stressful at all. Again, so much of talking finance is talking context.

And the good news is, had we been able to adopt her, there would have been be no costs associated with that at all. When a child is free for adoption, the state covers all the costs – lawyers, court fees, everything. So if you don’t get into a nasty tangle with a completely dysfunctional DCF office, you can do foster care and adoption even on a tight budget.

You can read more details of my money panic as we started the approval process that led to The Cherubs here and here. In the next post, I’ll give some context as to how that played out.