As far as material items, neither of my parents left me anything that didn’t have some kind of string attached. Anything that was passed down to me from my mother I either took over payments on, sold to cover back payments or abandoned to avoid payments. My father, whom I did not know, left me his lucky coin. When he passed, his new wife contacted me and said, “I don’t care if you are his firstborn, you aren’t getting anything except this old-ass coin he wanted you to have. If he really wanted you to have anything, he would have stayed with you.”
This conversation echoed through the years until I had my own child. When my daughter was born, it grew from an echo to a loud roar. And this roar grew into persistent questions: What would I leave my daughter? When I go, will she better or worse off?
I teach, work at nonprofits and do contract work, so my money fluctuates. I have a base salary, but depending on the freelance gigs, the cash can be supernice or just regular. I hate to admit this, but my plan of making sure my daughter has a quarter million in the bank by the time she’s 21 is not going to happen. I still have 14 years to try, but … nah. I no longer work in tech, so that goal is out of reach. She’ll have a savings, but not what I thought she would have.
But the questions remain: What of me (or from me) will she have when I’m gone? Will her life be better or worse after I die? Morbid? Yes. Necessary to think about? Absolutely.
I was speaking with a good friend of mine, talking about the ideas of legacy and heredity, and we began to catalog the immaterial things we received from our families. Whether these things were taught to us or we absorbed them through proximity, they were a part of us and we were influenced by them. I was amazed at how many of my undesirable traits were passed down from my mother and absent father, while most of the things I like about myself and the things that others like about me come from my maternal grandparents.
Lessons from my mother and my father (in absentia): Always play the game on your terms. Never compromise or concede. People always want to hurt you, so you need to hurt them first so they won’t eff with you. Lessons from my grandparents: Always respect the working man, no matter his job. Even if you’re by yourself, your culture is always with you. Always give to those who don’t have what you have. Even a little helps.
Yeah. It was a very confusing way to grow up. And I’m sure my daughter is feeling confused in her own way.
My wife and I have different parenting styles that aren’t always complementary. Though my wife has the here and now covered, I always have one foot in the future. So agreeing on the type of legacy we want to leave to our baby can be a point of contention. What we can agree on is that we want her to be a better person than her parents. Agreeing on what we need to do to make that happen is always a debate.
I firmly believe that the primary job of a parent is to make the way smoother for the children; to teach and guide them so they don’t have to encounter the bumps and barriers you did; to clear the way for them so they can focus on becoming their best possible selves. This smoothing of the way is usually equated with providing them with more material items or access to resources than you may (or may not) have had access to in your own youth. But what of the immaterial—the values and morals, the cultural appreciation and other things that make us good people?
In the beginning, we tried very hard to “instill” certain values. Even at our daughter’s young age, she engaged in small rebellions against the things she didn’t agree with. To not give her some guidance would be poor parenting. So the compromise is that we are kind of like buffets. She’ll take what she wants from us and will leave the rest. In this relationship, our only job is to ensure everything we make available to her is healthy, nourishing and will serve her for the rest of her (hopefully) long life.
Our legacy for our daughter is that of her being able to find and make her own way in the world, with us guiding her into her future, not dictating it for her. And to make sure she has a little dough in the bank.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.