Interview With Someone Whose Parents Didn’t Really Have to Work, Per Se

A few months ago we talked about the things we learn about work from our parents, and the ways it can shape our views on work and the kind of life we pursue (or try not to!). When copywriter and Billfold reader L. suggested we do a series on the subject, she was an obvious first candidate. L.’s parents made a living in a pretty unconventional way when she was growing up, which left her, as she mentioned in her first comment, with “no idea of what a ‘career’ was or how to have one.” Let our series of psychoanalyzing begin!

Okay, first things first: What did you parents do for a living when you were growing up?

My parents ‘owned and managed rental property.’ Basically, they bought a bunch of houses at rock bottom prices in the ’80s during the real estate crash and rented them out — they were landlords. (When my father died in 2011, my mother transferred the management of the properties over to a rental management company, so it’s still her primary source of income but she no longer handles any of the day-to-day business.)

So what did that translate into in the day-to-day “work” sense?

When I was younger I remember my parents being involved in reviewing applications, handling repairs, renovating rentals — stuff like that. I helped them paint and landscape and clean rentals that were between tenants. My father was a self-taught Bob Vila-type carpenter/plumber guy and he actually built one of the rental houses — literally built it on an empty lot, from start to finish. So he was very handy and he would repair things in the properties as needed.

But honestly, all that stuff didn’t really take that much time. My parents spent huge swaths of my childhood not actively ‘working,’ and they were always home. This sounds idyllic, and in some ways it was. But in the idyll there’s idleness, and the freedom from obligation and cooperation ended up dovetailing with my father’s alcoholism and evolving into something pretty dismal.

Wow, I guess that would make you see your parents’ working life in a different light.
My father was not a dramatic or outrageous alcoholic at all, he was a quiet, maintenance alcoholic, but he was absolutely using it to numb out and stagnate. He had all this free time, and he could do whatever he wanted — but ultimately what wanted was to drink whiskey and watch the Spanish language news and check out of life.
Do you think that what happened with your dad affects the choices you make now, or made you look at things in ways you wouldn’t have otherwise?

It really has led me to reflect all things a job can give us besides just money. Because we all need money, but what else do we need? My father was cashing cheques, but he didn’t have things like, say, an office or co-workers that he had to figure out how to get along with. I think that kind of disconnect from social/interpersonal obligations can be really dangerous. It’s like that study that came out about how wealthy people test lower on empathy skills like discerning someone’s mood from a facial expression — because it’s not that important for them to be able to guess how other people are feeling.

When you have enough money that you don’t have to depend on anyone for survival, it’s very easy to go ‘Fuck you, fuck everyone!’ and be a jerk to people and go live on your own little Far Side island with one little palm tree. And I think that’s what my dad did.

I think a lot of people long for lives with much less structure and obligation, but you saw firsthand the way some people can unravel without it.

I do feel this pressure to be scheduled, to ‘make the most’ of my days and to make sure my life feels full. I have a planner book that I use to schedule my life weeks in advance. I think I have this specter of sloth haunting me, and I make sure I keep it well back. I always feel like a lazy lady, but my friend pointed out to me, ‘You have a full-time job, a part-time job, a regular volunteer gig, a weekly class and a bunch of friends and social engagements — you are anything except lazy.’

Oh yes! Let’s talk about what do you do now.

I’m a copywriter at a commercial writing studio. It’s a total 9–5, office-y, salaried full-time job with benefits — the first job like this I’ve ever had. (I’m 28 years old.) There are things I really like about my job and things I really don’t — sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it’s stressful, and sometimes I am like, “Sheesh, what am I doing? I should be doing something else!” (But what?) But I do feel valued for my writing and editing skills, which is satisfying.

I also work on the side at a regional arts nonprofit dedicated to film — I work in the theatre, selling tickets to patrons. I don’t need to do it from a financial point of view, but I work there because I love all my coworkers and I love watching movies and talking about movies with other people who care, and I get to do that there.
Sounds like things are going pretty great! But what about before that, when you were younger, pre-copy job.

For years I worked as a video store clerk and I just had no aspirations beyond that, I just was happy to be paying my rent and watching my free movies and hanging out. I think I was just avoiding the whole issue of A CAREER because it scared me so much, because I had no idea how to go about starting one. I absolutely believe that my upbringing was a big part of this, I didn’t have anyone I could look to and be like, “Dad’s a teacher, he goes to the school every day and teaches — maybe I could do that.” Because you intuit possibilities for your own life based on your parents’ lives. Like how people I know who are doctors have at least one parent who is also a doctor, because they grew up watching it up close and it seems not only possible, but likely that they can do it too. (And maybe even that they’re expected to.)

As of right now, I am still flummoxed by the idea of ‘professional development,’ and I am considering going to a career counselor to talk about possible career paths that could grow out of what I am doing now. Basically, the major difference between me five years ago and me today is that today I am more comfortable asking for help and guidance. Lots of it.
Do you think your parents ever expected you to take on the family business? Or maybe your mom still does!

Ugh, I would literally rather die than move back to my hometown and be directly involved, if that’s what you mean. But I do think about how I stand to inherit these properties, and I could continue to have them managed by a property management service and just collect the cash. Maybe that’s a point in my life at which I could stand to take some kind of big financial/career risk, because I would have this extra pad of regular income.

That would be pretty great.

I know a lot of us fantasize about stumbling on some kind of money-making scheme and never having to work again. But that actually happened for your parents!

Yeah, the main perspective that I have is that the way my family lived is really unusual. Most people get up and go to work every day. I do.

That’s true. It sounds like if it happened to you, you’d actually like to keep working.

Yes, I am afraid being seduced by lethargy. If we’re talking deep dark fears, I am sort of afraid that I will get together with a man who is rich enough to support me, and then he will, and then I will just coast, man. It is not exactly likely that a wealthy venture capitalist will swoop in and take me away from all this. But I am still afraid that if he did, I would just be like, “Oh, my, yes!” And then slowly my identity crumbles. I’m afraid of being Julianne Moore in Safe, basically. Or Miranda July in The Future, when she lives with the guy in his suburban house and he’s like, ‘I’ll bring you ice cream in bed, baby, you just stay riiiiiight here.’

Not being Miranda July in The Future sounds like a good general life goal for all of us.

Yeah, each day’s a struggle.

And what about your mom? Not that your mom is Miranda July in The Future, but what does she say about your professional life now?

My mom is absolutely happy for me, but I don’t think she ‘gets’ exactly what I do. When I started working full-time I had this realization that none of the women, especially the older generations, in my family have careers — most of them have never worked or haven’t worked in decades. And that’s crazy to me, because women work now, and they have for a while. But not these women!

I have framed my progress in my head as very Peggy Olson, I’m showing up, I’m getting paid, I’m moving out of Brooklyn. And turning it into an empowerment drama in my head is what makes me feel proud about it.

I love that.

Anyone else want to do some interview therapy with me about how your parents have shaped how you think about work?!

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