Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Symbolism of Money

I was quite touched by this post by Tired But Happy on the financial finagling within families. It reminded me of a big family dinner that took place after my uncle's funeral. The oldest of the three living brothers had always paid for these family excursions, and now, with both of his brothers dead, my father was the patriarch. So my father, once the youngest of three brothers in a tenement apartment in Brooklyn, sat at a big table at a Chinese restaurant in Boca and proudly pulled out his platinum card to pay for a big dinner for his wife and children, and for his brother's children and their spouses and children. Paying for that dinner meant that even after a loss, the family was still whole, that its members could still depend on each other and most of all on my father, that he would step up as patriarch, as communal caretaker, as the conduit that would connect us all with our collective past and with our dead.

I guess I was probably sixteen or seventeen when this happened, but I remember it clearly. My father is quite frugal about personal purchases, but very generous when it comes to other people: he regularly treats his nieces and nephews and their families to dinners and theater tickets. This was beyond generosity: with the opportunity-slash-obligation to pay for this family dinner, my father's role in our family changed.

This, I think, is why family dynamics around money can be so complicated. Over a dinner check, we enact not only our relations as individuals (who has more money? who has expensive taste? who's a spendthrift, who's frugal?) but our relations as a family (who takes care of whom? from whom must we declare our independence? from whom can we accept help?).

So when I sat down with my parents last night to discuss their offer of financial help, all of these symbolic meanings came into play. I don't want to be dependent upon them, but I also don't want to shut them out by refusing the help they can and want to give. I tried to speak calmly and confidently about my plans for the money they'd offer me (save it: 2/3 for my Roth, 1/3 for travel). I assured them that this would open up my budget for the "fripperies" they wanted to make sure I had a little room for, because I wouldn't be pushing so hard to save from other sources. They wrote me a check for a lump sum for the year, trusting me to handle it over that time on my own. The conversation ended well, with no one anxious or upset--we had successfully negotiated the emotional issues that create the tension around financial issues. No one felt stepped on; no one felt diminished--it seemed to me that all three of us felt confident in our choices and in each other.

For me, the key to navigating this conversation successfully was about understanding that we were working largely in a metaphorical realm, using financial words to describe an emotional state: how we're handling the fact that I'm growing up and distancing myself from my parents in the normal way. In ten years, perhaps, I will look back on this the way I look back on my father paying for that dinner, and understand that it was a moment of symbolic negotiation, a place where something changed.

6 comments:

Tiredbuthappy said...

"who takes care of whom? from whom must we declare our independence? from whom can we accept help?"

EXACTLY. You got right to the heart of what I was struggling with.

That's what's hard about being on the lower end of the financial totem pole. Others are always taking care of me. I never get to help anyone back, at least not financially. So it creates this dynamic where I feel like I have to jump on any chance to be helpful in non-financial ways in order to even the scales, even if I don't want to do whatever it is they're asking. When I was younger it was worse.

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