Sunday, February 1, 2015

Advantaged by My Disadvantages: Can Adversity Be Beneficial?

Whenever my husband and I start talking about our respective childhood experiences and how we were raised, he always teases me saying that I'm not "normal". He views my upbringing as an only child with a single mother as something that highly differs from the 'norm'. In all fairness he does give me credit and validation for my own exceptionally unique experiences, but they remain just that in his mind... "exceptionally unique". In contrast, he was raised within the 'nuclear' family model and came from, what I would consider to be, an upper-middle class economic status. Our childhood experiences are very much on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Over the years I had naturally concluded that given my upbringing with a single parent and being raised in a very low socioeconomic status, that I was undoubtedly somehow disadvantaged. Society has very clear standards for what it means to have a "good", "solid" start in life and quite frankly I didn't fit into the mold.

It is true to an extent that those early hardships did deny me many privileges and benefits that other children may have received. We mostly lived in one bedroom basement apartments and couldn't afford much if any furniture. We both had a single mattress only (no box spring) that was always on the floor. Canned brown beans and cut up hot dogs on toast was a common meal for us in those days. My mother remembers me as a toddler riding my tricycle through the empty rooms in our apartment. I recall as a small child being envious of my classmates with their Loonies in hand every week for 'Hot Dog Lunch Fridays' or bringing in their milk money every week so that at recess they had a fresh little carton of milk to drink. We could never afford any of that. In grade three our class had a project that required us to buy bristol board, which at the time we couldn't afford. I had to hand my teacher a note from my mother explaining why I was unprepared. I remember having a birthday party but I could only invite seven friends because we could only afford one package of hot dogs. When we lived in Yarmouth, N.S. the nearest grocery store was 5 kms away and because we lived on the outskirts of town the bus didn't run that far. Since paying for a taxi was out of the question we would simple walk there and walk back, both of us carrying heavy bags of groceries and stopping every so often to rest. As rough as these experiences may seem, I was fully aware that a lot of people had it worse than we did. My mother always encouraged me to see how truly blessed we were and to remember to be thankful for everything.

“There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources- and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former.” 
― Malcolm GladwellDavid and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

My mother's upbringing, in my opinion, was nothing less than horrific. I won't get into details describing her life story, as it's not mine to tell, but I will say that given the lack of family support, love and education she received in her childhood and adolescence, she has done exceptionally well in providing and caring for me. Having only a high school education she worked many odds jobs and had to relocate often. When I was 8 years old she decided she wanted a better life for us and went back to school to become a Laboratory Technologist. Given our economic situation she had a very difficult time getting a student loan. After every bank refused her finally one decided to give her a chance. For two years she was a full time student, raising me, unable to work and busting her butt to pass all of her demanding courses. Everything was riding on this one huge investment. It was a mere $10,000 loan, but at that time it might as well have been a million dollars. For a period of time we had to live on welfare... And to anyone who would have looked down on us for that reason, as if we were somehow abusing the system, then shame on you. We could barely even live off of what was allotted to us and it wasn't till years later that I found out my mother at times would go hungry so that I had enough to eat.

What many people may not realize when first hearing of the level of poverty I was raised in, is that I didn't really understand we were 'poor'. That may seem completely ridiculous to you but the comedian Chris Rock recently joked about the issue saying, "If poor people knew how rich rich people live, there would be riots." It's true to a large extent that I didn't realize how poor we were. To me we always had a roof over our head, clothing to keep us warm, we were healthy, and had enough to eat. I remember hearing about the children in Africa constantly suffering without any of the luxuries that I had. I was a very happy child and I had a very loving and close relationship with my mother. We may not have had much, but we had each other.

Getting back to the idea of comparing childhoods and the label of being disadvantaged, I'll let the reader decide.

My upbringing taught me some extremely valuable life lessons which, quite frankly, I see a lot of other supposed 'advantaged' people having little to no knowledge of.  I learned to live and be content with very little and to be appreciative of everything, even obstacles and hardships. Every penny, nickle and dime counted and I learned to respect the value of money. I also, in turn, understood the value of not being in debt to others. I appreciated the concept of having a budget for rent, food and utilities at an early age. Since I accompanied my mother on her trips to the bank she would show me how to make a deposit or withdraw money and how to write cheques to pay for the different utility bills (which I thought was fun!). Perhaps some basic activities of living required extra work and effort, but it made the fruits of my labour all the more sweet.  Assisting with cleaning, making dinner & lunches, and doing laundry wasn't done for the purpose of getting an allowance, but for the even greater purpose of knowing that I was helping my mother. I learned that opportunities in life weren't always handed to you on a silver platter and I wasn't afraid to work hard for my goals. Since things weren't easily given to me, I learned to be patient and delay gratification. Just because I wanted something didn't mean that I had earned it. I was taught how to navigate and get around whatever city or town I lived in. My mother encouraged me to remember land marks and street names so that I had a sense of where I was, how to get around and how to get home from where ever we were. Having a job, working and contributing to society was incredibly important and necessary. It was clear to me that as a strong, capable young person there was no excuse not to work. I learned from an early age how to apply for work, how to behave during interviews, to have a strong work ethic, be dependable and honest and I was always successful in attaining employment where ever I lived. By the age of 16 my mother taught me how to complete my own income tax forms (and I am honestly baffled by the number of people who even as adults are unable to do this).

Perhaps by some means, I ultimately was advantaged because of my disadvantages. Maybe my early life obstacles and supposed socioeconomic hindrances somehow gave me the upper hand later in life.

Sometimes I struggle with my own judgments because I see a lot of supposed 'advantaged' people having such a hard time with being a fully functioning, independent adult. I think to myself, how is it that they had so much provided for them and yet they seem to ultimately end up with so little. Unfortunately, at times it seems that under the guise of giving every opportunity and benefit to their children, parents perhaps unknowingly leave their children to become dependent and clueless adults.

As I prepare to become a mother I constantly think about how to best approach child rearing so that my child is given every opportunity but also learns to be independent and competent. Is it possible to have the best of both worlds where life isn't too easy, but it's also not too difficult.

Although my husband occasionally reminds me of how unusual I am, I'll admit... it's hard at times not to tease him back. Especially when I hear stories of him beginning first year University with handwritten, step by step instructions explaining how to do his own laundry, OR when I found out that for that same year he used fabric softener thinking it was the same as laundry detergent! I mean really?? lol  But, in all fairness he comes from a completely different upbringing than I did. And although it baffled me that he didn't know how to do his income taxes... or change a car tire... or when he thought that when we moved to our new house the post office would automatically change our address for us and notify each of our utility companies... I have ultimately learned to accept that we both have different life advantages and disadvantages. Heck, I didn't know what a Quesadilla was till I was 20 years old!

The great part is that by having these differences we are able to cover a larger surface area when tackling life challenges and obstacles. Our brains are wired in different ways but it's all good! For example, if we were to try out a new restaurant my husband would undoubtedly be relaxing, carefully looking over the delicious food options and enjoying the ambiance... where as I would be mentally locating all my possible exit strategies and scanning the restaurant patrons to determine any possible threats. Totally normal right?!  ;)