It has taken 34 years, but I’ve finally – almost – accepted that my parents will never be the loving, empathetic, caring people that I’ve always assume parental types should be. Like any human, they are flawed, but unlike many humans, they are extraordinarily self-centered, giving only financially as a means to feel powerful and in control.
I do not want to parent like that, or be like that, in the remainder of my life. I do not want to raise a child who, in my eyes, is only worth their ability to become who I think they should. I never want my child to feel his or her self worth is based upon getting married or obtaining a stable job that I can brag about to all of my friends. I just want to raise a child who feels that failure is ok– that risk is not to be feared (within reason)–and that there are two types of people in this world — the ones who want to fit in and play by the rules, and the ones who break the rules and make things happen. They can be either and happy, and I’ll be happy for them to follow either path — but I hope to provide the emotional cushion to always take the less stable path if that’s what s/he wants.
In Star Wars (The Last Jedi, but also in every part of the series) there is a simple concept that offers up the storylines — that there is a powerful force of good and competing force of evil within us, and we can choose which to follow. Evil is, in simplicity, power and corruption, whereas good is fighting against power and corruption. Because it’s a movie, good always wins — or holds out enough to make it to the next film or trilogy.
Good vs. Evil in the Real World
The real world may have the forces of good and evil, but good doesn’t always win. We live in a very complicated world. I’m not sure if it’s more complicated than it was in my childhood, but it sure feels as if it is. Quantitatively we know that cost of living has increased while salaries have remained stagnant, despite record growth in corporate profits. We know that today there is one of the biggest gaps between those who have and those who have not–that, while there’s still a path to the American Dream from poverty, it’s a long and arduous one filled with cracks which may open up at any time.
If Star Wars is a tale of defeating evil, life is an epic tale which depicts evil constantly disguised as good. And I ask myself – how can I raise a child in a society to not be spoiled, to care for the world, to have enough to be comfortable but not too much, and to truly value every aspect of their life, whether we live in a mansion in the middle of nowhere or a one bedroom apartment in the suburbs of a job-rich city, just barely affording monthly payments, childcare, and basic necessities.
I grew up spoiled, but not like a future heiress. My parents are the children of immigrants, and both are first-in-their-family to go to college. Their life was clearly better than their parents — and in their American Dream they achieved all but the ideal picture of success… a nice 4br, 3ba house in the suburbs with a big backyard and a community pool in a respected school district within an hour of the big city where my father worked in mid-level management, providing my mother the opportunity to leave the workforce at 30 when I was born and never return. While their financial picture could look a heck of a lot better right now had they not been so careless with their money — spending too much on too much, nothing lavish, but overspending nonetheless, they really did, for a while there, live the American Dream.
And, I too, lived that American Dream. I grew up in it. The Ethan Allen furniture decorated rooms–which overall were a testament to my father’s good, or at least consistent taste–and dance classes and art class and after school activities like choir and the school play. I was never happy as a child, since I was told from a very young age that I was not conforming properly, that I was too hyper, too different, too loud and rebellious to be a little girl worthy of being loved, but I had so much and it took years to understand exactly how much.
Although I make a good salary now, I know I’ll never be able to give my children the life I had as a child. Maybe that’s a good thing. Perhaps I won’t be able to send them to sleep away summer camp or even provide them with their own room (especially if I have more than one), but these are things that aren’t necessary. Will it be hard to tell my child that we do not have as much as other families in the area–of the other kid’s she meets in school? Yes. One luxury of my childhood situation is that we lived in a middle class suburb which had a mix of lower middle class, middle class, and upper middle class, and we were in the top of those brackets so I never felt jealous of what my friends had. If anything, I felt guilty for what I had, and felt others judged me for being a spoiled brat as well, despite having no choice regarding my random placement in the world as a child.
For my children, I always pictured them having the same quality of life I had, and ideally maintaining the lifestyle of being in a middle class district but being of the wealthiest so it’s hard to feel jealous or complain about what one is missing out on. Here, I see my cousins who live in comparable region feeling it is unfair they cannot go on multiple vacations a year including travel to international destinations, like their friends. One cousin is at a boarding school for having an extreme case of depression with self harm — and while I knew plenty of kids who were depressed and self harmed who grew up in my middle class district, I can’t help but wonder if her particular kind of emotional loss is due to this bubble she lives in and not knowing how to breathe inside it, despite feeling like the only thing that matters is fitting in.
