A rude (and taxing) awakening

It’s almost tax season, so I thought I’d share this story from the archives of my memory. Even though it occurred a decade ago, the memory is still as fresh in my mind as anything.

It’s early February of 2009. I’m a 23-year-old newlywed getting ready for one of the most exciting things (to me, anyway) I’m going to do that year–file taxes. It’s not taxes that I’m excited about, really. It’s the fact that it was my first year being married, and my first time ever doing taxes with my husband.

I imagined all the things that I could do with our tax refund. Save up for a down payment on a house? Pay student loans? Buy a new couch? I had so many ideas. Little did I know that none of those things will happen.

But at the time, I was SO excited to file as a married couple, because as little as I knew about taxes at the time, I knew that being married has tax benefits. So I went to the local library, got a tax booklet and some forms (back then, we were old school. We didn’t know a thing about online programs), and one day in February we sat down on the teeny tiny dining room table to do our taxes.

I remember sitting there, one of us with a pencil and a form, the other reading the tax booklet, which was like a technical manual. It had words like “filing status” and “interest and dividends” and “capital gains and losses,” and we didn’t understand any of it! Finally, after awhile we decided that the form 1040EZ was the best form to use…simply because it was “easy.” Get it?

Anyways, armed with a calculator, he did the math while I read the booklet, both of us poring over the information and developing a headache in the process. Who knew taxes would be so boring? I thought.

Fast forward four hours later, we’re both exhausted. We were done. As I looked at the last line on the form, where it says, “if line 12 is larger than line 9, this is the amount you owe” and comparing it to the number we got, it stopped me dead in my tracks.

The result was true. Line 12 is larger than line 9.

I stared at the number for a moment, in shock. This was the first time we did our taxes together and we owe money?

I told my husband to look. He did. He couldn’t believe it either. Then the number “$1500” flashed in front of his eyes in the same manner that it flashed in front of mine–with disbelief.

“Your math must be wrong,” I told him. “Go to H&R Block and have someone double check it, please.”

So he did. He came back an hour later, and said, “Yep, we owe that much.”

Now, $1500 isn’t really a big deal nowadays, but back then, it was 2009, and we were young college grads. We didn’t know a thing about money, like saving for a rainy day or anything like that. We had jobs, yes, but we’d always spent whatever we made, thinking there will never be a rainy day.

On that day, it was definitely a downpour.

Even after my husband came back and told me the truth (again), I refused to be believe it. Not just because we didn’t have the money in the bank (how dumb is that?!), but because it happened at a bad time. It was 2009, and we were still in the midst of a recession. Just a month before, I had been laid off from my job at a third party health benefits administrator. So I was counting on taxes to save us, for a little while anyway, until I could find a new job.

The realization of having to pay the IRS back without having that money was terrifying.

By now, you’re thinking – wait, you can ask your parents for help, right?

Well, we did. But we had to be selective about it. Since neither one of us comes from well-to-do families, we figured we couldn’t ask my mom since she made so little money, and same goes for my mother-in-law, so we decided to ask my father-in-law.

He came back and said, “Nope.” There wasn’t a specific reason, just no.

Another shocker. Okay, by now I’m freaking out. We don’t have the money. I’m unemployed. My husband just started a job as a front desk associate at a hotel, and it’s a little well kept secret that front desk people don’t make a lot of money. There was no way he could support both of us. So we thought that his dad would come to our rescue but we were wrong.

I remember crying uncontrollably. After I realized that we didn’t have the money, I cried. After my husband came back from H&R Block, I cried. After he came back from his dad’s rejection, I cried. I thought, “Why is this happening to me?”

Thus, it was the beginning of many important life lessons, the first one being–save for a rainy day. You can’t save all the time, and you may not be able to save a lot, but saving is better than not saving.

Somehow, we managed to pay the IRS back without any help. Terrified of being unable to pay our rent and bills, I got myself a job a month later, which would turn out to be one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made in my life–that’s a story for another day.

But from 2009 until tax season of 2010, we made some drastic changes in our lifestyle. We stopped driving often. We spent $30 per week on groceries. We set aside money for the IRS payment before any bills. And I vowed that I would educate myself on taxes so I would never have to experience it again.

