A few months ago Netflix was streaming the movie The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio and I absolutely fell in love with it. If you haven't watched it and you want to avoid spoilers, you can click the link above to buy it on Amazon and watch it before reading. (Fair warning, this is an Amazon Affiliate link.)
This is the true story of Evelyn Ryan, a mother and housewife in the 1950's who was forced to use her wit and talent with the written word to keep her family fed and housed because her alcoholic husband was unable or unwilling to prioritize family over addiction. We get to see her writing jingles, ad slogans, and poetry to win prizes from big company contests, and at one point we see her win a grocery shopping spree - she gets ten minutes to fill an empty cart and everything inside of it when they call time is hers to keep. She decides to use this as an opportunity to give her kids a taste of things they would otherwise never have, filling the cart with lobster tails, European chocolates, expensive cuts of meat, exotic fruits, etc. This particular scene has kept me up at night more than once, contemplating the decisions she made as part of the spree.
We see elsewhere in the movie that they have times where the cupboard is literally bare. We also watch as her husband clearly feels emasculated by his inability to care for his family and his wife's success contesting for profit. Knowing these things, why in the world would she opt for decadence and a high price tag when she could have been filling that cart with household staples and canned goods? Every bite of shrimp or pineapple was just a reminder to her husband of what a failure he was as a provider and her kids were not interested in capers and caviar. But at the same time, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to give her family a taste of something they would otherwise never have. How could she not use the only opportunity she is ever given to expose her children to the finer things in life?
This one scene is a perfect example of the tightrope walk that is making decisions as a parent. For example, do you scrimp and save, doing without pricey vacations or dinners out so you can send your kid to private school? If you decide to make private school a priority and sacrifice for your children will they really benefit from it or will they end up with a mediocre education and teachers who are later discovered to be child predators? If you decide to pass on private school so your kid can have steak dinners and trips to Disney World will they still get a solid education or will they be overlooked in the ever-growing class sizes and ever-shrinking school budgets? How can you know which decision is right and, more importantly, how can you avoid beating yourself up for every horrible thing that happens as a side effect of the decisions you chose to make? Do you try the stay-at-home mom thing or do you work full time? Do you buy the nicest house you can afford in a less affluent neighborhood or do you buy the tiny house in the ritzy part of town? Do you enroll your kid in every possible after school activity or do you let them play and explore on their own with no structure?
I spend more time than is probably necessary or wise running that ten minute shopping spree over and over again in my head. Did she contemplate every item she put in the cart, weighing the value against bags of flour and jars of peanut butter, or is this the curse of the modern parent alone, worrying that everything we do might be utterly wrong? I suppose we can only do our very best and hope that it will be enough, which is a talent Evelyn Ryan seemed to have mastered, much like the written word.