4 Ways the Rags to Riches Story Screwed with my Head

I’m definitely in the midst of a rebuild. And as with some rebuilds the new foundation is built out of found objects, hand-me-downs, the remnants of what stood before. Before they are fortified this early foundation is crude and shaky and not exactly all that pretty. But with each uber-positive meme and motivational speech that is shared in my Facebook feed, each anecdote about the guy who lost it all and was homeless before hitting it big, the couple who declares bankruptcy before making millions, the story of the single mother who couldn’t buy groceries and now is a successful such-and-such, I find myself looking at my 3 daughters and thinking: Do I really need to experience poverty in order to experience wild success? I gave it some thought and then I heard my own voice say, “Oh hell no.”

I have 3 funny, inspiring little monkeys who require food, and shoes, and shelter and all kinds of good stuff. And while money is extremely tight I am managing to keep them really happy and really safe when they are with me. But it’s right there. Always. The financial struggle. I refer to this last year as the year of “put it back.” And that brings me to my first reason that the classic rags to riches story has messed with my head:

1) The Rags to Riches Story Uses Extremes: Think back to any movie or story or lecture you’ve ever heard that was themed around Rags to Riches. Inevitably a life-changing purchase is made with the very last few dollars the person has available. A lotto ticket, a suit for an interview, a pair of shoes that catch the eye of someone important. There is almost always some purchase that causes the tides to turn. But how do you know which purchase? As I stand in the aisle of TJMaxx and lament over whether or not to buy the expensive day planner or the basic day planner I wonder, “if I look unpolished with this dinky planner will it matter to someone? But if I get the cheap one I can buy 2 dinners worth of groceries.” Ultimately I decide the planner on my phone is free, works fine and does not need to be replaced. I save $39. I am on top of the world! For like 35 seconds and then I feel badly that a) I can’t afford a fucking planner and b) what if that planner was the thing? We’ll never know…

2) The story expects you to be a fucking genius. No rags to riches story has every been told that goes from Rags to Meh. The credits have never rolled on the content single mother who happily cuts hair or becomes an accountant. Two very needed and respectable ways to support yourself and a family. But in the Rags to Riches story it’s not ENOUGH. The story of going from “financially stressed to the getting by a bit better” is not a good one because it’s way too much like the norm. It lacks glamour. It lacks Hollywood. We are told if we aren’t Joy Mangano we are not enough.  And so somehow my story seems, less. And I don’t think is right. So many people are leading good, happy, meaningful lives after suffering a hardship or struggle and they don’t share their story with others because it doesn’t end with an empire. I want to change that. I want to celebrate the women who maybe didn’t go from Rags to Riches but instead from Goodwill to Macy’s. Because you know what? That’s a pretty big fucking deal.

3)The role of the MAN. Alright ladies you know exactly what I am talking about. In each of the stories we know (my favorite is Working Girl with Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver) the financially strapped, underdog woman finally wins big at the office, and is swept of her feet by the handsome leading man only after she makes it big. And although she has been struggling, she always is gorgeous. Her hair is on point, she is never nervously biting her cuticles (my worst habit, gross, I know), her shoes are never worn down past the sole. She is on her game. She is never 20 pounds overweight, sleep deprived and running on coffee, adrenaline and a bit of fear. Instead we are set up to believe that even while we rebuild, we must look good because even though in the end we will create our riches the real reward is a good man.

Finally #4)  I am a ‘have’ and a ‘have not’ all at once. For me that means unending guilt
I am stressed out, anxious and plagued by bad dreams of losing everything, losing my kids, not have a home; all while I sleep here in my 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment with granite counter tops. I know that compared to so many in the world I am fortunate, and light-years more secure than most but I’m not nearly as secure as I used to be and no where near where I want to be. I want to experience stability again. I want to be successful again, but then my guilt comes again, like my “rock bottom” is just too cushy to count. And I don’t think it’s right. I think each of us comes from our own struggle. Some more visible than others, some truly inflicted by circumstances out of our control and others created by our own choices. But I think the notion of needing to experience the extreme failure, dire straits and essentially poverty in order to qualify as a success story is missing the mark.

So many of us teeter on the brink and manage to pull out a great Christmas, or rob Peter to pay Paul but still get the new shoes paid for or stretch it 9 weeks but still get our roots done.

And at least for me there is a guilt attached to all of that. Guilt because I don’t have enough and guilt because still I have so much more than others. It was sucking the joy out of everything little thing. I can’t look at my girls and say “yes” to the self-serve frozen yogurt on our walk without a major debate in my head. And when I do say yes, I’m in charge pulling the handle to keep the cost down and I’ve imposed a two topping maximum (one topping is fudge or raspberry sauce because it weighs less) and they have stopped asking me why I never get any or why they can’t buy water to drink with it. They know it’s not something I want to talk about.

So now it’s a mindset issue. And I believe there is magic in the mindset.

I will continue to be thankful for my kids, their health, my education, my love of all things creative and my ability to help people. But I will also do my best to practice patience as I rebuild. And this is so incredibly hard for me, and probably you too. It’s easy for the person on the stage holding the microphone to tell us all to have faith, to believe, to follow your journey. It’s wonderful to see the movie end with a kiss and a mansion. (Even in the 80s movie Overboard which reversed the gender roles in the traditional Rags to Riches story Kurt Russell still finds love and marriage after creating his own success. Because let’s face it — love stories without money are basically just Ramen noodles and sex; essentially college.) But those of us on the journey, deep on the path — at the part where you have moments where you think “this is it! I can feel it, I have found my calling!” followed almost immediately by thoughts of, “if I had to sell some of my stuff, do I even have any stuff to sell that’s not from the Christmas Tree Shop?”.

To truly know in my soul that the ebb and flow of money and finance are just that, predictable tides that ALWAYS turn back one way or the other means I need to have faith in more than just me. But refusing the story, denying the anecdote, acknowledging that I do not need to experience the pain and devastation of a massive, crippling drought in order to experience and appreciate the highest of tides and the roar of a flowing waterfall. I can be a success in my eyes, and my children’s eyes, just by continuing to share my gifts, and breathing and accepting that it’s okay to bob for a bit in the shallows, while I collect my thoughts and establish a new normal for my post-divorce family. This era of “put it back” has let me find the gift in what at times feel stagnant, a gift of time together, at playgrounds and beaches and trails and an honest appreciation for time and each other and the things in my life that I truly value that don’t cost a thing.