On knowing what’s out there: loosely connected thoughts from vacation with the relatives

Over the holidays, DH’s newly retired parents kept talking about how truly blessed they are.  None of their kids are in jail.  All are gainfully employed.  They themselves have more money than they ever dreamed and will actually be able to increase their quality of life in retirement (or rather, FIL now has both time and money for all those hunting trips he’s been wanting to do), at least while the stock market is booming.  (A couple of weeks ago, FIL called up to ask DH to ask me whether or not it was ok to have 90% stocks/10% bonds…)

DH’s relative that we’ve talked about before is not doing so well.  He’s got arthritis, which makes being a construction worker difficult.  His oldest two both had children as teenagers (the oldest is living at home with her toddler, the second moved West with her two kids to live with the biological mother who abandoned her as a baby).  His wife is recovering from brain cancer.  His third attempted suicide via electricity socket recently and is depressed because he’s too blind to legally drive.  His fourth has gotten in with a bad crowd and started stealing from family and was recently on suicide watch at a hospital.  We didn’t hear much about the fifth this time around except that she was driving the oldest’s car when it got totaled by an uninsured driver (which means the relative is now chauffeuring everybody around).  Also one of his two much younger brothers (his brothers are the same age as his oldest daughters) has been jailed for possession of stolen materials.

Focusing a bit on that third kid– he graduated from high school last year and the plan was to take the year off working (he’s washing dishes at a restaurant) and then spend the next year at community college.  Community college is about an hour away, so he would have to be driven.  He’s really depressed that he will never be able to drive and it’s not clear that he’s actually going to do community college next year, or ever.  He’s smart and has the grades and GPA to go to the flagship school or one of the closer regionals.  The flagship’s admission deadline has come and gone and the closer regionals have passed their priority deadlines but still have rolling admissions.  Over break, he and DH talked about careers and DH tried to convince him to just fill out one of the two page regional applications for either of the closest schools (while DH was there to pay the $40 admission fee), but no luck.

And the thing is, this kid has never been anywhere with public transportation (or even taxis!).  He has no idea what it’s like to be someplace where you can take yourself where you need to go without having to depend on the kindness of someone else to drive you.  It would be best for him to skip community college and to just go straight to a 4 year college with an extensive bus system and counselors.   He should be eligible for plenty of need-based financial aid and what’s left we can pay.  But… he doesn’t know that’s best.  He doesn’t know what is best and his parents don’t have 4-year college degrees (his mom never finished high school) and his dad has been on his own since 16, so they’re letting him do what he wants since he’s officially an adult.

Growing up I knew I wanted to be upper-middle-class because I knew people whose parents were upper-middle-class and I had an aunt and uncle who were judges, and I thought, I want that.  I want to not have to worry about money and to have the temperature always set to something comfortable.  DH never had those thoughts, but his parents were doing pretty well compared to everyone else in his family, and at boarding school he learned a lot about what all was out there.  And his mother had a wide variety of experiences growing up and she told me this most recent trip that she always thought it important to make sure her kids saw places outside the small town, so they went to camps (or in DH’s case, boarding school) and visited relatives (from her side of the family) up north and so on.  She also took them to get professional career testing before college and told them not going was not an option (for DH she also controlled where he was allowed to apply), just as her father had told her that not going to college was not an option.

Going back to DH’s family’s place at Christmas does tend to make one feel #blessed because it reminds us how well we’re doing and how well DH’s immediate family is doing.  It also forces the comparison of how hard it is for so much of America to get ahead outside of our highly educated McMansion-owning bubble.  DH’s relative is plenty smart, but his life diverged dramatically from DH’s at 16 when he got married and left home and had two kids.  But there were also a lot of factors that led up to that point and after– his parents also had two kids by age 18.  Our kids’ lives will diverge even more dramatically.  His kids are not our kids, and we don’t know how to help, or if we even can help.   So, we will continue to feel #blessed and to keep things in perspective while doing what we can to make it easier for poor kids more generally to get ahead.  We have our oxygen masks on, but there are still a lot of people out there who need assistance with theirs, and even more who don’t have access to oxygen masks at all.