Somehow, there has to be a way to raise children to appreciate what they have, and also to strive for a comfortable life without giving in to the evils of pure capitalism. I’m sure it has been done. But, isn’t it the case that deep down most of us would gladly take the opportunity to leverage the estate tax cut, with parents passing down $11M in assets–our lives set forever, just for merely being born as a Trump or Hilton or Walton, etc. But, then again, it is the opportunity to strive for something better that makes life satisfying to most. At the top, there is no where to go but down. At the bottom, you can easily get stuck, but there’s quite a way up to climb, even with a few stumbles along the way.
For what its worth, my father grew up in relative poverty with five siblings, went to college on a scholarship, graduated and was able to get a well paid job as an actuary, and maintained the same career and employer throughout his entire working life, increasing his status and salary, always making enough to cover this lifestyle that I took completely for granted as a child.
…And, although he may not have been able to admit to himself he was stressed over this, the stress of traveling an hour or more into the city every day and then an hour back, late at night, clearly wore on him, as he put on a great deal of weight and let his hot temper get the best of him — which often led to me getting beaten since I had disobeyed my mother and her punishment for that was always “wait until your father gets home.” I always knew what that meant…
My name would be called, loudly. I’d be told to go into the bedroom, and bend over the bed. My father would take his belt off, and, with extreme fury in his eyes, swing the belt at my backside multiple times as I cried and squirmed in pain, followed by a quick retreat upstairs to my room alone, where I told myself that I was a bad person and deserved the punishment. It wasn’t long before I didn’t have any other sense of self outside of this girl who was bad and needed to be punished by a father who was clearly disappointed with his daughter who just wasn’t following the rules (9 times out of 10 this meant I didn’t clean my room, a challenge when living with a hoarder mother who told me to put my things away but never to throw anything away.) That girl is still me today, a 34 year old woman who, deep down, has very little self worth and feels damaged. It’s why I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on therapy and have made little progress. Why I constantly fail at my jobs because the voice in my head saying you’re not doing it right is so damn loud I can’t shut it off to get things done. Why every little piece of criticism is so hard to take, and why, despite hating myself every moment I do this, I always am on the defense, and come across as passive aggressive, whiny, not a team player and ultimately on the chopping block being told that my passion and contributions are greatly appreciated but ultimately I just wasn’t a fit.
I try, so hard, to tell this voice to shut the fuck up every single day. Lately, I’ve moved on to the inner narrative that my objective is to play a role which enables me to be seen as an average employee of mediocre intellect, but who is reliable and thus able to keep her job. I’m making progress in that regard, although it’s not a perfect fake out yet, but I find it’s easier to pretend to be this person I’m not than try to be myself and fix any part of her that is fundamentally in pieces. My true self will always be a perfectionist, always desperate for attention and approval, never happy until I have the reward of not just “good job” or even “great job,” but the clear knowledge that my contribution was something so uniquely produced by my skills and talents that any compliments it receives are worthy. As you can imagine, this is a rare feat, and sucks up every bit of my energy where I do some really incredible work, but all of the other equally important work falls behind and through the cracks. So I’m trying very hard to no longer be myself. To instead, at least at work, be a robot who can keep her job and provide for her family. Maybe this is what being an adult is all about? I’m about to find out.
My child, who I will meet in a mere 7 months, will be an innocent at first, and if I can teach her or him anything, it’s that life is unfair by default, and on the spectrum of worst case to best case, we are on neither end, but still closer to best, compared to every person in the world and especially compared to every person across all time. I fancy having a poster board with a curve drawn out on it which notes “worst case life scenario” to “best case life scenario” and whenever my child complains about not having something or having to do something, I’ll have them write out this item on a little sticky note and put it on that curve to get a sense for how bad it really is in the context of the world’s problems. This is not to disrespect their wants or needs, but to help them, as a child, start to understand the bigger picture.
Perhaps then, they can awaken the force of good within–and not spend years lost in the dark side, seeking happiness where happiness cannot be found.