Success Equals Failure: What I Learned From My Parents About Money

Even though I am a fairly financially secure adult today, growing up my feelings about money could never have been described as healthy. Questions about it still often bring up issues of self-esteem, panic, fear. And not always for worrying about the lack of it.

Most of my adult life I have wrestled with my feelings about money. On the one hand, it has always made me feel safe, allowed me to have the things I needed and wanted, to take care of myself and my pets. It gives me a sense of security, which I think everyone craves on a very deep level (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and all that) and personal freedom. And it facilitates my creative efforts. Without it, I wouldn’t have the computer I’m sitting at now.

On the other hand, it makes me nervous, even angry sometimes. I worry about the loss of it, anticipating some potential financial crisis taking everything I have away from me, my home, my transportation, my roots. Then I start resenting my dependence, the attachment to survival I associate with it. And I cringe at the way I often see the world making the acquisition of more of it, more things, life’s ulitmate goal.

I guess I think I know better. I guess I think I can be one to say, You know what? More isn’t always better. More can be enough to help you live, but don’t count on it making you happy.

I grew up in the ever-present shadow of my parent’s business. It was like having another, much more demanding sibling, the older brother I never wanted. My parents had worked very hard and after many years of effort, developed a successful company. We eventually came to enjoy a pretty high standard of living that I know most people would be grateful for and that others were envious of, unfortunately many of my own family members included.

We lived in a nice, big house with enough land to keep horses. I got a car for my sixteenth birthday, a new, blue Ford Tempo. Nothing out of this world, but it was more than my friends had (if they even had a car). I wore nice clothes and frequently got to skip school to travel with my parents. I got pretty much anything I wanted. By all appearances I was very spoiled.

But the truth of my upbringing was far from being something to brag about. Just underneath the surface of my parents’ financial success lay a great deal of pain and suffering. We were not happy as individuals or as a family. I guess I was the quintessential poor-little-rich girl. You can say it about me, it’s okay. I can think it about myself.

Although they’re not all that ugly, I do have scars to show for it. I was quiet and introverted, and so early on in school I was labeled a snob. My teenage years were filled with bouts of anxiety and depression instead of socializing, parties or boyfriends. My father, in addition to being a great businessman, was an alcoholic who tormented my mother and I in his drunken rages. They fought all the time. And beneath my mother’s seemingly calm exterior, a kind of quiet desperation paved the way to emotional isolation and illness.

My father suffered a heart attack and underwent a quadruple bypass at age 50, and my mother battled depression on an almost daily basis. They divorced and then reconciled, a fact I never even learned about until after their deaths. Both of them died from cancer before I was 30. There was a lot, I think, they never told me and don’t have the chance to anymore.

But what I learned from it all was that the personal sacrifices and material success my parents worked so hard for, the money and the nice things they thought would make them happy, keep us safe, were not enough to save either of them or their relationship. The demons don’t stay away just because you put up a heavier door.

Along the way I, of course, developed demons of my own. By accident as much as choice. I inherited some money after my parents’ deaths, and while it made certain aspects of my a lot life easier, it also led to problems: fights with family and friends, bad investment choices, paranoia even at times. I gained and I lost, just like my parents did.

But I also think I’m fortunate enough to have learned by their example that money is, most often, a mixed blessing. What I inherited from my parents has helped me live the life I choose, and I am grateful for that every day. But having more success in the eyes of others can lead to envy, to the stress of maintaining it all the time, to an unquenchable thirst. More can beget more, of the good and the bad, the stuff you want and the stuff you don’t.

Although I think I have a better perspective now, I still struggle with questions about money all the time, with my feelings about it. I think there has to be a middle ground to find, a place where enough meets ambition, where we can take care of ourselves and have some extra to give back others, to share with the world at large. Success looks and feels like that now to me. That is the lesson I didn’t learn as a young person. It’s the one I’m learning now, teaching myself, or trying to, every day.


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