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I’m a 28-year-old social worker, and my parents are constantly criticizing me for pursuing a career that doesn’t make much money. Both of them grew up in low-income households and worked extremely hard to give my brother and I the opportunities that they never had. My dad is a lawyer, and my mom is a nurse (neither has retired yet, even though they could). While I’m grateful for what they provided, I also like my job and don’t care about fancy vacations or nice clothes or country clubs. My partner is a teacher and we’re happy with our modest lifestyle. Still, my father acts like we’re practically in poverty, and my mom backs him up and says they just want me to have a comfortable life and not throw away everything they’ve given me. It makes going home for Thanksgiving (or any holiday) very difficult, and I’m worried that my partner will be hurt, too. Whenever I’ve tried to stand my ground and ask them to support my decisions, it’s turned into a huge fight where my dad tells me I’m ungrateful. What can I do?
Most parents think they know what’s best for their adult children. In many cases, they’re right, but sometimes, they’re wrong. Most of these mistakes happen for two reasons: (1) The parents lack information, and (2) They’ve conflated what they want with what you want, and hitched their self-worth to your accomplishments (or what they believe them to be). When your problem falls in the latter camp, a difference of opinion becomes a schism in values, and a family rift (or a slamming door, or way too much wine) ensues. Aren’t the holidays great?
My friend Chloe is well-acquainted with this pattern. Similar to yours, her dad grew up without much money and then built a lucrative career in finance. He primed her to follow in his footsteps, hooking her up with internships and praising her when she excelled at them. “For a while, I was into it,” she says. “I got a job on Wall Street after college and was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll take the GMAT! I’ll go to business school!’” Then she discovered that she hated almost everything about the work. “While it was nice to make my dad proud of me, and I was making a good amount of money for my age, being in that atmosphere made me miserable,” she says. “It wasn’t right for me at all.”
Chloe quit her finance job and went to grad school for education policy — which she’d always been passionate about — and her dad has never gotten over it. “He regularly asks me how much I make in my current job — which I love — and then compares that number to how much he thinks I’d be making if I’d stuck with my previous path,” she says. “He once did it in front of a group of his friends. When I finally brought it up to him a few months ago, his defense was that he hadn’t done it recently.” However, Chloe notes that he hasn’t done it since.
Megan Ford, a financial therapist at the University of Georgia and the president of the Financial Therapy Association, knows how frustrating these confrontations can be. “Ultimately, you cannot change the views at the core of your parents’ judgments; that’s something they need to find on their own,” she says. “What you can do is develop empathy for their perspectives, and find out where these critical assessments of your work originate.” In other words, your best weapon is curiosity. “It can be difficult to stay in a non-emotional place when feeling criticized or judged, but if possible, ask more about the beliefs that they hold — for example, if they say something negative, you could say, ‘Where does that idea come from for you?’” Ford continues. “It’s an open response that invites more talk.”
Clinton Gudmunson, a professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, says self-made people tend to identify with their success, sometimes excessively so. “Many of those who ‘started from nothing’ see the enterprise they’ve created as an extension of themselves,” he says. “Some telltale signs would include working longer than they need to financially, or being uncomfortable with the thought of how their workplace will get along without them.” Sound familiar? What’s more, your own trajectory might be as much of a reaction to your parents’ consciousness of monetary status as theirs was to growing up poor. “You probably saw the stressful side of your parents’ work choices,” says Gudmunson. “That could partly explain why you were attracted to an occupation with a ‘human touch,’ and possibly to a partner in a similar field.”
In an ideal world, some well-orchestrated heart-to-hearts would shed light on these contrasts and prompt everyone to be more empathetic. But if these conversations consistently devolve — or you just can’t summon the curiosity to figure out why your parents seem to insist on making you feel like an under-earning deadbeat — toot your own horn more assertively. “Find additional ways to expose your parents to the happiness and fulfillment that your work brings to you,” says Ford. After all, your income bracket isn’t an insult to their hard work. It’s the result of an occupation you’ve actively chosen for yourself, out of all the opportunities they furnished you with. They might associate your lifestyle with feeling trapped, but you don’t — and this, perhaps, is their real gift to you.
Research consistently shows that the best predictor of a person’s socioeconomic status is that of their parents. By earning more money than their parents did, your mom and dad increased your chances of achieving the same monetary comforts they pursued. “Parents usually want for their children to have what they had and more,” says Ford. “Your parents seem to be viewing your situation through their own perspective, which equates high earning with respect, fulfillment, and happiness.” Being grateful to them might seem like a tall order when they’re giving you grief, but remember that your road is paved with their good intentions. “I can’t blame my dad for trying to push the idea that security comes in the form of money — he was raised to believe that, and I can appreciate that he wants it for me because he loves me,” says Chloe. “Still, that doesn’t change the fact that it sometimes leads him to say hurtful things.”
For Chloe, communicating with her dad is an ongoing process. “Last summer, he and I were talking on the phone, and he asked, ‘Is your career going to be enough for you?’” she recalls. “I gave him a truthful answer, which is, ‘I’m really happy. Who knows how I’ll feel later, but I love what I do.’ And then later, it dawned on me that he was actually saying, ‘Your career isn’t enough for me. Let me get you to think about how it can change.’” She thought about it for a few days, and then called him back. “I said, ‘Dad, I was wondering what you meant by that,’ and he got extremely angry and offended.” Their call was cut short, but when she tried again a week later, they were able to connect more thoughtfully. “Once he had some time, he was able to hear that his comments affect me negatively,” she says.
The exchange taught Chloe how sensitive her father is. “I realized that he can perceive even the most gentle confrontation as a slight, and I need to be very delicate with him,” she says. In an interesting twist, this goes both ways: “Every once in a while, we’ll be talking and he’ll say, ‘Thank goodness you didn’t go to business school. That wasn’t really for you at all.’ And to me, that sounds like, ‘Let me remind you of this world you left behind. You couldn’t have hacked it,” she explains. “When I mentioned this to him, he said that it was his indirect way of apologizing. Like, ‘I feel bad that I pushed you toward something that wasn’t right for you.’ He’s trying to repair what he did, but I couldn’t hear it.”
The takeaway: Don’t let the matter drop, but do pick your battles, time them carefully, and keep clarifying — you might be conditioned to interpret something as a dig, even if it’s meant to be the opposite (and vice versa). Self-awareness will keep you from flying off the handle; you’re playing a long game here. “If he says anything that upsets me, I’m honest with myself about how I feel, and I pay attention to my anger, even if I stay quiet in the moment,” Chloe says. “It takes a lot of persistence. When your parents are putting pressure on you to be their definition of success, you can’t be passive, but you do have to be patient.”