If Nothing Had Ever Gone Wrong

Fourth in a series – by Priscilla Sanchez-Silva


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is an installment in an ongoing series where we are asking the question, “Who Is My Neighbor?” In this issue, we hear directly from a wife and mother in our community.


“Our family makes too much money to qualify for help—but not enough to survive.”

I’m a part of a strange tribe of the middle class I call the “elite poor.” My husband and I have strong educations and full resumes, and we have held well-paying jobs in the past. We own a home, and we know what stability feels like. But a few years ago, we chose to make less money so we could be present with our children as they grew up.

Our plan would have worked perfectly if nothing had ever gone wrong.

My husband and I were the first in our families to graduate from college. Our parents and society led us to believe that completing college was the only way to become successful—no matter the cost. So we completed our degrees and accrued copious debt. I came to terms with the sad fact that we’d never pay off our loans, and in my mind I equated them with Social Security—something we would pay into without end.

Despite the debt, we had a wonderful, work-filled life. My husband traveled five days a week, and I worked in corporate cubicle land. Every Friday, we drank with friends and vented about how unfulfilled we were at work.

A few years ago, after deep thought, intense conversation, and much financial planning, we decided it was the “right” time to have a baby. We attended all the classes and read all the books. We were ready to squeeze a baby into our busy lives. What we didn’t plan for was how much we would love this tiny human—and what that love would require.

Our lives weren’t a good fit for parenting. We didn’t bat an eye at spending on a nanny, but we found that to make it all work, we had to leave the house before our child woke to beat traffic, then get home just two hours before bedtime.

How do you parent kids you don’t know? Since there is no universal maternity leave, no paternity leave, and no instruction manual on how to parent while climbing the corporate ladder, we started to examine how we could change our lives to be more present for our kids.

We became a one-income family. Since that income was modest, we became masters at living modestly.

As our friends moved into upgraded homes, we remained in our starter house; as they bought vehicles, we made repairs; as they vacationed, we picnicked in the front yard.

We soon blossomed into a family of five, continuing to choose this simple, full life. Once, a sweet friend invited me to join her for mani-pedis and wine. When I declined, she asked if she should stage an intervention. I love her for caring this much about my wellbeing, but I was choosing my modest life—and my kids.

An economist from MIT determined that escaping poverty requires 20 years of good luck and nothing going wrong. Our luck did not last nearly that long. Last spring, my spouse lost his job and we lost our only income. After tears and much meditation, we decided he would pursue a career change that required courses in certification. In the meantime, I would juggle work and parenting.

“Our kids are old enough to realize that some of their friends were getting to do fun things like traveling, amusement parks, water parks—all things that they wouldn’t get to do.”

That is easier said than done.

Even with no income, we weren’t poor enough for substantial government help. We had vehicles that were paid off, a small home, and enough squirreled away under the mattress to pay three months of bills. Still, we knew that some weeks we’d have to choose between food or gas.

worse, summer was coming.

For families without money, summer is one of the hardest times of the year. The kids need to eat but don’t have school meals. During the school year, a parent can more easily find a job because school is “free” childcare. Putting our kids in childcare would cost well over $500/week.

Plus, our kids are old enough to realize that some of their friends were getting to do fun things like traveling, amusement parks, water parks—all things that they wouldn’t get to do. So I set a goal: my kids wouldn’t know how destitute we felt over the summer.

I meticulously planned out every day. We visited every library in town—all 29, plus three in nearby cities. Every morning, we went on an adventure to parks, libraries, and city swimming pools. I learned that our local elementary school served free lunch all summer, so we ate there. Our Children’s Theatre performed in the park, so we attended. Our libraries hosted LEGO Club, Pokémon Club, Storytime, movie night, and sing-alongs, so we were entertained all summer. We packed snacks, hiked at the park, and enjoyed each other’s company.

I knew that when they got back to school, the first question would be, “What did you do this summer?” So, before they went back, I made sure to reminisce about our summer.

I wanted to make sure that when they heard others talk about lavish vacations they enjoyed, they felt loved and never felt less than. We reminisced about swimming the length of the pool underwater, sliding down the big slide at the park, watching the free summer movies at the cinema, and catching fireflies in the front yard.

What my kids never knew is that last summer was the first time I’d ever visited a charity to ask for assistance instead of signing up to volunteer. Though we didn’t qualify for government help, the SA Hope Center helped us get the utility assistance and food we needed to get by. Our kids had new clothes for school because we “shopped” at the donated clothes closet. It was a valuable lesson in humility, and I’m better for it.

“Every night, our kids get home-cooked meals and bedtime stories. We lie with them as they fall asleep. Then I go back to work.”

Today I work at a nonprofit, where I’ve quickly climbed the ladder and become a manager. I do have skills. I love what I do. I talk passionately about who we’ve helped, grants we’ve landed, and programs I’m running. My husband is studying to take his home inspection licensing exam. He makes breakfast every morning, does laundry, takes any small handyman gig offered, and helps our kids with homework every day. Every night, our kids get home-cooked meals and bedtime stories.

We lie with them as they fall asleep. Then I go back to work. I have a second job as a virtual assistant, a third as a bookkeeper, a fourth as a cleaner, and a fifth offering childcare services. We do not have insurance. We still owe student loans. We’ve decided our kids will go to trade school.

When I sit and ponder our decisions, all the times we took a left instead of a right, I come to the same conclusion. We made all the right choices for our family. I would do it all over.

More from this issue

A Place for Neighbors

Where seniors play and lead a new generation.

A Lifetime of Laity Lodge

Gene and Ellen Seaman share 58 years of attending retreats together.

Cool, Clear Water

River stewardship means safe water for critters and neighbors.

Plugging into the Canyon

Let there be tech and let it be good.