Since then, we’ve never owed the IRS any money, and if I play my cards right, we’ll never have to owe them again.

Why having a kid lowers your expectations

I’ve always considered myself an ambitious person. I skipped a grade when I was in elementary school, only to be put back in the regular (where I’m supposed to be) grade when I came to America. My thoughts have always been on the academic side – how to succeed in life with an education, to be the best that I can be. My expectations of myself have always been high. Heck, once upon a time I even thought that I could be a big shot executive at a large business corporation. Those thoughts are now gone, and replaced with “How many poops did my son do today?” and “How long will it take me to advance to a certain skill level in XYZ at my job?”

Ever since I became a mother, I’ve crossed into a different territory, and that is the Expectations Territory. When you’re not a parent you have certain expectations of yourself – things that you can and cannot do. You know your abilities and your desires. You have goals that you want to achieve. Then you become a parent, and you still have goals, but as time goes by, you realize that perhaps those goals need to be taken down a notch, because there is absolutely no way in hell you’re going to be able to go out and have fun every night without a good babysitter (and a good babysitter costs a lot, so that’s why a lot of parents prefer to just stay at home and drink a glass of wine instead – not that I would know…I just sit there and play with my phone), or drink alcohol and not be impaired while taking care of your kids, or finish writing that 100 page thesis in three months.

And hobbies – what hobbies? Let’s talk about achieving the every day tasks, shall we?

For example: it took me approximately an hour today to eat lunch. Not because I’m such a slow eater (which I am, sort of), but because during that hour, I made lunch for my daughter, and while I waited for her to eat, I fed my son a bottle, and then prepped my own lunch. Sounds simple, right? It should just be as easy as sitting down and enjoying a lunch. Not so much in the world of parenting. I took both of my kids to Lily’s room and told Lily to play with her brother so I can eat…because “Mommy is very hungry.” She seemed to understand, but only for a short period of time, because less than 5 minutes later, they BOTH came out of the room, one babbling away about something, and the other one trumpeting along and crying. By that time, my stomach was growling and I was getting grumpy. My patience were wearing thin. Even as I sat and ate my lunch, I still had the sad, eager eyes of my son looking up at me and whining, “Mama, mama”, as if he’s saying, “Please mom, don’t eat. Please mom, I want some more.” Sigh.

It made me wonder how much simple tasks that all of us adults do on a regular basis are taken for granted by those who are not (yet) parents. Eating in peace is one of them. So yes, I decided to eat with some “background noise” (jazz music would’ve been more preferable) and another little human being grumpy at me because I asked her to do something and she didn’t feel like doing it.

This is an example of how much of a pleasure it is to be able to do simple tasks (like pooping, getting dressed, writing, brushing teeth, eating, laundry, etc) without interruption can be. The expectation that one should be able to sit down after preparing their meal and eat and actually be able to enjoy their meal is something almost foreign to me. I told my husband about this dilemma and he looked at me like I was insane. His face conveyed the thought, “You think you can actually SIT DOWN AND EAT in front of them?!?! You’re crazy woman!”

I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing – no, not at all. If anything, having kids brings you back to reality, because as some of us might expect, we tend to live in a distorted reality where we are on top of our game and we get things DONE. This is especially important for ambitious high achievers and planners. But then you have kids, and they throw you a curve ball, so you have to learn new skills like drowning out the noise of a crying baby while eating a meal. Adaptability is key. It is a skill that I honestly don’t think I developed until I became a mother.

With that said, as soon as you lower your expectations, you realize that it’s actually not that terrible after all. It’s not so terrible to be woken up in the middle of the night several times a week (well, actually it is) because it happens to other parents too. It’s not so terrible to be constantly busy, to always have laundry and dishes to do. And it’s not so terrible to have someone who needs you and calls you all the time. When it’s all said and done, you have an audience who knows absolutely nothing about you before you became a parent, so you can be anyone you want to be!

Heck, I hope that when my kids are adults they’ll let me in on their lives and keep me busy with whatever is going on with them and allow me to be part of their world. Except for the sleeping part – I’d prefer that they allow me to sleep more than 4 hours a night every night.