The Wages of Fear

I live with financial fear every damn day

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He's been my next door neighbor for five or six years — a friendly guy with a neatly trimmed lawn, a shiny SUV and a newly pregnant wife. He has little idea of what my life is like, but then I don’t know much about his either.

It’s a crisp fall evening and we’re making small talk in my driveway. The conversation is nothing special — how’s it going, how are the kids, how’s business — and then the chat takes a turn, which leads me to mention my academic background.

“You went to Wharton?” he asks. He makes no attempt to hide his surprise.

“Yes,” I say. “Poster girl for success, aren’t I?”

What you see isn’t always what you get. My house is run down, my yard is overgrown, my car is old and my appearance is ragged. I’ve been up researching and editing for the better part of two days and two nights. Frankly, I’m a god-awful mess.

“I thought you were a writer,” he says.

“I am,” I reply. “Not everyone with a fancy pedigree is sitting pretty.”

“What do you mean?” he asks, so I give him the 90-second elevator speech with a little something extra. I mention my years in the corporate world, traveling back and forth to Europe — then a divorce and layoff that derailed my professional path. My boys were little when our family unraveled. Change was both necessary and, as I know now, inevitable.

What I don't say: Every damn day, I live with fear.

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Fear. I could write a book on it, the different flavors of it, the crippling impact it has on your life — fear of dying before you’ve raised your kids, fear of being unable to help them for lack of funds, fear of abandonment, fear of invisibility, fear of being penniless, fear of having nowhere to lay your head at night — no home for yourself, no home for your children.

There is no fear like a parent’s fear. No despair, no desolation, no desperation like that of a mother or father who risks losing a child, or who must stand by, powerless, watching a child suffer.

There is no fury as white-hot as knowing the cause of that powerlessness is purely a matter of money in the bank. When you’re a parent when you’re a mother — fear is also your mortal enemy. Fear will paralyze — and parenting requires guidance, discipline, advocacy and, perhaps most importantly, action.

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When you live with fear, especially the financial variety, you do your best to hide it — certainly from your kids if you don’t want them to grow up afraid. Besides, it’s vital that you present a positive public face, though you know as a freelancer, your clients can pick up a phone and you’re out of work tomorrow — with no warning, no right to unemployment, no protection of any kind. You drop right through the cracks. You’re not even a statistic.

Financial fear is also motivating: You send out periodic emails to professional connections (alluding to your “availability”), you scratch out the latest bare bones budget (hoping you’ll encounter no emergencies), you wander sleeplessly from room to room (wondering if anything of value is left to sell). You count down the months until your children will fly the nest — not because you want them to leave, but because you’re exhausted from fighting for every dollar it takes to raise them.

For me, financial fear manifests itself in nightmares I’ve had for years: I’m homeless, I’m walking through bombed-out streets with my kids in tow, and I’m hoping to make a shelter of whatever I can find. I’m trekking through cities that are vaguely familiar, knocking on doors, asking for a place to sleep, getting “no” for an answer or no answer at all.

I know my story is neither dramatic nor unique, and maybe that’s what troubles me most. Surely in this economy, persistent financial insecurity plays out in millions of households. In my story, only the timing and confluence of events may be unusual — divorce coincident with layoff, an unenforceable legal document, an accident that threw my little family for a loop. Then there’s the magical trio: overqualified, overeducated and —let’s just say it — over a certain age.

I can think of more horrifying fates than living with financial fear, though we all know that to be without money in this society is the kiss of death. After losing one home to divorce and unemployment, I’m proud that I’ve managed to keep going for a decade. And I finished the job of raising my kids.

But I can’t imagine kicking the fear. I can’t remember the last time I felt safe.

For the moment, I’m feeling upbeat. I have a couple of great clients, I’m enjoying the work, yet I never stop the search for additional projects. So when my neighbor disappears into his house, returns with a business card, and asks if I might help him by punching up some of his business brochures, naturally, I answer: “Of course.”

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