Every week, we have someone tell us their story about money. This week, writer and Jezebel creator Anna Holmes tells us how money impacted her life growing up.
It was 2008, and I was sitting in the Brooklyn home office of my longtime accountant, who informed me that I had, for the first time in my 15-year-career, made over $100,000 in a year.
To be exact, one hundred and two thousand, three hundred and fifty-four dollars. And seventy-two cents.
The six-figure mark filled me with pride, but it was short-lived. For one thing, I didn’t have much to show for it, other than a new outfit (or three), and maybe a couple of fancier dinners than I was accustomed to enjoying. For two, it was, I quickly realized somewhat guiltily, the first time I had ever made more money than either of my parents.
I grew up in a lower middle-class household in an affluent college town in Northern California. To say that money was a stressor in the lives of my parents — and in my own life — would be the truth, but not the whole truth.
My younger sister and I never went without. Our parents found the funds to buy us new clothes, new school supplies, take us on camping trips, and, once, when I was 15, send me to visit a friend in Australia. We were never without a roof over our heads. We had a car. We ate well, and, for the most part, we slept well too.
Even so, the financial stresses that my parents endured throughout my childhood felt personal and arbitrarily punitive, what with all the other kids and their trips to Tahoe, in shiny new BMW sedans, and their apparent ignorance of any sort of existence that would complicate their lives or keep them out of the trendiest clothes and away from the most sought-after vacation destinations.
Other kids’ parents, I suspected, did not worry so much about money, did not fret as to whether they’d be able to make the mortgage payment that month, or whether the cherry-red Chevrolet Nova was, as suspected, on its last legs, or how in God’s name they were going to pay for their children’s eventual college educations.
My parents’ financial insecurities made me feel impotent and terrified, and then, as I got older, they made me angry and determined, at which point I vowed that I would avenge some of the bad choices they had made and circumstances they had endured by growing up to become a wealthy adult, thereby ensuring that they would never have to worry about money again.
I would pay off my mom’s house, and buy my father a bungalow in nearby Berkeley, plus the Chevy Suburban he always wanted. They would, through me, obtain a status that they had not been able to attain otherwise, and when people looked at them they would not see a struggling single mom overwhelmed by two difficult adolescent daughters or a soft-spoken, middle-aged African-American male.
They would see two loving, intelligent, passionate, authentic human beings, and maybe, just maybe, my parents would be karmically rewarded for it.
What I didn’t know then was that my parents’ supposed humiliations were also — mostly — my own, and that six-figure salaries did not make up for the profound humiliations or petty jealousies and resentments that come from living in a sexist world, a racist world, or a capitalist world, which is to say, an often unfair world.
What I didn’t know then was that more money — a little or, perhaps, even a lot of it — wouldn’t profoundly change our narratives, wouldn’t bestow upon me or those to whom I was related the respect and rewards I believed were our due, if not our birthright. It would not make my parents any prouder of me, and, as was made perfectly clear as I grew older and the size of my annual salary increased, it certainly wouldn’t allow me to pay off that mortgage or buy that Berkeley bungalow.
The only thing that my making more money than my predecessors symbolized, in fact, was that my parents had not failed but succeeded, triumphed in their efforts give me access to the experiences and educations that might lead to the sort of professional and personal rewards they had only dreamed of.
That, really, was all they had ever wanted to do.