Post by Jamiere N. Abney, ED.M.
What this is not about
Let me first explain my intentions here. I’m writing this from a place of vulnerability and care, not in criticism of my upbringing. Nor am I singing a woe is me song through this narrative, but trying to provide context for those who work with, are partners of, or support individuals who identify with similar circumstances as those that I come from and expound upon here.
My family, specifically my mother
I can’t say enough that I would not be an ounce the person that I am without the example, strength, and unconditional love/support of my mother. Additionally, while my family is NOT perfect (and I’d guess neither is yours) – I also realize the sacrifices extended throughout my community to allow me to see and do some of the things I would never have dreamed as a young boy from Albemarle, NC. My family IS MY STRENGTH, my North Star guiding me in this journey. I do not bemoan my role as a family leader, but I do recognize how unique it is as a young adult as compared to others.
A few years ago I was chatting with a friend and I used this phrase, “I’m like the CEO and CFO of my family unit.” We were both lamenting on-going family issues, but at this moment the friend paused and gave me a look (like are you serious). I went on to try to explain as best I could…
In all families there is someone who everyone calls. Someone who is the fixer when s***t goes down. Think Olivia Pope in Scandal.
Not to say that we’re solving crises that ensure the nation remains safe, but you get my point.
My friend continued to stare at me blankly. I immediately realized for as wonderful, perceptive, and open-minded this person was – they had absolutely no idea what I meant, or the level of responsibility I’m alluding to. I’m not totally sure how I got here, but I’ve worked hard to uphold my role throughout the years.
For many others like myself – identifying as the first in their family to earn a 4-year college degree and being from a traditionally under-served ethnic/racial background, this reality is nothing new. Many of us have gone off to college with the added pressure of worrying about the fate of family back home or knowing we have to “make it” so we can give back to our community. In fact, Forbes highlights the difference in opportunity, awareness, and achievement in relation to first generation students and their peers whose family has a history of college degree attainment. Put simply – For first generation students, especially those who are also from low-income backgrounds, there is no safety net. I’ve definitely internalized this fact, often thinking to myself that I’m my own Plan A, B, and C because again my family depends on me.
So how did we get here…
I remember during my undergrad years my mom and I having one of many very serious heart-to-heart conversations. In this particular one she turned a bit morbid. She looked me in the eyes, all 19-20 years old that I was, and said if something happens to me I want you to make sure to take care of her. She then went on to explain where she keeps all her important papers (i.e. insurance policy information and such).
My sister is 9 years my junior and I remember when she was born caring for her half as a big brother and half as a parental figure. I changed morning diapers, made bottles, put her to sleep – ya know the whole 9 yards. I love her to death and would do anything to protect her. Yet, I wondered a minute what about our father? The person who is supposed to take on the lion’s share if my mom isn’t able to. Especially given her role caring for myself, my younger brother, our sister, and two elderly grandparents (both who had since passed) throughout her own adult life.
I of course said yes. I had spent the bulk of my childhood and now young adult life, as the oldest of three working to be less of a burden and more of a support for my single mother. However, it’s also meant bearing the brunt of responsibility in unique ways. My recognition of this and how I came to the “CEO theory” has really come into focus in the last few years as I’ve grown with my partner, and now fiance of almost 5 years.
What I’ve come to realize, or maybe always knew but never had to explain, is for those like me the family dynamic is a bit turned upside down. For my fiance and her family, there is much more of a traditional hierarchy. The parents, specifically her father, are in charge and the kids are in their place as kids. Even now as they all are adult children, I’m amazed at the lack of openness about things like family finances.
I’ve known we were broke and that my mom was doing her best to piece it together my entire life. Not only that, I made sure I didn’t ask for too much so I didn’t add to my mom’s already over-flowing cup. Not to say my mom wasn’t and isn’t still “The Boss.” She’ll go toe-to-toe with anyone. Yet, I’ve always had a little more status and ability to engage in what the old black folks might call “grow folks business,” because I was the best advocate available. In fact, I’ve always relished knowing my mom can trust me unconditionally – even in some of our lowest moments as a family.
Why does any of this matter?
There may be someone in your life, who you don’t understand their choices and the weight that they carry. Especially when it comes to family. Why can’t they just write off that sibling or relative who seems to be a constant f**k up? Why do they seem to always need to be there to pick up the pieces?
This is what we do as young people thrust into these larger roles at a young age. I feel it is my absolute duty to protect my younger siblings and to ensure that my mother can age well and rest at some point. My grandmother, who eventually succumbed to lupus, worked for as long as I can recall. She was the backbone of our unit and it may have literally killed her. I don’t want that from my mother who has given so much to me and to others. She deserves so much more.
Not only that, but I wish for a future where my children don’t feel trapped to have to pick up the pieces and carry the load. That they have the examples and the opportunities ahead of them to know they belong and to be proud of our family name. I know I sure am.
I carry the surname of my mother and my grandmother. I wish my father, who has grown so much over my life into a better man and father to my sister no ill will. However, I am glad I don’t carry his legacy. I carry the name and the power of two absolute Queens. Women whose work ethic, will, encouragement, and tough love made me into a better man when there was none around to show me the way.
I hope to step into those mighty large shoes as family CEO/CFO and thrive. If I’m able to do that, I’ll be the first man of our name to do so successfully.
See Jamiere's original post here.
For more on Jamiere, check out his blog here.