36 Responses to “On knowing what’s out there: loosely connected thoughts from vacation with the relatives”

  1. Long time reader Says:

    It may be a good idea never to loose your pseudo anonymity. Your analysis of DH’s relative would make them feel terrible and cause them more pain and depression than they are already experiencing

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      You think so? Even if people who know I am, it’s unlikely they’d make the connection to a distant relative of my husband’s in another state. Secondly, none of this is stuff they haven’t heard/said themselves. Plus it’s all on their facebooks for anybody to see.

  2. Cloud Says:

    If only your relative’s kid had a friend who would also go to the regional university. I imagine the thought of moving on his own to a new place is intimidating, and that is part of why he isn’t interested in doing it. But how hard and frustrating that would be to watch as a close bystander!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      He HAS friends going to the flagship next year (and his grades/testscores would enable him to get in) but he didn’t apply in time. He’s been out of school for almost a year now. He must know people going to the regionals too because that’s where kids go if they don’t go to the flagship or community college, but I guess not his friends. (Ditto there must be people to carpool with to one of the two community colleges, but his friends either seem to be doing flagship or no additional school.)

      • Kelly-Ann Says:

        He could write them a letter explaining his circumstances and see if they’d let him into flagship anyway. Not the same as my circumstances, but I applied to my university months after the admission deadline and just said “Hey! Found out my parents are moving to the state you’re in, so I’d like to apply to go to you now.” and I had good grades so they let me in no problem.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        His scores are probably not enough to merit that. :/

  3. becca Says:

    I feel for the legally blind issue. My Mom always had terrible eyesight and the lengths she had to go to to keep vision as she aged were striking (eye injections with VEGF inhibitors, mostly. But there was cataract surgery and other things in there.)

    This is honestly the biggest reason I am hoping we get the robot car thing happening FAST. Naturally, I want solid public transit infrastructure too, but the tale of two countries thing we’ve got going on is only going to get worse, and people in more rural areas deserve options. People with disabilities or just disadvantages deserve options too.

    Could offspring the third come to visit with you guys for a few weeks or month and visit your college a bit? My nephew came out over winter break. We didn’t get all the Big Conversations we were thinking of while he was here, but it was still well worth doing.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I wish we’d done that when the oldest girls were younger, especially when we were visiting a nice city. But we didn’t have money and the choice was to buy plane tickets or put it in their 529s but not both. I think we made the wrong decision. :/

      DH and I talked about having #3 out, but DH doesn’t see any upside from it. (Plus, our college is a flagship state school and pretty different from the regionals he’d be applying to, though it does have some similarities to the flagship in their state.) DH did have a couple Big Conversations with him over break.

      Agreed on the autonomous cars and public transit!

      • becca Says:

        Oh another thought- if the third is really set on community college, see if it has an honors program and if you can get in touch with the prof who heads it for advice to pass on and/or just having someone who is willing to take a little time to make a connection.
        I think the difference between my CC being “ok, but perhaps a bit weak/uninspiring for some of the academic dimensions” and “phenomenal” was getting involved with the honor’s program and the forensics team.
        Ze would still have to find people to carpool with, but there are ways that too could be a prosocial thing (be sure to send hir gas gift cards if it’ll help- if ze is always the one with the gas money, then even if ze cannot drive it’s not as much like depending on kindness).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        One of the “local” CC does and the other one doesn’t. That’s a good idea, especially since his latest plan is to transfer to the state flagship. (Though it isn’t clear if these plans are real plans or just delaying, since they keep changing each time he gets pushed to implement his current plan. Hopefully real plans.)

  4. SP Says:

    :/ I’m not really sure what to say, but I did find this post interesting.

    It hurts to see people you love be unhappy. I have plenty of relatives that are working / lower middle class, but most are doing OK and enjoy their lives, at least at this moment. My cousin’s daughter just had her first baby at age 17/18, and she may be in for a tough life. But at this age it is still possible that things will turn out well for her. I really hope they do, but it is a huge turning point.

    My only nieces and nephews all have good parents and stable lives and will have lots of opportunities, which is really fortunate.

