At work this morning we held a financial literacy seminar for a group of mostly Jewish, mostly female young professionals. (I work for an organization focused on domestic abuse and economic security for women.) It was a wonderful program with a ton of practical information. Anyone who'd like a copy of the materials, e-mail me and I'll gladly send it your way.
During the seminar we started a conversation about the mixed financial and professional messages brothers and sisters can glean from their parents. While most boys and girls are encouraged equally to study hard and find good jobs, Jewish American culture still places a subtle pressure on men to pursue the most lucrative careers -- medicine, law, corporate leadership -- and on women to pursue the most lucrative marriages. Compounding the problem is that parents -- again, often the affluent ones -- never talk to their kids about money. Let's face it: As long as there's enough cash to go around, finances are not a top-of-mind issue. You can see how a child could grow up and enter the working world with no clue how to manage the money she earns. And that's dangerous: A woman without finances of her own is at a much higher risk for domestic abuse... But I'm not here to stand on my soapbox; That's what I do from 9 to 5.
This all got me thinking about my own family. My father only talked about money in the context of sensible spending. He did his best to instill in us an understanding of quality and value, but he seldom mentioned what he had socked away or how it was managed. We only needed to know that there was enough money for all of us and he had it under control. As for my professional choices, the only noise Dad ever made was one tiny whimper of disappointment when I told him once and for all I would NOT be following in his legal footsteps. Once that was over he supported the path I chose with no more or less enthusiasm than he gave my brother. At the end of the day it had nothing to do with boys or girls or how much or what people thought; He just wanted us to be happy and pay our bills on time.
My mother, though she also wants only the best for us, has a secondary agenda: To win. You know, the game. The game of "my-kids-are-better-than-your-kids." In her mind and among her friends there is a fierce competition built upon a hierarchy of professional achievement: Bestselling novelists and movie stars on top; doctors, lawyers, CEOs a close second; engineers and science types another rung down; and then everyone else. Occasionally someone from the mixed bag category surprises everyone by rising to fame or fortune in a miscellaneous field, but mostly they're considered bargain bin kids. As spouses they are a "suitable choice" but not a "match made in heaven." It's not that their parents aren't proud...just that they could be so much prouder.
So where do we fit in? Well, my brother is a hard worker and deserves every bit of respect my mother has heaped upon him the last eight years. From the moment he entered college as a physical therapy major she's treated him like a professional. The word "intern" was usually glossed over in favor of more flattering descriptions like, "He works in physical therapy at that big hospital in Boston." Now that he's started medical school, my mother is living four years in the future with "my son the surgeon." At this point he's doctor enough for her; the medical degree is just a formality.
And then there's me. Not counting internships at a travel magazine and a non-profit arts organization, I've been tromping down my own career path for eight years now. I'm almost 30 years old, a homeowner and a professional with business cards to prove it...and still my mother has no idea what I do from day to day. Don't get me wrong -- she's plenty proud. Whenever I publish a piece she distributes it with astonishing speed and efficiency. Once she covered a 10-mile radius in four hours with only a Xerox machine and her own two feet. (Kidding. Sort of.)
I appreciate the praise, but it sort of feels like she's hanging my finger paintings on the fridge. Maybe it's the nature of my work: I get paid to be creative so she assumes I'm holding court over Romper Room all day. Or maybe she still holds out hope that I'm biding my time until Richie Rich rescues me from the daily grind. She doesn't want to think that I might not get married; perhaps she's afraid that if I'm too satisfied with my career I'll never feel the need, and so she tells herself it isn't real. I just want my mother to understand that I am as much a professional as my father at his law firm or my brother at the hospital, and that is why I cannot take her calls three times a day to talk about what's on sale at Loehmann's.
Every week I work hard so the nice payroll lady will continue to give me money for bills, mortgage, food and 401K. Some day, if I keep it up, I might retire and enjoy a life of tennis and shopping. Then, Mom, you can call me whenever you want. We'll have lots to talk about.