A Father-Daughter Duo Answers Your Questions: On a Parent-Child Relationship Based on Financial Support

Dear Meghan and her dad,

I’m not sure how to ask this question or how one would even begin to answer it because, like all things having to do with family and money, it’s complicated.

For quite a while now, I have been financially tied to my father. Initially, the money provided me with wonderful things like pay for me to travel abroad and pay for my education and help me with a downpayment on my house and get me a job. But, in my late twenties, I started to feel the burden of this support. Because the thing is, I’m poor. Like really, really poor. Like graduate student poor. I do not make enough to support myself financially ($15,000 a year from a graduate teaching assistantship stipend plus a little extra from babysitting), so it’s nearly impossible for me to face down the barrel of poverty when I have such a generous support system in place. For instance, it’s hard to turn down a free new car when the other option is to quit my part-time babysitting work because it often involves being a chauffeur to children and take the bus to school and never see my boyfriend because he lives two hours away. It’s also hard to turn down rent and a cell phone and health insurance when, without my father’s help, I wouldn’t be able to afford these. But, man, do I want to! Because for the past few years I have felt like my father holds his support over my head, intertwining himself so thoroughly in my life so that I need to need him, you know? When I challenge him or when we fight in any way, he often reminds me of how much he is doing for me and has even threatened to withdraw his support. But here’s the other sticking point: There was a year or two where I was completely detached from my father financially, and in that year we spoke only a handful of times. Despite my frequent reminders that I would love to hear from him more often, that I would love for him to visit, we went months without speaking. Clearly, whether it is intentional or not, whether it is malicious or not, money has come to be the thing that connects my father and me. Or, rather, the thing that has kept me tethered to him.

So I guess what I’m wondering is this: How do I grow a financial backbone in the face of such generosity and how do I do this while maintaining a strong relationship with my father?

Sincerely,
Unmoored

 

Meghan’s dad says:

Dear Unmoored,

Hold on. When I signed up for this I was told there would only be financial questions where opinions would be offered by two hapless know-it-alls to writers and readers, all of whom realized that opinions were worth exactly what they had paid for them. Nowhere in my contract does it say that I will face questions about family/love/relationships clothed in a light pretense of money. But at least Unmoored seems to recognize this.

Before I take on the guts of this question (I should point out that by training, I am a lawyer and, therefore, capable of offering opinions on anything, regardless of lack of knowledge, skill or fact—a dear friend refers to me as the master of the fact-free argument) let me make some general comments on giving and receiving. They aren’t as easy as they should be.

I have been the beneficiary of much generosity in my time. Little has come in the way of big chunks of money, but I have received many gifts and, more important, many opportunities that were not offered to others, and for all of that I am grateful. I’m not sure how I would react to a large gift of money. I think I understand that can be hard. For example, if my in-laws had ever offered to provide a down payment on a house, I don’t know how I would react. I think it would bother me. Yet if it was my parents that made the offer, I think I would view it differently. I always hope that on those occasions where I offer gifts to people, they will be accepted and appreciated and that the recipients will feel better knowing that someone wants to make a gift to them. But it is complicated. And further complicated by family.

Back to it. You say you are poor, but clearly you are not—you are a child of privilege, relatively speaking. Your “graduate student” comment gives you away. You may not have the income you currently want, but you are far from poor. Your relationship with your dad isn’t as healthy as it should be (as if you needed someone to tell you that). I’m sorry: You are a grown up (and, for that matter, so is he). Fix it, if you want to. You didn’t pick your parents, just like they didn’t pick you. But they have responsibilities to discharge for bringing you into this world. Support to a certain stage is arguably one of those. You are past that certain stage. If your father chooses to support you he should expect nothing in return. If you choose to accept the support, you should do so with the knowledge that although he shouldn’t expect anything, he will.

And in the meantime, talk to a real professional who can help you sort out your relationship. Time is short.

 

Meghan says: 

It’s funny—I read my dad’s answer before I wrote mine, something I try not to do. But I couldn’t help myself. I needed to know how he would respond to this, as a father; what chord it would strike in him. This letter made me confused, and it made my heart ache, and as I often do with a confused, aching heart, I turned to my dad.

He’s using tough love here. I can feel him bashing his bad knees against it as he aims for levity, irreverence. It must be hard to tell another father how to love better. To tell another daughter how to forgive.

Not that I could have written such a letter as yours, Unmoored (duh, my dad is perfect). But I have spent many years trying to reconcile my need for financial independence with the willingness of my parents to provide for me. I, too, felt the burden of “But life doesn’t have to be this hard!” coupled with “But why can’t I do this on my own?” The super neat thing was that almost as soon as I became secure (after grad school), I realized that my persistent rejection of their gifts was basically like telling them, “Hey, all those drone-like years you spent behind your desk to provide me with this check so that I might pay off my credit card bill? Pfffft. I spit on you, and them, and all the pointless days.” What a selfish ass. What a waste of energy. And what a waste of time, of time—all too short, their graying hair, their quieting bodies.