    • SP Says:

      Also, this makes me think of all the adults in my life who helped influence my trajectory – namely my “rich” aunt (probably just upper middle class) who showed me what having money was like, my cousin that studied abroad before i did and her uncle telling me how good that was, my friend’s parents who helped direct me a bit in my college choices (my parents were encouraging but not knowledgable), and my science teacher who encouraged engineering. Also my parent paid for a lot of stuff and were very supportive/encouraging, they just don’t quite have the social capital / knowledge that I can clearly see in the world I inhabit now. Under some definitions, my husband and I both qualify as first gen college students (no 4 year degrees for our parents/grandparents), but we had visibility to more of the world. I didn’t know anyone going to top tier universities – that just wasn’t a thing, I still can’t think of anyone from home that went anywhere elite. But going to college was absolutely the norm.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, a lot of my money/class ambition came from going to my “rich” aunt and uncle’s (government lawyers) at Christmas a few years in a row when I was a child. Also some from watching the Keatons on Family Ties!

        Social capital/knowledge makes it so much easier to get ahead. (I got really lucky by going to that boarding school with the school counselor who said, “have you considered these colleges?” including the one I ended up going to– last night I dreamed we tried to find a Fisk Guide to Colleges for DC1…)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We feel pretty helpless. And they do have good parents, but with low income and health problems (and that lack of knowledge about navigating higher education that you mentioned in your other comment) there’s a lot of stress.

      • SP Says:

        Yeah, “good” was not a precise or correct/useful word choice. They have parents that can give them the knowledge and social capital that will be useful, with sufficient financial resources. I don’t think I can add that much there, which is lucky for them.

  5. Linda Says:

    It must be very hard to see someone with talent not get to use it. Is there any way to arrange a trip for him to a bigger town or city with public transit so he can experience what it is like? Maybe just a weekend getaway for him and his mom or dad. Or if any member of your immediate family had the opportunity to take him along on a short trip or vacation, perhaps?

    It’s great that you can point to specific people who served as role models for you. My sister and I both became upper middle class, white collar professionals despite being raised in a blue collar household. Of our most immediate family (cousins) and neighbors, I can think of only two out of 20 or so who also earned a college degree and became white collar professionals. I have tried to pinpoint people or experiences that encouraged me to go to college and become successful, and it’s challenging. The only thing that comes to mind is that I was always a voracious reader and was exposed to different ideas through reading from a very early age. Sister’s path was more circuitous than mine since she earned her degree after being married and having one kid.

    Sometimes I think it would be great if there was a TV program that profiled diverse families and people and focused on their lives (without manufactured drama) and how they have become successful. Since people may have different ideas of success, defining what it means for each person could be part of the show. That would be so much better than 99% of the crappy “reality” TV, and may encourage people who don’t get to see this in their families and immediate communities.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We can’t really ask any of DH’s immediate family to do that.

      We convinced the relative to take his two oldest to a college day at one of the regional schools a few years back… but they had been there literally 10 min when they had to drive right back because of a health emergency with one of their step-mom’s family members and then they didn’t make it to another college fair after that. I often wonder if one or both of them would have ended up at college if they’d actually made it to the full info day. They were so excited, and then it didn’t work out. It often feels like anything we suggest ends up backfiring (sending the oldest to summer camp ended up in extreme home sickness, and I think also her losing some of her confidence in her artistic ability), so we’ve been interfering less.

  6. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    I empathize with DH’s relative. That’s not an unusual situation in our family. One of my aunts had three kids, raised them on her own, and they’re all married with kids and doing relatively well. Her younger sister married with four kids but their family was fractured by the way, they lost one to drug related suicide, the other to mental illness, and the remaining two are selfish jerks who only take take take. I’m frankly shocked when I hear any of their grandkids are doing well at all, but I’m glad that anyone in the next generation seems to be making progress.

    Like Cloud, I wish your relative’s third had friends who had higher aspirations so that he wouldn’t feel like it was impossible to navigate the world of higher education on his own, especially now that he’s got to contend with learning how to be independent with a disability on top of that.

    Even with my family in shambles, I still do feel like we’re lucky / blessed. I didn’t know I wanted to be UMC but I worked with lots of blue collar folks and I knew for sure I wanted to be wealthier and more stable than I could see that their families were. It made a difference that even with my health problems, I was able to navigate and work independently.

