My Family Has Forgotten the Lean Years, But I Haven’t

I see my father about once a year. The last time I saw him, at a family dinner, we talked about Millennials, and how he had spent his twenties.

“I was so ungrateful, but my parents did everything—paid my rent, gave me money, helped me when I couldn’t find a job. And they’d paid for college. I was a deadbeat back then.”

“Wow,” I said. “If you had been like that now, The New York Times would be writing trend pieces about what an abhorrent human being you are.”

My parents got divorced when I was 15. After a lifetime (plus 10 years, give or take—they had children well after they got married) of listening to their daily fights (nearly always about money, or where my father had been the night before), it had been a long time coming. They were a prime example of how not to go into a marriage. My mother left her job as a corporate lawyer in the early nineties, in part because she hated it, and in part because my parents determined that her salary put them into a tax bracket that, in conjunction with childcare costs, made it no longer worth her time.

My father kept working, and my mother was assigned the financial management of the household. For him, a profligate spender with no concept of the future or needs versus wants, and her, a woman who grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx and harbored a profound discomfort with looking at numbers, bills, or statements until they were just about past due, it was a disastrous division of labor. His infidelities aside, their marriage was the equivalent of a Ponzi scheme, ripe for failure and epic financial consequences.

A large part of my high school experience involved readjusting my expectations regarding our finances and my options. I grew up in a wealthy suburb of New York City, where it was understood that no one needed to apply for college financial aid, and any jobs we held in our free time were for fun money—a way to pay for trips into the city, frozen hot chocolates at Serendipity, group dinners at Chinese restaurants. No one talked about money, because no one thought about it. When my father finally left, my mother realized that he had also drained all of the accounts she hated to check, and we were up a proverbial creek.

We were incredibly lucky. My grandmother, a New York City schoolteacher for much of her life, had fostered a hidden talent for pension investment, and managed to keep us in our house, and school district, despite our total lack of income or means. For a long time, neither alimony nor child support were forthcoming, and my mother struggled to market her decades-stale legal career in a market with little interest in middle-aged women looking for entry-level work. We had the colonial, the white picket fence, the lab and the Volvo, but inside, our financial and emotional lives were disastrous. I learned to save my money, to pay for what I wanted, to start asking for help when I needed it, and to forgo excuses in all other circumstances.

What I learned from these profoundly unhappy years was this: reliance on others is the best way to fail. College was one concern: If I didn’t get the grades to get into one of the few truly need-blind schools with tremendous financial support I was interested in, no one was coming to help me. If I wanted to go to the movies, or out to dinner with friends, I was on my own. And there were other things to think about. If I wanted to eventually buy a car, a house, clothes that helped me look like I wasn’t trying and that I belonged in the same industries as my peers, I’d have to know how to manage money. And I’d have to make some, of course.

Now, years later, the divorce agreement is signed, the child support paid, my mother is remarried, and in a lot of ways she seems to have put much of this out of her mind.

“You’re so uptight about money,” she’ll say, and I feel like we were in different worlds for those years.

Of course I am. I didn’t go to the dentist for six years. I saw the unpaid medical bills and debt notices. I walked into the middle of a busy road to pick up the muffler when it fell off our car, because we couldn’t afford a new one. I know where I stand, and it’s largely on my own. Who’s going to help me with a down payment on a house if I want to buy one? Who’s going to pay for graduate school? Who would I turn to if a medical emergency, or another huge, unforeseen expense, came up? She doesn’t like to talk about these things, because they remind her that the life she thought she’d had—one where college tuition was paid with one of my father’s bonuses, where she could gift me the money for a down payment on a house, like her mother did for her, where I wouldn’t have to work full-time and get a graduate degree part-time, because the money would be there, waiting for me—that life is gone. In its place is a daughter who knows exactly how much house she might be able to afford one day; who says “no” more often than she says “yes”; who even now, years into a career and in a stable, happy marriage, assumes that failure awaits her at every turn, and that disaster—financial, emotional, unforeseen—can strike at any moment; who knows that reliance on others—financial, logistical, practical—is the best path to disappointment.

This makes me sound more broken than I am. What it really means is that I keep an eye on my finances, that I proactively plan for unforeseen disasters, that I follow-up and get things done. In general, I’m a boon to my workplace, to friends and family. I’m a fixer, the Olivia Pope of making plans and cleaning up household messes and tracking retirement funds and making sure that everyone is generally doing what they need to do at all times. When I want something to get done, I get it done, efficiently, flawlessly, and with time built-in for unexpected problems. But it also means I rarely relax, and that I can come across as pushy and apathetic.

My sister seems to have escaped whatever financial mental state I’ve been boxed into. Nearly four years younger, she doesn’t operate under my kind of mental duress. When my mother offers to buy her a computer or new clothes, she accepts, and does so without internal hysteria about how our mother will retire, or what she’ll do if a medical emergency comes up. Unhappy at her job, she quit to move to a new city, whereas I’m still not at a point in my life where I feel I’ve saved enough to do anything other than keep chugging away at my (thankfully, currently very rewarding) career.

And so sometimes, in the midst of the newfound calm and external confusion over my financial anxieties, I feel very alone. My father was more of an inept Millennial than I ever was; my mother and sister no longer operate under the Depression-era-esque panic that I maintain. To them, the gift and receipt of a $1,200 MacBook Air is an ordinary familial interaction. To me, a perfectly serviceable, self-purchased $350 netbook means more money for a medical bill that might one day appear, and that I am independent, as little of a financial imposition as possible.

Daniel Smith, the author of Monkey Mind, describes anxiety as “a transcendent wisdom.” When I write about finances, about minding your money and planning for the uncertain, readers often say, “Well, I’m not planning to get divorced.” I have been through a small kind of fire and I know: none of us plans for any of these terrible things.

We don’t plan to wake up one day and to find our family broken and our savings gone; we don’t plan to discover that our medical expenses will wipe us out, financially. I’m not unhappy, merely reasonable. I find solace in preparations for the unknowable, in the realization that I came through a small kind of paternal abandonment, a minor earthquake in my developing years, and emerged with a greater independence. My grandmother spent the 1930s filling her broken shoes with newspaper, and learning how to peel a potato so that no precious portion of the vegetable was wasted. She always said, I’ve been through the worst and so I’m not afraid of it anymore. I always had fine shoes and sufficient food, but I lack her courage. I’ve been through something pretty bad, and I’m still afraid of it. But at least I’m prepared.

 

Abby Dalton lives in Massachusetts.

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