I’m not saying our situations are the same. They quite clearly aren’t, what with the way your father holds his support rather viciously over your head. But I’m going to ask a question back at you: Is it possible the only way your dad knows how to show love is through financial support? Is that how he was taught? We can NEVER KNOW what goes on inside the mind of another, no matter how much shared physical business pumps through our common hearts. Your dad’s willing wallet might be the largest expression of his heart. Your completely understandable desire for more might seem to him like the cruelest repudiation of love. It’s impossible to know.

So let’s just take the money out of it. What I think you’re saying is that your dad does not love you the way you want to be loved by him. And your dad should have learned better how to love you. That’s his job, as a dad. It doesn’t sound like he’s done very good job of it. Many don’t. Many do much, much worse. That doesn’t mean you should stop feeling hurt by his failing—you shouldn’t! That’s your job, as his kid. But I’m not sure any of us have the luxury of dwelling there any longer. So here it is: You know what I would do? I would give your dad this letter, or a version of it. I would tell him that you love him, and you know he loves you, and you’re hoping you can learn to love each other better. Maybe that love comes with a new car; maybe not. But either way, it should come with as much honesty and awareness as you can muster as you navigate the immense complexities of family. It might not work. He might not be able to learn. Then it will be up to you to decide how much you can let that affect you (a decision that will become financially easier and easier as the years go by). But you will know that you have done what is within your power to create the relationship you both want and deserve. That is all that any of us are capable of, responsible for. Our own tender hearts, and what we choose to do with them.

 

Do you have a really, really easy question? Great. Email meghanandherdad@gmail.com. We need a gimme. 

Photo: Pascal

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17 Comments / Post A Comment

Stina (#686)

First off: Two excellent takes on the question.

Second, Two easier questions. Meghan and her Dad: 1. Team pie or Team cake? 2. Why are you both so awesome?

gyip (#4,192)

“Is it possible the only way your dad knows how to show love is through financial support? Is that how he was taught?”

That’s my parents. They still love me in other ways, but when I tell them not to give me money, they told me that because they have to work, their money is a representation of what they sacrificed for me (and my brothers). It IS love. Too often, in North American (read: Western — we’re Chinese, and this is definitely a cultural issue for me) society, we paint money as a replacement or easy substitute for “genuine” affection.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@gyip Could you expand on the parenthetical about it being a cultural issue for you? If your family is Chinese but they’re hewing to a Western norm, is the issue that they should or shouldn’t do that? I’m just having trouble following.

Emily (#6,777)

My grandfather is very wealthy and very controlling. His three adult children have lifestyles that are dependent on his largess and are all very resentful despite the financial rewards they’ve reaped. His gifts have strings attached–he will give you X, but you must do Y in return, and he sometimes changes the rules after some portion of the money has changed hands. After watching what these arrangements did to my father I decided that the benefits of the money weren’t worth the difficulties of pleasing my grandfather. I determined to take his money for boarding school and for undergraduate school, but that after securing this solid foundation for myself I needed to be independent. Since graduating from college I have turned down his offers to pay for my living expenses and to pay for graduate school. Without accepting his money I have a much greater sense of control over my life, and that is what financial independence is: freedom to make your own choices.

Both excellent responses, and I will add my personal experience. My father was raised by fairly absent parents (my grandfather was stationed in Japan when my father was born, which meant my father’s first language was Japanese, because he was raised by Japanese nannies and not his parents)and he definitely struggled with how to show affection to his children. His strategy was to buy us things. And that was fine, perhaps not what we would have hoped for, but we understood it increasingly better as we got older.

Unfortunately, as he also got older and things occurred in his life to make him bitter and controlling, money became a way to gain power over us. Can I pinpoint exactly when it changed? No. But at some point, the support and things his money could buy weren’t worth the emotional toll. Do I have a great relationship with him now? No. But do I feel better for rejecting his toxic money? Yes. I don’t know your situation, but in mine, the hardship is worth the feelings of self esteem. No real advice, just good luck.

Lori (#6,778)

“How do I grow a financial backbone?” As @Emily and @TrotskyHoldsMyiPod have pointed out, the only way for you, Unmoored, to become financially independent is to do so on your own. There are many online tools to help you budget (Mint, Personal Capital, Level) and automate savings and investments (Betterment, Wealthfront). If you don’t think that you can create financially responsible habits, try Learnvest or get a referral for a financial planner. I promise the first step that you take will be amazing and empowering and once started, the momentum will drive you to a better place.

Meghan and her Dad- you rock. Keep up the posts!

madrassoup (#929)

“You say you are poor, but clearly you are not—you are a child of privilege, relatively speaking. Your “graduate student” comment gives you away. You may not have the income you currently want, but you are far from poor.” WORTH REPEATING.

