Shame Makes a Hard Thing Even Worse

Shame Makes a Hard Thing Even Worse

2009 was an extremely challenging year for both Michelle and me. Among the many issues we faced that year, one of the most painful was the difficult financial situation we’d put ourselves into: We were $105,000 in debt and about $300,000 upside down on our house by the end of that year. There were a number of factors that contributed to this, some of which had to do with the economic downturn and the collapse of the housing market, but more had to do with our lack of awareness, understanding, and responsibility with our money.

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Credit Image: Alan Levine on Flickr

I grew up without a lot of money. My parents split up when I was three; it was 1977 and my mom hadn’t worked much in the eight years since she had gotten pregnant with my sister, Lori. My dad made a decent living as a radio announcer, but with him gone, my mom was forced to take care of us, find work, and figure out how to navigate life as a single parent, which, as a Catholic girl from Rhode Island who didn’t have any family in California, wasn’t easy.

My dad, who had been pretty actively engaged in our lives the first five years after he and my mom split (we’d see him every other weekend), lost his job in late 1981 when his bipolar disorder got the best of him. We no longer saw him on a regular basis—he slipped into a very deep depression and stopped paying child support. My mom had recently started working for herself at that time as a wholesale sales rep for a few companies that made fashion accessories. She was trying to get her business off the ground so she could work for herself and have flexibility with her schedule. She was doing the best she could to raise us without much support from my dad—emotionally, practically, or financially.

One of the first and most poignant memories I have of realizing we didn’t have a lot of money is of one night during a major rainstorm in February of 1982, just after my eighth birthday. The rain had gotten so intense that the ceiling in our living room started to leak. I remember initially thinking it was fun as my mom had Lori and me run into the kitchen to get some pots and pans and put them down on the floor to catch the water. In the midst of my laughter and excitement, I looked at my mom. It didn’t seem like she was having much fun. All of a sudden, she fell to the floor and began to sob. Lori rushed over to her to comfort her, and I followed, confused by what was going on. She looked up at us through her tears and said, “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” She then told us we didn’t have the money to take care of the leaky roof on our house. My mom was scared and overwhelmed, and, in that moment, so was I.

Over the next few years, and throughout most of my childhood and adolescence, money (or lack thereof) became a major source of stress, worry, and disappointment in my family. I heard the words "we can’t afford it" so often as a child that by the time I became a teenager, I mostly stopped asking for things. While my mom’s business did grow a bit, we essentially lived hand-to-mouth, and it was hard. We had no savings, no college funds, and no financial plan of any kind. We didn’t go on vacation, and when things around the house broke, they often weren’t fixed or replaced. I was constantly aware of what many of my friends had and what they were able to do in comparison to me.

I got into Stanford and was able to go, thanks, in part, to my success in baseball and also to the enormous financial aid package I was offered. While I wasn’t super-focused on money, I definitely wanted to have a different and more abundant financial experience when I got older. I hoped one day I would be rich, and part of my motivation to make it to the major leagues was to dramatically change my financial reality. When I got drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1995 after my junior year at Stanford, I received a $35,000 signing bonus. It was the first time in my life I actually had a little money of my own. I was elated, but also scared—not sure what to do with it. After buying a car and a few other things, paying my taxes, and trying to live on the very small amount of money I was paid in the minor leagues, most of that money was gone within a year. When my playing career ended just a few years later, without having made it to the big leagues or making much money, I was forced to figure out what to do with my life and how I would make money. I had no clue about either

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