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