What We Owe to Each Other (More Specifically, Family)

“Isn’t there some sort of paradigm to look to when determining what we owe to our family?” I sat in my therapist’s office hoping to find an answer from an external force that would shove me towards a solution all parties could be happy with, or at least live with.

He looked at me, amused. “If only. You have to decide that for yourself. You do what you can when you can, my dear.” A sigh released pent-up pressure stuffed deep in my gut that I wasn’t even completely aware of, it’s been with me for so long. It occurred to me that part of what draws me to seek support is to banish this internalized idea that there are actual answers out there that can be found with great effort.

I had a confusing upbringing. I come from a family of educated do-gooders devoted to contributing to the wellbeing of their community, and yet no one in my family had health insurance. We lived under the poverty line and I was eligible to participate in the reduced-price school lunch program. I was extremely aware of our financial insecurity and was ready to activate to advancing levels of anxiety, like an advisory system that alerts you with news of the current state of emergency.

I have to actively remind myself that I’m in a different place now — I paid off my student loans, and have health insurance, a mortgage, and financial concerns of my own. I don’t have to live with anxiety. I remind myself that practicing gratitude challenges these lingering, irrational fears. These days, my only active and very real financial concern is the one I carry for my family.

You see, they still live hand-to-mouth. As you can imagine, my family and I have very different views on personal finance. Admittedly (and obviously) biased, I prefer full-time employment and planning, whereas my family lives for meaningful work, with views bordering on magical thinking. Every single decision they make is the exact opposite of the one I would make. Chronically underemployed in their chosen endeavors and refusing full-time work outside of their greater purpose (or even seeking part-time work in the gig economy to make ends meet), they believe things will just work out. Every expense is a wish that needs to be fulfilled by outside forces. This presents a number of financial problems for them and a complicated mess of concerns for me that have to do with so much more than money.

Our diverging financial paths have created many occasions for me to plop into bed like a teenager, stare up at the ceiling, and think of creative solutions to someone else’s problem, diagramming arguments for and against all possible actions I can choose to take. I have more questions than answers. First: What the actual fuck? More productively: What is the difference between being loving and enabling? What does it mean to be a “good,” supportive adult child? What do we owe to each other as human beings, and more specifically, to family?

In my mission to find answers to these questions, I have tried many approaches. I have tried brainstorming solutions with my parents, suggesting ways they can keep the house. I have tried bargaining and negotiating agreements with them so they put skin in the game and take steps to help themselves. I have also tried bailing them out in exasperation and a deep sense of defeat.

More recently, I have decided to focus on what is actually in my locus of control and work to untangle myself from family finances, address codependency issues, and create boundaries. To preserve my own mental health, I’ve stopped asking questions and refrain from conducting (too many) philosophical thought exercises. Incongruously, I have also found opportunities for seemingly spontaneous generosity. I send cash for every occasion and practical commodities at random.

It’s difficult to observe, provide emotional support, and sometimes extend practical support to people you used to view as your safety net, your place of refuge. In addition to my overall feelings of disappointment and frustration, I feel this unshakeable sadness that my life has and will always include an element of financial stress and worry. Or at least, as morbid as it is, until my family and I are separated by death. While I love and care for my family, my affections towards them wane as the years pass and I continue to harbor heavy thoughts and my unfair share of familial burdens. Not that they ask me to, but is it possible to separate care from worry?

I never feel satisfied or confident that I’m making the “right” decision. I just try to do the next thing that makes the most sense (for me and/or for them) when an occasion arises. The best way to describe my tactic is: Decisions are made. Inconsistent solutions are cobbled together on an ad-hoc basis. I sometimes wonder if I’m doing right by my family, and if I’m doing right by me. Because I don’t have any permanent solutions or answers, I go by what feels right. It feels right to send what I can when I am in a generous spirit, rather than inquiring about their financial health and whether they have any serious problems. It feels right to send gift cards for grocery stores or contribute to practical needs that go unmet. None of these choices have yielded anything resembling a lasting solution.

Another looming concern is, of course, about long-term care and how we will swing those astronomical costs. Something to look forward to resolving in a decade or two.

I suppose the question of what we owe to one another isn’t all that uncommon, nor is our search for a satisfactory answer. Maybe we look to the mores of our culture or spiritual belief system for direction, or consult our ancestral roots, the communities we belong to, and the unspoken agreements that come attached when belonging to people.

Billfolders — what of this conundrum? What are your thoughts on our financial duties to the people who created and housed us?

Michelle Song does things including writing, editing, and marveling at life’s absurdities. Yes, she is an introvert and coincidentally is an older Millennial unlikely to be found anywhere but her inbox at michellesong101@gmail.com.

Photo by Kate Remmer on Unsplash.

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