On March 2nd, 2020, I achieved what many first-generation, low-income college graduates consider a marker of adulthood: I paid off my student loans. I live well within my means, I paid my car off two months prior, and I still have eight months of emergency funds stashed away. With my own debts out of the way, I spent the next day looking for financial planners and ran the numbers to see how quickly we could destroy my wife’s student loans.
On March 4th, my mother called. She asked if I could watch my baby sisters, aged 9 and 10, while she went to the emergency room. After some cajoling, Mom begrudgingly admitted she had been unwell for the last six days, currently believed she was experiencing a heart attack, and wanted someone to be with the girls until their father, my stepfather, returned home.
I’m fortunate enough to have an employer who offers sick leave and lets me set my own schedule, so I was able to leave work and take my sisters to my apartment. I spent the rest of the day making phone calls to my siblings, stepfather, and wife while cooking supper for my sisters and ensuring they completed their homework. Between calls, dinner, and homework checks, I turned worst-case scenarios around in my mind: If mom dies, how is my stepdad going to work as a construction worker and take care of the girls? If something happened to my stepdad, what would happen to my mom’s health insurance? If I moved for new work opportunities, how would I be able to help my family in future crises?
That evening, I realized that in my thirty years of existence, my family has never discussed our finances except in terms of our atomized experiences. All discourse around money, risk, and future planning started and ended in my early teenage years: Work hard, keep an “oh shit” fund, don’t buy frivolous things, learn a skill, and make yourself valuable to someone else. If a calamity strikes my family — an ever-increasing probability given that our greatest asset is being able-bodied enough to labor, and health is a depreciating asset — there is no budget or savings to address the subsequent need.
My family has no language to discuss the inevitable declining health and increasing needs of our parents, and while my adult siblings and I all want to do something for our mom and baby sisters, we have no shared belief regarding how best to marshall our resources to support them.
My family situation is not unique, though. I am part of a nationwide cohort of 30-something Millennials in the United States who come from working-class backgrounds and face the prospect of subsidizing their ailing relatives’ costs of living while contending with ever-increasing rent, stagnant wages, and predatory financial practices around medical costs. There is no path forward that will not require complicated conversations with our families. I wanted to share some of the ways I approach these difficult conversations for other Millennials facing comparable circumstances.
Step One: Suspend judgment, ask, listen, then ask again.
After my parents divorced, my now-adult siblings and I learned that money and finances were something we were too young to understand. It caused friction that terminated our parents’ marriage, and it was the reason we had to endure our mother’s alcoholic boyfriend. We knew we were supposed to eventually have financial lives, but our teenaged conversations around money were laced with fear and shame.
As adults in our late 20s and early-to-mid 30s, my siblings and I have developed a wealth of knowledge about dealing with both money and life as individuals. We never learned to talk about how to pool our resources to address family-wide issues, though. I wanted to help my mom, stepdad, and baby sisters, but I knew I had to involve my siblings to create a sustainable solution. We needed to get on the same page. To do that, I had to better understand how the rest of my siblings felt about everything ranging from their financial wellbeing to our mother’s health to how they felt about one another and me.
The first step was to build trust individually. Through phone calls or home visits, I spent time asking each of my siblings about their thoughts, worries, and hopes regarding our mom, stepdad, and little sisters. I approached each conversation with a twofold purpose: to gather a fuller picture of how my siblings understood our family as a unit and to reaffirm the value of open, objective dialogue around difficult subjects. At the end of every conversation, I asked if I could share what each sibling said, if the others were curious.
After the first round of communication, I reviewed what each sibling expressed and made note of our common concerns, hopes, and desired outcomes. From there, I reached out again and shared points of mutual concern and desired outcomes, and asked if they would be interested in meeting as a group to discuss how we could approach our parents about our shared concerns.
When we finally had the occasion to meet as a group and talk, I reiterated our common goals for our family and asked what they thought might be the best way to talk with our mother and stepfather.
Step Two: Collaborate.
The above narrative simplifies those individual and group conversations. Even as we move forward with planning, there are worries and doubts. Some of my siblings remain skeptical that opening a dialogue with our parents will amount to anything. They’ve also expressed discomfort at the idea of a potential confrontation. Regardless of our individual concerns, however, we have agreed that the stakes are too high to favor inaction.
To rally my siblings to a common understanding of the problem, I made minimal direct attempts to disprove their existing beliefs. I suspended any impulse to counter or judge what seemed like faulty conclusions about the state of our family. “Help me understand,” or, “why do you think that is?” became my go-to phrases. I would repeat back their positions to validate their communication.
Only after the first round of conversation did I attempt to share my own perspective. When they agreed to hear it, I shared what my wife said the evening of March 4th, after my stepfather picked up my baby sisters.
While packing away pencils and putting away macaroni and cheese, my wife and I discussed how unprepared we felt for future familial calamities. In the midst of our worrying, my wife clarified what was at stake in a way that helped move me from contemplation to action: We were already spending hours every week worrying about our parents, why couldn’t we spend that same time and effort to act on our concerns instead of waiting for a new problem to strike?
By taking time to learn what my adult siblings felt before I made an attempt to persuade or organize them, I found that we were all ruminating on our parents’ future wellbeing and dreading a worst-case scenario where we became financially responsible for the wellbeing of our elder relatives and baby sisters. Each of their individual relationships with our mother and stepfather were marked by conversations that left them worried for the future.
When my siblings and I met as a group, I used my wife’s observation as the case for organizing ourselves to talk to our parents. They were hesitant but agreed to move forward.
Step Three: Communicate, organize, plan, repeat.
Especially in retrospect, collective action seems like an obvious solution to the problem of our parents’ deteriorating health and financial security. But organizing any group of people, whether it’s your family, friends, or coworkers, can be difficult when so much of our day-to-day narratives around health and financial wellbeing emphasize individual accountability and privacy without acknowledging the fact that the wellbeing of our loved ones is integral to our individual experiences.
To be sure, we’re still working out how to work together. Building trust takes time, and building meaningful communication requires a lot of cyclical work: talking, processing, checking in, talking, processing, over and over. Likewise, creating time slots for all involved parties to meet and talk has become more difficult, as we’ve expanded to include our stepfather and — hopefully soon — our mom. Balancing my personal goals, professional life, and the need for exercise and relaxation has become more complex. But I’m adapting. It’s easier knowing that my concerns for my loved ones and desire to act are shared experiences, and I can turn that concern into direct action with the help of my family.
The Covid-19 pandemic has delayed the next steps in our primary cooperative effort — speaking with our mom as a group and finding out her thoughts, worries, and hopes regarding our families’ health and finances — but my siblings and I have continued to discuss how we can improve our family’s wellbeing. When my wife’s family and mine began losing work because of Covid-19, we followed these three steps to figure out one way we could alleviate the financial impact of coronavirus on our parents. Certainly, there is hard work ahead of us. But I expect these steps to rally my family will come in handy during that time.
Jacob Gillam lives somewhere between a highway and a corn field in Ohio. By day, he works for an educational outreach program serving low income, first generation youth. When he’s not working, he’s writing, lifting, cooking, and more recently learning how to farm. Follow him at on Twitter.
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