This past Christmas, I received a generic Christmas card from my father, the same one that was sent out to everyone else. I smiled that I actually received a card and quickly dismissed the passing, “That’s it?”
I have never been entitled, but knowing that I’m always left out of gifts or gestures isn’t the best feeling. My dad currently has one of my younger brother’s friends staying with them, because they have always had the square footage and income to support one (or four) more people. But in high school I was not welcome. After going through a rather traumatic time in my life, I needed refuge and had to beg/sell my dad on the idea of me coming home for a short time period. He agreed, though I always felt he only did because he knew that if he didn’t, and I stayed in California, the next phone call he might get was from a coroner. We did not discuss that though.
It was October 2008, the height of the recession. I arrived at my dad’s home at 12:13am on a Tuesday. That Tuesday I had two job interviews. Wednesday I was hired somewhere. Thursday I started work. While I worked 50+ hour weeks I juggled crippling depression that made it hard to function, nursed my stepmother back to health after she had spinal surgery (as well as keeping up on her blood sugars, she also has diabetes) and took care of the house. We’re talking dusting, windows, floors – the works. This was part of the agreement. I had to earn my keep.
I was 24 and an adult. I couldn’t coast. It didn’t matter that my brother was 20 and my father still paid for his cell phone and car insurance (and he had bought him the car, paid in full at the time of purchase). And my brother also lived with him. But there has always been a different set of standards and protocol for me and the rest of my siblings. They’re all over there, and I’m somewhere else.
Six months later after a major medical blow (I broke my back in three places after slipping on black ice and falling down twelve concrete stairs – of course I still went into work immediately, the ER came later) I needed to move back for a month to get my bearings and try to heal, but my father refused. I wasn’t being responsible. Even though I had worked nonstop for six months, fulltime, even through everything. I stopped speaking to him after that. He didn’t care.
Fast forward seven years and we’re both in a better place with each other. My dad owned up to his stuff and apologized for “not knowing how to deal with my problems” and I welcomed him back into my life. But the thing is, in terms of gestures or gifts or birthday messages, things haven’t changed.
Growing up, my mother and father would both go in on one present together. It was always something useless like a package of socks or the keys to a car that did not run and I could not drive medically because I was diagnosed with epilepsy (a diagnosis that has since come under fire but not dismissed). Christmas 2008, I received five books that were $4 each. My brother D received a gun, a laptop, $100 cash, two video games, and socks. My brother T received a laptop, an iPod touch, a new phone, two games and $50 cash. My brother J received 2,000 Pokémon cards, eight video games, a new gaming system, and $50 cash. We were all there on Christmas morning, together… Can you imagine how I felt?
It’s not about entitlement – but equality and favoritism (everyone was the favorite except me). But this was every Christmas, every birthday. When I lived in California I didn’t even get a card and when I did, there was nothing inside. When I moved back home – same story.
But I expect it. I don’t feel a slew of negative emotions because of it. It just is. Do I think it’s messed up? Of course. Am I going to make a thing of it? No.
Going back to this past Christmas, my dad bought their boarder a slew of gifts to match those for my three brothers. Even D, now 28, received several gifts. And I just got that generic card in the mail. My stepmom posts pictures of my brothers and their new, shiny things on Facebook and I feel a flicker of jealousy. Why don’t they ever get me anything? Why don’t I matter enough to be on the receiving end of their gift-giving generosity. I can’t even remember the last time I received a birthday card from either of my parents, not even an empty gift-less card. It doesn’t matter that for years, I have sent my father cards, and I still do. I will continue to do so, even though the gesture is unreciprocated. I don’t do it, to get something back. But does it bother me that it’s so one-sided? Of course it does.
I have never had anything handed to me. Like even a little. In fact, from the time I was a young teenager (like fourteen) I have been more or less on my own for even the basic necessities: shelter, food, money for needs – all of it. I started working (like actually working at a job) when I was ten. It was slave labor in a church rectory, but it was a real job, with a real boss, a real paycheck and real consequences. In high school I worked fulltime at a local grocery store, while keeping my job at the church. I wasn’t money-hungry, but I knew I needed money to survive.
I think about how easy all of my siblings have had it. My brother D didn’t get his first job until he was 20. My brother T was better and got a part-time job at 17, but just so he could buy the expensive gadgets he wanted. My youngest brother J has never worked. They never had to worry about things like rent or food or bills. They always had a place to go, even once they became adults. They always had parents who invested and humored all of their interests, like playing the drums or learning to fly a plane. They would pay for private lessons, take them on trips. The last time I went on vacation with my family, I was twelve. Yet they take three of four vacations every year.
While my youngest brother is finishing up high school, the other two have never gone to college for more than a semester before dropping out. I had three majors and a minor in college. I worked 60+ hour weeks, while taking 23 credit hours, on top of any personal, community or extra-curricular obligations. On top of juggling a couple of brain surgeries every year and one bone surgery on my wrist and open-heart surgery – all which I did/went through alone. Then I moved to California and went to graduate school, obtaining my Master’s degree. A few years later I had more medical blows (chemo, dialysis, seizures, strokes, heart stuff, kidney failure, autoimmune disease) that took over my life and as I was recovering when I was 26, I started my own business doing what I love.
Last year, when my father visited me for the first time at the house I own with my husband, we had that “talk”. As great as my memory is, I was so stunned that I can only recalls bits and pieces. But he told me out of all of his children, he was the most proud of me. He acknowledged that I never had it easy, but I always made do with what I had. I always made it work. I thrived despite my circumstances. And now I am married, have a home that is ours, my own business doing what I love – and I’m not bitter or full of resentments. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still feel left out when my birthday comes and goes without anything from him. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t still hurt to see him be generous to all of my siblings and their friends, without so much as a thought in my direction.
I know that these hurt feelings are the reason that I am obsessed with being equal in my own gift-giving. I’m always trying to weigh thought and cost and make sure we (my husband and I) dole out each in equal portions to family and friends. I know it’s not like they compare, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t want any hurt feelings, any feelings like the ones I grew up with and the ones that pass over me briefly after each birthday and Christmas.
Sometimes I think that I am the lucky one. My two brothers who are also adults have no direction. They don’t know what they want to do, but also don’t have any interest in figuring it out. They’re still coasting. I stopped coasting by the time I was eight. It was a choice I made, and I’m sure it would have happened no matter what since I’ve always been a perfectionist overachiever, but it wasn’t one I made naturally – it was one I made out of need.
I think about our future kids and the balance of letting them be kids and instilling a strong work ethic. I have all kinds of ideas like chore wheels (where nothing is assigned, but each chore has a fixed dollar amount, the more undesirable/time-consuming chores are worth more than the easy ones) for household stuff besides picking up after themselves. I want them to work as teenagers, but not fulltime. I still want them to be kids, but kids who know the meaning of hard work. I want them to do retail and have the jobs that people look back on while cringing. I want them to value and respect both time and money. I want them to know I will always be their safe space, and I won’t turn them away, but they also need to be accountable and be adults when they come of age.
I look at me and my siblings. My life has been the very definition of difficult, but look at me. I work hard, I don’t quit or give up, I’m fairly successful and happy. I look at my brothers and don’t see any drive or dreams or ambitions because they’ve always been comfortable. They’ve never had to work for things – not really. And that’s all the life I’ve known since before I started puberty.
I’m glad I’m the way that I am, even if I’m less happy with the why and how of it. I look at my life – our house, my business, our friends and the relationships we have – and I built that. I worked for it. I earned everything I have and that’s in my life. And I feel proud. I’m always working toward or for something, and I always will. Because anything in life worth having, is worth working for.
If you want it, work (for) it! 😉