As I write this, the U.S. national debt is more than $15 trillion. Although my own debt isn’t quite that high, I can really relate. For most of my adult life, I’ve had problems with money. In spite of inheriting a fierce frugality compulsion from my Depression-era parents, underearning and debting always felt more like “the real me” than being financially stable did.
I read every book on money that I could get my hands on: books on visualizing, overcoming underearning, thinking like a millionaire, creating money energetically, having the courage to be rich. But my tradition of never having enough stuck to me like superglue. No matter how hard I worked, my life seemed to be locked into “Poor Little Match Girl” mode.
After my father passed away, my rabid focus on money in relation to the work that I do grew arms and legs, sprouting into every corner of my life. I kept thinking, detach, detach, detach; let it flow, let it flow.
But it didn’t.
As I grappled with conquering one dysfunctional family pattern after another, my perspective began to shift, and my life juddered along with it. Eventually, all of the insights I gathered about the tangled web that was my understanding of money and work dovetailed, and exploded into one radiant revelation: my desire for money wasn’t actually a desire for money; at its root, it was a craving for my father’s acknowledgment. Since I’d never received the acknowledgment of the person who controlled the money in our family, I couldn’t let myself receive money. I had always thought of money as synonymous with my father – because it was his jurisdiction – and I was still waiting for his permission to have enough.
I visited my parents once a year in their old age, and every time, my father would sit me down with his investment statements and hand-drawn stock charts between us, and talk for as long as I would let him about how the stock market worked, how he made his investment choices, and why he decided to draw his charts in their particular ways. This wasn’t a conversation. This was teacher and student, monarch and peasant, master and slave. This was full-blown Spider Love, as described by Martha Beck in her wonderful book, Steering by Starlight.
I must admit I learned quite a bit about investing from our talks over the years, but the most powerful lesson I took away was that I was not worthy of having opinions, my affairs were not worthy of discussion, and I was not worthy of any attention at all in terms of the financial realm. At first, I tried to interject comments here and there which I hoped would keep a flow of conversation going, but my remarks were usually ignored. I was reduced to “Mm-hmm,” “I see,” and “Oh, your chart looks nice” for hours, until I escaped to the bathroom to get away.
Year after year, I sat listening to my father as if I was chained to the chair with a gag in my mouth, trapped by my compassion – by my knowledge that I was the only one who really listened to him. My mother’s attention needs were even more ravenous than his, and consequently, she soaked up so much attention that there was rarely any left for him. He had very few friends, so these tortuous (for me) “investment talks” were the only time someone really listened to him.
Throughout my life, I was my father’s teddy bear – the one who was always there for him. And teddy bears don’t make any money.
It took me three-and-a-half years after his death to see our relationship for what it truly was. My father was a good and gentle man, volunteering and giving wherever he could, but there was a hole inside of him, an inner anguish that nothing could assuage, no matter what he achieved or how hard I tried to help. In my attempt to fill his emotional void, I created a money hole in my own life in the form of debt, putting plane trips for parental visits on credit cards because I didn’t really want to go, and taking time off from work that I couldn’t really afford in order to go and pay attention to my parents.
I wonder: is our fervent national pursuit of more, better, bigger really a quest for acknowledgment? For someone important to say, “Yes. You are worthy of attention. Your needs are important. You’re doing a great job with your life!”
For the children of Depression-era parents, who grew up in an atmosphere where profound fear of loss fused with no clue as to how to offer acknowledgment, the quest for money can be linked deep in the psyche with unmet emotional needs. Once the truth is unearthed, and the feelings expressed, we can let go of the compulsion that never really quite satisfies.
Katherine Mayfield is the author of The Box of Daughter: Overcoming a Legacy of Emotional Abuse, two books on the acting business, and a book of poetry, The Box of Daughter and Other Poems, which was written as part of her process of healing from an abusive childhood. She has written for local and national magazines, and blogs on Dysfunctional Families on her website, www.TheBoxofDaughter.com.