All summer, the appointment on my Outlook calendar ticked closer, a bomb waiting to explode: the first-grade Popsicle party. At a Preston Hollow park flanked by stately homes with impeccable yards, I would introduce my son to his new private school classmates, and myself to their mothers. Many of them lived in the Park Cities. I imagined beautiful women with fresh blowouts arriving in black Escalades, looking slender and cool despite the oppressive heat. I, on the other hand, lived in Farmers Branch and would arrive via my trusty Toyota Corolla, looking slightly disheveled, with hair curling in the humidity and sweat darkening the armpits of my blouse. I pictured these women reaching out their hands in introduction, Hermès bracelets jangling on small wrists, fingernails painted a dainty Chanel pink, massive diamonds marking their ring fingers. I would try to be chatty and clever, adjusting my bent Target sunglasses, hyperconscious of my ringless, unmanicured fingers. How could I possibly fit in?
I’d moved after a midlife career switch, newly divorced, financially strained, and looking for a fresh start. My primary worry had been finding the right school for my son. I couldn’t afford to live near a well-rated public elementary, the kind of place that had the privileged luxury of an army of parents with the time and wherewithal to support the kids, other parents, and teachers. That left private school, a place only feasible via financial aid.
But guilt lingered. Was I doing the right thing opting out of the public school system? My mother was a public school teacher. My dad had served on our local school board. A former teacher myself, I adamantly believe that every child deserves a top-tier education with electives and small classes and teachers who don’t have to worry about STAAR testing. Solid public school education, I knew, could improve people’s lives. I wanted to make public schools better.
And yet. I needed to be realistic about what I, a single parent already at full capacity from working my main job and my side hustles, could contribute. I needed a village, that army of parents, one I hoped private school would provide. When the email landed in my inbox announcing that my son had been awarded assistance on the $24,000 tuition, I hid in the bathroom at work and ugly sobbed with relief. Then came the anxiety.
I wanted not to care what other people thought of me, but I couldn’t quite shake the deep-seated need to fit in. I imagined judgment from the other private school moms and, worse, that my son might be left out. I knew these fears were largely unfounded; I had attended the private Fort Worth Country Day my sophomore to senior years, back in the ’90s, when Cowtown was much less cool and significantly less expensive. Though I wasn’t the type to snag an invite to the debutante balls, I’d had a close set of wonderful friends, none of whom had batted an eye at my Mitsubishi parked among the Infinitis in the school lot. Still, Dallas had a reputation, with its stand-alone Gucci and Carolina Herrera boutiques and country clubs with six-figure initiation fees.
When the email landed in my inbox announcing that my son had been awarded assistance on the $24,000 tuition, I hid in the bathroom at work and ugly sobbed with relief. Then came the anxiety.
Arriving at the Preston Hollow park that summer day in 2018, my son was giddy, singing “Poker Face” at top volume in the car. I, on the other hand, felt like I’d swallowed a hive of bees. I am chronically early, a habit attributable to a nervous predisposition, and for a second, I thought we were the first ones there. Soon, however, I spotted a few other moms. To my deep relief, they were not the homogeneous Birkin-carrying crowd I feared. Some were decked out in fancy sundresses, but others wore T-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops, just like me. They were more ethnically and racially diverse than I expected. Fanning themselves in the late summer heat, they pushed kids on swings and mitigated arguments between siblings. As more families arrived, I noticed they drove Nissans and Kias, in addition to Mercedes and Lexuses. The mothers seemed like every other mom I knew, a little tired but happy to see their kids playing with their classmates. Still, I hung back, watching my son take off running toward a tire swing, eager to get into the mix of kids spinning it in dizzying circles.
“Are you new this year?” a woman hollered over the din of the kids’ happy squeals.
“Yes. We just moved from Fort Worth,” I said, walking over to meet her.
“Welcome! This place is great. We’ve been here since preschool. Let me introduce you around.” And she led me to a spot under old-growth live oaks, offered me a bottle of water from a Costco brand cooler.
I shook various hands of various moms and dads, awkwardly announcing that I was divorced as if daring someone to say something quickly so I could get it over with. No one batted an eye. We chatted amiably while our kids ate the same bright red and orange Popsicles I grew up with, spiked with delicious high fructose corn syrup. And, yes, there had been some Hermès bracelets, but I was not the only one in busted sunglasses. The drive home, my son’s hands sticky with sugar, I promised myself I’d try to get to know the other parents, to form a community my son could feel a part of.
I forced myself to attend mom’s night out, and much to my surprise had a great time chatting over pizza about the delights of introducing our kids to Hocus Pocus. Over Wednesdays and Saturdays on the Little League field, I learned the other parents’ names, that most of the moms worked, that they were generally compassionate and kind. Yes, some of their cars were nicer and their houses bigger, but no one but me seemed to care. I do recall one kid who came over to play surveying the 1,200 square feet of our home and asking my son, “Where’s the rest of your house?” “Um, this is our whole house,” my son said, laughing, and then the other kid laughed, too—his question more kid’s observation than judgment—and they went on to pretend to hunt zombies in the backyard. No hard feelings.
We’re now in our third year at the small private school, and though I am certainly not close friends with every mom there, I am friendly with many of them and close to a few: the whip-smart and hilarious redhead who sat with me at the Halloween carnival bemoaning the fact that one booth gave out live goldfish as carnival prizes or the other single mom who occasionally carpools with me to games and joins us for tacos after Little League practice.
In a glorious bit of luck, the mother of my son’s best friend has become one of my close friends. She is happily married and enjoying two incomes rather than one, but we are incredibly similar in both disposition and humor. This past year, we formed a pandemic pod, taking our kids to the pop-up drive-in to see Guardians of the Galaxy and sitting for hours at her kitchen island while our children stomped around upstairs. Recently, she surprised me by leaving Girl Scout cookies on the porch after I told her about a particularly rough day. When I published my first real piece of writing in the New York Times, about being a single parent in the pandemic, I worried I was being too vulnerable, that I was exposing too much of myself. I was a bit embarrassed, but buoyed when the other mothers from my son’s school texted me, sharing their own worries about the lasting effects the pandemic was having on our kids, the impossibilities of navigating work and remote school and parenting.
Looking back, my fears had less to do with the other moms and everything to do with my own insecurities. None of the other parents ever made me feel inferior or left out. I’d been telling myself the wrong story: that money was the marker of my success. Instead of being grateful for things I had accomplished, for what I did have—access to a school and a community that helped my son thrive—I’d been focusing on things that didn’t really matter.
I stupidly believed my divorce and my small house marked me with a scarlet A, which was a disservice to both me and my son. I am trying now to celebrate my small house, my reliable car, the many wonderful things in my life. I’m trying to worry less about fitting in. The women who will like me will like me, and those who won’t, won’t. It’s about making my own community both inside and outside of the school. It’s about enjoying the Popsicle parties, oppressive heat and all.
This story originally ran in the April issue of D Magazine with the title, “Rich Mom, Poor Mom.” Write to [email protected].