Understanding

My mother is my rock. I look at her and am in awe of all the obstacles she’s overcome in her life. She’s intelligent, creative, beautiful, funny and unfailingly kind. Her generosity knows no bounds. She’s taken in entire families when we ourselves were in dire straits. She’s sacrificed everything to provide for those she cares for. She encourages my siblings and I to be independent, to be critical thinkers. She fostered our love of words and then barely blinked when half of us went down non-traditional career paths. She’s let us pick our own religions (or lack thereof) and watched on with quiet compassion as we’ve clumsily navigated this thing called adulthood.

I don’t know a single more amazing person. (Aside from, perhaps, her mother 😉 )

I also don’t know a single person who sucks more at money management.

PG(L)

Strong language, huh? I went from saying my mother was intelligent and resourceful to saying she’s financially illiterate.This may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it really isn’t. My mother is a very unique individual with a singular story, so I won’t go into too much detail at the risk of someone who knows her reading this and immediately thinking of her, but I will say that my mother is the kind of person who what she doesn’t know, does hurt her. She has a fiercely entrepreneurial spirit, but has yet to succeed in her own (myriad) business ventures. When she was employed, she rose quickly in the ranks and made a lot of money. But she never saved, never invested (wisely), was too comfortable with massive amounts of debt, cashed out her retirement funds and policies whenever she left a job to fund her multitude of half-baked ideas and has never been a fan of stability unless it was conspicuously absent from her finances.

This led to a really interesting childhood for me. I’ve lived with different parts of my family, sometimes with her, sometimes with siblings, sometimes alone, so I’ve had plenty of examples to compare her to. I’ve seen her tenacity and force of will push her from one self-inflicted financial disaster to the next. I’ve heard her make endless promises of better days and then watched her fight off embarrassment and shame whenever those promises would prove empty. I’ve seen her battle ongoing depression, and then watched her get sparked by a new idea only to slump right back into the funk of perceived failure. This has been my experience with watching her, although I’m sure there are so many nuances my younger self missed due to immaturity and judgment.

And that’s what I’m really writing about today. I admit that I used to (and sometimes still do) judge my mother for her circumstances. It’s hard to remind myself that she didn’t have access to the tools I have access to. She was first generation “successful”, the first to leave the township our family is from, the first to earn a high salary, the first to live in an upscale suburb, the first to drive a monster of a car, the first to be able to afford vacations with her children or to bankroll holidays with the extended family. This became a huge part of her identity, and like many people who come into money for the first time, I think she felt she had to sustain and build up this idea of who she was and the role she played as “the successful one”. Then she fell from grace, and we went from manicured suburbs to essentially homeless and living with friends before she shipped us off to relatives for safekeeping.

To this day, I don’t think my grandmother knows she hasn’t had a job in years. I don’t think my uncles know how much she is struggling not only financially, but emotionally. While everyone else leads “boring” but stable lives, she has to struggle with rerouting her identity from all those years of being “the successful one”.

I can’t even begin to imagine how hard this must be.

How was she to know the consequences of some of her decisions? Some things are obvious to me because I developed an interest in personal finance from being naturally frugal (a result of years of watching her be fake-affluent but incredibly stressed juxtoposed against living with my “poor” grandmother who lived a full and happy life), but those are things I had to learn. Who knows what I might have done if I’d never gotten the guidance of the internets? I may have still been relatively frugal, but every cent of saving would probably have been poured into the conventional intern things (new car, real estate ‘investments’, loaded insurance products) and my endless list of hobbies (I do need a piano, after all, and some fancy photography equipment and maybe a studio while I’m at it…) instead of directed at my debt and then at my plans for financial independence to pursue those passions. I may have still been relatively frugal, but I would probably have defaulted to the plan of slaving away for the state (or in private) for forty years instead of planning to buy back some years of my life to do the things I love while I still have the energy and motivation.

My mother had enough resources, income-wise, to structure her life so that she could fail at every entrepreneurial pursuit in perpetuity if she wanted and still barely blink. She earned a lot at the peak of her career and, had she saved most of it, she could have been financially independent before I’d even gone to medical school. But she lacked the most important resource of all: information.

How can I, in good conscience, judge her for that?

Yes, sometimes her choices still make me want to scream. I know that every plan I make for my future has to, in some way or another, factor in supporting her in her old age because her current retirement plans are nonexistent. I know that every financial struggle she’s had over the last year has had relatives looking sideways at me, the ‘doctor daughter’ (watch me not play up the “success” card, ain’t nobody got time for that), and wondering why I don’t just bail her out of every misadventure. I know that she hates asking me for money, and goes without so much for so long that it makes me want to shake her in frustration. I know that she still believes the pyramid schemes she falls into aren’t pyramid schemes, or that her next idea is the big one. I know that, no matter what I say, she will probably never change, at least not at my behest. I know all this and sometimes I get so close to that judgmental cliff or I even get a little resentful. Sometimes I feel a little cheated that generational wealth inequality in this country means some of us will graduate free as birds while others will have to support up to three different generations.

Then I remember the incredible woman that she is, and the many roads that led to where she is and I rebuke myself. I have compassion for what she’s had to battle through. I have respect for her growing up in a time where Black Women in this country were barely considered full human beings and thriving against all odds despite that. I am in awe of how she’s always had conviction in her belief of herself and her abilities. I have admiration for the way she defied so many conventions to raise her children how she saw fit and give us the opportunities she gave us, sometimes at great personal cost.

And I can’t judge something as (relatively) small as her not grasping compound interest.

She was too busy shaping my world and nurturing my mind, while overcoming generational poverty and fighting oppressive stereotypes and apartheid residue in our infantile democracy.

She was too busy setting me up to hopefully make better choices, along with my own unique batch of mistakes.

Edit before publishing: Some days this is harder than others. I wrote this weeks ago and have been trying to inject more empathy into my dealings with my mother that are linked to finances. It’s a struggle, because sometimes I genuinely feel like she doesn’t care how her decisions negatively impact me and just takes a lot for granted. Ndiyzama kodwa kunzima!

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