  7. Linda Says:

    Adding another note here on the visual disability issue: it’s important for him to learn that he’s not doomed to a life of limited opportunities because of the being legally blind. My ex-husband has a visual disability and was legally blind until he was about 19. By then surgical interventions had improved enough that he was able to get good enough sight in one eye (with additional corrective aids) that he could complete his undergrad degree and get a white collar, professional job. He eventually got an advanced degree, as well. He never learned to drive, but since he lived in a city with public transit and taxis he got around just fine. He also had a rich social life, dated, married, etc. all with limited vision. That young man really needs to see what kind of life he could be living if he just took the leap to a different community. I hope he does.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I also know at least two (married with child) professors with very limited eyesight.

      My MIL says the state has a lot of programs to help the legally blind with schooling and employment, but that kid #3 doesn’t want to take advantage of them (possibly because he’s still a teenager and is still struggling with accepting the diagnosis). There was a lot of, “He’s a teenager, you know how they get” from everyone over break.

      • Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

        Losing your sight is incredibly hard for anyone at any age! “He’s a teenager, you know they get” seems pretty dismissive of a hard life change. I wouldn’t deal well with that at all. But I have at least three friends or acquaintances who are legally or completely blind and lead fulfilling lives, I wish there was some way to share some of that community with him.

      • Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

        I should say I don’t know if they meant to be dismissive. It just feels like it is less understanding of a really tough situation. I spent at least ten years in denial of my health issues, though some of that was compounded by not having any diagnosis.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, I don’t know. All I have are 2nd and 3rd hand reports. Generally this comment is in response to him pushing doing things off, or getting upset at being pushed to do things or questioned about things or having vague plans to become rich and famous without thinking about the hard work to get to that point (Step 1: Decide to be a writer, Step 2: Profit). Kid #2 would also behave a lot the same way for some things and she’s only got a regular glasses prescription.

  8. Kingston Says:

    I think it *would* be worth it to let third kid visit you, even just for a few days (assuming he never has in the past, or not on his own). Exposure to other family systems and other places can be so eye-opening and more importantly, so confidence-building. My partner’s fearful son visited an aunt’s family in a distant state this summer. Something about venturing out on his own like that for just for a little more than a week, even to a totally safe and not even particularly interesting destination, made him aware that he was a person who could handle some adult stuff (like solo air travel) and the that the big world would not eat him alive. I am SOOOOOO happy that he has enrolled in two community college classes for the coming semester! This is a school-phobic kid (badly homeschooled as a child) so it is a huge development.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Maybe. We don’t live on a bus line and there’s nothing to walk to except a Catholic church and our cars don’t fit 5 people with 2 car/booster seats very comfortably. (And you’re right that this is not a particularly interesting destination.) If we were still in Paradise… (but we had no space to host anybody in Paradise). I don’t know. I’m worried that we’ll do something that will just make everything worse if we try to interfere.

      • becca Says:

        My father believed that the apprentice system of yesteryear stemmed from a cultural recognition that in order to develop from adolescent to adult, your family of origin was a hindrance*. Essentially, regardless of the *merits* of that family of origin, just getting out of it and seeing how other families do things is beneficial. I still believe that adolescents are typically at their most charming with adults other than their parental figures. If you did nothing but enjoy third’s company and report back they’ve got a good kid and if ze gets hir ducks in a row for goal directed behavior you’re sure ze will go places, it could do a lot of good.

        *Of course, my grandfather pulled the phone out of the wall in frustration at the teenager monopolizing the line (back when phone calls cost money), with 4 out of the 5 kids. By the last one, either they were making phones stronger or my grandfather was weaker, because he couldn’t rip it out. My Dad thus gave me the gift of expecting my adolescence to be nightmarish. Thus, when it was “only” moderately rocky he thought I was a great kid.