For the letter writer to describe herself as poor (or, in her words, “like really, really poor”) was so tone-deaf and off-putting. But I don’t bring it up because I want to hate on her, but because it seems to me that the answer to her trouble lies in staring that fact in the face.

YOU ARE NOT POOR, LETTER WRITER. Thinking you are is the crux of your problem. It seems like you think that having to work and work hard for things is a situation to be rescued from, rather than a reality to learn and grow from. Perhaps the financial tie to your dad is about more than just feeling like you’ll lose him (though I don’t mean to dismiss that part) but also about feeling like the alternative is so bleak? When, as Meghan’s dad says, it’s not. You are far from poor. You are broke, sure, but that’s circumstantial rather than endemic.

I don’t know; I’m not a therapist. But I can at least say that you’re lacking in perspective if you can look around the world (or even just the internet) and describe yourself as poor.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@madrassoup YES. Poor vs. broke is a huge bugaboo for me. (Do I mean bugaboo? Whatever.)

Also, you know how people live as grad students when they don’t have families bankrolling them? On loans. Ditto buying cars.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@madrassoup Although this letter writer does not appear to have grown up in a family who lived below the poverty line, there are graduate students who do grow up below the poverty line before attending grad school. Meghan’s dad’s comment that the LW is economically privileged on account of being a grad student is not quite correct; it’s family background, not educational background, that determines it.

I also have a really hard time with our culture telling young people that they can’t call themselves poor. I understand that the word is incorrect and that it carries a history that does not quite apply to grad students, unpaid interns, young people working low-wage service jobs, etc.

But in the current economy many young people spend years working for low wages (or no wages). They sleep on the floor, skip meals, wear shoes with holes in the bottom, etc. etc. etc. (speaking from personal experience here).

Saying “you’re not poor” discounts that experience and allows employers to keep asking people to work for free or for only $15K a year. So we need a word that acknowledges this reality. Not “broke,” though. Broke is what you are at the end of the month, not what you are every month for a decade.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@HelloTheFuture This particular person especially isn’t poor because they are being supported by their family. Rent, car, cell phone, etc. — if you don’t have to pay for those, $15K/yr is plenty!

aetataureate (#1,310)

@HelloTheFuture This thread is great, thank you. Also, the letter writer is one of the group who are able to choose graduate school/an internship/so forth because she DOES have family support to make it through on such lean wages. (LW, I don’t mean that as a judgment against you — you are fortunate, that’s all.)

madrassoup (#929)

@HelloTheFuture: I get what you’re saying, but I also think that Meaghan’s dad does too. And believe me, so do I. Which is why I very explicitly addressed the letter writer and her specific circumstances. Never did I say “no graduate students are poor!” Never would I say that, having been one myself. But even then. Even having come from a poor background with no resources other than credit cards I only recently paid off, even then I knew that I was building the kind of capital (education, contacts, etc) that would make the line between myself and the “really, really poor” clear as day.

Stanley (#6,750)

@HelloTheFuture

” So we need a word that acknowledges this reality. Not “broke,” though. Broke is what you are at the end of the month, not what you are every month for a decade.”

Not sure about a word, but how about, “Person who made a bad decision (grad school) and will be paying for it for a long time.” They are not poor. They CHOSE to go to grad school.

raptoresq (#6,612)

Either get a real job or take the money and run. We should all have such problems.

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

Meghan, your answer was lovely and made me think twice about how I could be a lot more gracious about receiving my parents’ financial generosity even though I no longer need it. <3

TaffetaDarling (#5,031)

I agree that the LW seems to have a rather narrow view of reality, and/or is not resourceful.

“It’s also hard to turn down rent and a cell phone and health insurance when, without my father’s help, I wouldn’t be able to afford these. ”

Yes, you would. Get roommates and live in an uncool neighborhood. Get a cheap cell phone plan like Page Plus (I pay $15/month). Health insurance, obviously, is something else entirely, but explore your options there, too. You seem to be giving yourself excuses to stay on your dad’s dole. Get creative. It’s hard and it sucks, but if you’re able to apply yourself to grad school, you should be able to apply yourself to the challenges of real life.

dirkbenedict (#4,012)

I don’t think the LW needs to stop accepting her father’s financial support tomorrow, but it sounds like she does need to make a plan for doing so (and I think she’ll feel a lot better having that plan, if she’s as risk-averse as I am). So if her current job is a good resume booster, maybe she should plan on sticking with it for another 6 months and then pursue a job that pays better, maybe she needs to plan on decreasing her expenses, etc. It doesn’t have to be immediate, but she does need to make a plan for it, and that requires thinking long term about what she wants her life to look like and then taking that leap.

In terms of managing the way her relationship with her dad works, I think Meghan’s advice is spot on.

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