Getting a ‘good job’ is something that most black parents want for their children, not necessarily because it is the child’s life dream, but because it means that they can provide a sense of security for the family. Managing expectations about what it means to support the family can be difficult for anyone, but young people who come from single parent homes or socioeconomically depressed situations can find this task especially daunting. For young black professionals this responsibility can be both a blessing and a burden.

As the oldest child of a single parent home I understand these challenges intimately. My mother is fighting cancer, which prohibits her from working. She requires a high level of care that my family back home works diligently to provide on a daily basis. I live about an hour and a half away from my hometown, which makes it easy to commute in the event of a serious emergency. My job is decent; I step in from time to time to help with bills or housework. Initially I thought I was the only person I knew in this situation, but upon further investigation found that I was not alone. A number of my upwardly mobile friends and colleagues are supporting their families in ways that are inspiring and challenging.

I spoke with my friend Jay* about his experiences being the oldest child and stepping up as the man of the house when his father passed away as a young man. “I had to take on responsibilities that I selfishly did not want to,” he says. “I learned how to be a man at a young age.” He has two degrees and well paying job at a large consulting firm, but sometimes struggles to find a balance when helping his family out. “I don’t know when they are in need until something happens and it’s too late. This bothers me a lot because I want to help but I don’t know how much and how often,” he says.

Many young people struggle to translate what their educational or professional achievements actually mean to their families. After I graduated from college my mom didn’t understand how my master’s degree would be beneficial to advancing my career. To her, it just stood in the way of getting a stable job with benefits. Jay says that his family thinks he’s a high-level executive. “They think I have all this disposable income and it’s hard to explain that it’s really not like that. Yes I love going out and traveling but I budget for things like that and they don’t see it that way.” Sometimes the family’s perceptions of having “made it” don’t match the young professional’s reality of what can and can’t be done financially.

Stepping up the plate is not without some level of sacrifice. It can mean forgoing nonessential (but desired) purchases to help out with a car payment, food, or rent. Jay considered dropping out of college when his mother was laid off his sophomore year, but decided to stay enrolled. Envying other people with easier home lives isn’t uncommon either. “Sometimes I wish I could help my mom get her dream house, and sometimes I compare myself to others,” Jay says. However, he knows this type of thinking is not productive, and instead chooses to focus on what he has the capacity to do.

While this type of responsibility can be challenge for young people like me and Jay, providing for family can bring a sense of pride that is unmatched. Jays says that he is thankful for his family, and that they support him in a number of ways other than financially. I’m glad that I can be there for my family in a way that really matters, and I’m thankful that I am even in a position to help out. Nothing beats the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing your part to ensure that your family is taken care of. To me it’s the least I can do to show my appreciation.

*Named changed for privacy

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  • ceecee

    Glad to know I’m not alone, what comforts me is that a few years ago I felt powerless because I could not help out as much as I would like, now I can. So yeah I may have to forgo some nice things but it’s totally worth it. When I start feeling resentful, I let myself dwell for 5 mins and determine to work harder to earn more.

  • Anonymous

    It is hard for me to relate, personally. I guess I take it for granted that my parents pay for my school/apartment/vacations/bills, have real estate/investments/money market accounts/Roth IRA arranged for me and never want me to leave home (until I’m married or decide to). My family is in no way rich but we’re fairly stable financially (upper middle class, net worth). I appreciate that my mother (although a single parent via divorce) was intentional in preserving my childhood–my mother never shared bills or finances with me, I was highly discouraged from working while in school (my job was to be a student), I’ve attended private schools all of my life, got a new car when I was 16, etc.

    I do empathize with you all and with a close friend who’s filing for bankruptcy (instead of having her mother go to jail) because she opened over 5 credit cards in her name while she was in college. In Addition, I have another close friend whose mother grew up poor–one of 14 siblings– and gave money out like an ATM I guess out of guilt of having “made it” financially/career wise. This close friend of mine “loaned” $1000 to a first cousin with “money problems” and it had been 1.5 years since he’s received a PENNY of that money he “loaned” (e.g. he gave the money with no promissory note including payment schedule, interest and the like). His mother (age 63) sat him down recently and told him to break that cycle. She begged him to not to be like her, getting used and loaning money out of guilt to family members, and to say no and set boundaries. As a result, my buddy hunted that 1st cousin of his down and got that promissory note in order and has received $400 dollars ($600 dollars in collateral from his supposedly “broke” cousin).

    All that being said, the question is how do you set boundaries? When do you finally say no, I can’t loan the money or help you pay bills. When it comes to money and family I feel that it’s okay (and often mutually beneficial) to say no. If I’m not significantly financially secure and able to enjoy life, I can’t help someone else to be financially set. If you have to go to work everyday, why would your family believe you’re rich? Do you look like Oprah or Bill Gates (who choose to work)?

    Again, it can actually be empowering and more helpful to break the cycle and say NO (no quotation marks). I do understand certain circumstances (i.e. parents are disabled or terminally ill) but for healthy, competent individuals there should very few excuses (especially with all of the resources and opportunity in America).

    • @Anon,

      You raise a good question. Setting boundaries requires that you know the difference between your family’s needs and wants, and sometimes that’s hard to discern. I also think you underestimate the power that emotions play when you are dealing with family finances. If you are doing fairly well for yourself, wouldn’t you want to give back to the family that gave you so much? For me, having mentors and people I can talk to helps immensely.

    • Anonymous

      How do you define doing fairly well?