      • chacha1 Says:

        I suspect the apprentice system more likely grew out of the need for skilled workers + the inability of every skilled worker to breed hir replacement. And the inability of every other worker to employ all of hir offspring in hir own work. And the occasional disinclination of a given child to hoe the same row as hir parent’s. In the days of apprentices, people saw different kinds of work being doing, up close, in a way I think we don’t now. I never saw an electrician at work until I was well into my 20s, just as an example – though I did see my Dad doing DIY, that wasn’t his job, IYKWIM.

  9. Kingston Says:

    I think for the kid it’s just something about seeing that the sky doesn’t fall if you do something a bit bold. My partner’s son went to a remote town in Mississippi. They went to a couple local BBQ and seafood places and to a water park and some similar activities. I’m sure it wasn’t the most thrilling experience every minute but it still seemed to shake partner’s son out of his inertia. YMMV, of course!

  10. First Gen American Says:

    I still often wonder how people like me got out of poverty while others could not. I definitely think it helped having known well off people. My best friend growing up was “rich”. I went to a catholic school and was able to meet that family in the first place. I saw it was possible to start with nothing and end up well off. If I went to the really bad public school in my district I would have never met someone in the upper middle class. I was one of the poorest kids in my school but not the poorest in my neighborhood as we owned our apartment in the slum while most of the kids around me were renting and on welfare.

    But your relatives have you…so why wasn’t this enough exposure? I wish I knew why for some kids just the exposure to the “haves” is enough to try to dig your way out and for others it’s not. What triggers/hinders that drive to succeed? It’s a million dollar question indeed. I have spent many hours pondering it myself Because my psychology major college friend would repeatedly point out that I was an oddity and outlier and should be way more messed up than I am
    given my background.

    There is no harm in continuing to be a good mentor and telling him what is possible in life. Hope is the most important ingredient in all of this. If you can see an achievable path, then that’s 1/2 the battle.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Possibly because we weren’t well off or old enough to help until too late. We were still in high school or middle school when the two oldest were born and it takes a long time to get through graduate school.

  11. CG Says:

    Ugh. I hear you about worrying that helping will backfire, though. We tried to help some close relatives who live paycheck to paycheck when they needed a new car. They traded in the very nice 2-year-old car we gave them (and didn’t get a good price for it) for a different, more expensive car and now they have a car payment. We were horrified. And now we think we should just stay out of their financial business even though the disparity between what they have and what we have is shockingly large and we could afford to help them much more than we do. But they make terrible decisions and I don’t want to feel like I am invested in those decisions.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      In our case I think some of it is us not understanding the context. I have a first gen mindset which is different than generations of rural living and teen births and really just don’t understand so much. So when I think things may help they just cause more stress.

      Not to say that they haven’t made bad financial decisions—but they have learned from them. There’s just only so much you can do with bad health and low income and so on. We spend more than he makes in a year, feeding fewer mouths, so who are we to judge.

    • Leah Says:

      I’m there with some family members. I gave them cash to do some enrichment with their little kids (think things like dance classes, soccer, etc). It was definitely enough for an entire session for each of their kids and then some.

      Never classes, never reported what they did with the money. They smoke too. I’m pretty much done helping them with anything unless I can directly help the kids. Right now, that’s limited to stuff like me buying the kids ice cream or taking them out somewhere when we’re all together. It’s really frustrating because I’d like to do more, but I’m not willing to support their bad habits. So I save instead for my kids and wish I could help but don’t know how (and this goes for lots of families in my own town too — no idea how to help anyone here, and they won’t ask for help or even take the help that is available).

      This seems to be a huge issue. If we knew how to solve it, we’d likely make our country actually great.

      • First Gen American Says:

        My solution to helping these types of kids is I am on the board and contribute to a small science nonprofit that does science based after school programs for at risk kids. (They do other stuff too but this addresses your specific question). They also provide paid jobs for low income teens to mentor the low income grammar school kids during these sessions. It’s a triple whammy…free safe enrichment time outside of the house, money for the older kids, resume material, relatable peers/mentors, nutritious snacks, and fun science learning all rolled up in a nice neat package. Of course it all goes to nothing if public and private funds dry up. When packaged like this, it doesn’t feel as much like a handout…but the schools must also help because these parents don’t have cars so unless extra buses are funded, it doesn’t work.

        Perhaps there is an organization in your community that is doing similar outreach work.

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