As a child, I knew that my father’s artistic career goals and ambitions were not going as well as he had hoped, and somehow sensed that it was coming at the expense of our whole family. At that age, I thought about how I was going to somehow avenge my father and my family’s struggle against the world by succeeding, either where he failed, or in whatever I went on to do.
When I was a little older as an adolescent, I recognized how our limited financial resources kept me from trying new activities that I was interested in and could have been a great bonding experience with my family or given me a positive outlet to learn discipline and grow as a person.
In my teens I went through a phase of rejecting worldly ambition, preferring to help other students by inviting them into the supportive family that I had obtained in a Youth Ministry community. I did well in school but made minimal effort and planned on making a career in the organization that I found a family in.
Graduating college I had left my plans for a career in ministry and while struggling to get my foot in the door and start a career, I thought about my future family and how I wanted to provide them with the all opportunities that my family couldn’t provide: able to afford trying any new activity as a possible lifelong rewarding activity and a family bonding experience, to travel and see different parts of the world, to have the best education possible.
My need to be prepared to give my future family what I wanted to be able to took me over in many ways. I remained radically frugal. Even as my career progressed and I began to make more money than my family ever had, I continued to live about the same as I did in college with the only exceptions being that I starting giving better gifts. I felt I couldn’t afford to let myself enjoy the present because I had to save everything to afford the future that I wanted for my family.
This line of thinking is part of what kept my attention in the future and distracted me from being present to cope with mounting stresses when life got very hard. All I could see was losing the future I had been working so hard and sacrificing so much for.
While I’ve had time to reflect on what is really important to me and in life, I have been seeing the error in my ways and have been reshaping my definition of what it means to provide for a family. On multiple conversations with family and friends recently, I’ve learned that regardless of the financial situation, relationship is really what they felt deprived of as a child. Amid financial trouble, they would have been happy to accept a modest lifestyle if it meant their family would have been all together more instead of spending all their time working for extra money. Those who had been very well provided for financially felt that their parent(s) worked so much in the name of providing for them, but had never asked what it was that they really wanted, which was more time together.
These conversations really shifted my perspective on what successful parenting is, and the few days that I just spent with my friend and his family have been an inspirational example of really living the values of putting your family first in the decisions you make about career and time and money.
It’s always been easy to play the comparison game and try to “keep up with the Joneses,” but it’s also gotten more difficult to provide the same level of comfort for a family without having a dual income family. My friend Andrew has felt called to the meaningful profession of teaching, and even though it’s not lucrative, he and his wife have committed to only having one of them work full time. That means more financial management and gymnastics, more do-it-yourself, and not being able to put up the appearances or do everything that wealthier families can. It also means that their children are given more of the attention required to be better understood by their parents, supported and encouraged emotionally, in an environment that feels stable and safe for them to be themselves, to take risks, to learn, and to have a surplus of love to be able to pour out onto others and have a meaningful and rewarding life.
Watching Andrew with his kids, I was able to see the fun and the love, but now also to see beyond it, to how valuable it will be to his children’s own success and happiness more than any financial resources would be able to and I thought “These kids have it all.”