Parents, Jobs, and Death
Parents, Jobs, and Death

I quit my full time job last June and I never would have done that if my parents were alive. It’s a strange thing to admit but it’s true. There are different kinds of safety nets. They can be financial but they can also be mental. My parents’ approval was a safety net for me, probably for far longer than it should have been. I guess I just needed to know that they were in my corner. For whatever reason, quitting a job was the one thing that they simply could not condone.

I think parents are inherently concerned with stability. You don’t buy a minivan and work a job with great dental insurance for the adventure. Parents want the world for their children. But above love, health, and happiness, the most important thing is safety. Nothing scared my parents more on my behalf than me not having a steady income.

My parents’ upbringing was poorer than mine and much harder. I gather the difficulty not from what they told me but the opposite, that they rarely talked about their childhoods. Both of them fatherless, both of them stuck in industrial towns, both of them escaping to go on and earn advanced degrees.

Now it’s very American to talk about how hard you had it and how hard you worked to get where you are now. But my parents were the last people I would expect to inflate their origin stories. They had their challenges and they weren’t afraid of work but they weren’t clawing their way up from the bottom, either. My father came to this country to go to grad school at Cornell. My mother’s masters was in theater arts and, frankly, she spent enough money on wine and cigarettes in her life to send several disadvantaged youths to college. So, I’m not trying to sell you the Horatio Alger angle on my parents. I am, however, saying that these are not people who were raised to ask for more and, for whatever reason, felt that disaster was always just around the corner.

My upbringing was, in the words of George Orwell, lower upper middle class. We had nice things, it’s just that the nice things we had were deliberately and thoughtfully chosen and used until they could not be used anymore. At all. A knob on a tv falls off? We don’t need a new television, use these pliers to change the channel. The gas gauge on the car is broken? That costs a lot to fix. Reset the trip odometer when you fill the car up with gas then we’ll keep track of the miles. (A miscalculation of those miles found my mother and me stranded on the highway once but only once, not a bad system, all told.)

It’s not exactly using every part of the buffalo but it belies a thankfulness for the things you have. Sale racks. Coupons. The austerity of post WW2 England and the cruelty of Irish Catholicism. Keep your head down and, if it feels bad, you’re probably doing something right.

So, I was raised differently than my parents to put it mildly. My mother was slapped by nuns. My father was bombed by Nazis. I had tree lined streets, orange slices at soccer games, and ski club.

The comfortable nature of my upbringing meant that I grew up with the expectation that I would “do something” with my life, whatever the hell that means. This bred a lot of whining in the face of unsatisfactory jobs and whine I did. That’s where most of the arguments started.

I’ll quote Peter Gibbons from Office Space. “It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.” Looking back, I never complained about my paper route or my hardware store job or working in dining halls. It was only when I was asked to truly care about my company’s mission that I started to whine. I don’t consider myself entitled. I’ll work and I’ll get the job assigned to me done. I just won’t care because, frankly, it’s not important enough to warrant that emotional investment from me. Because there’s more to life! There are dreams! Goals! I should be thinking about my purpose! Right, Mom? Dad?

Not really, kiddo, no.

In his Oscar acceptance speech for Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams mentioned that his father had said to him, before embarking on a career in acting, that he should learn welding. My father didn’t see any irony in that. “That’s the way you do it,” he told me.

Another time, a startup at which I had been working was bought and bought again and I kept getting raises as my job responsibilities dwindled. Sounds ideal, right? It’s not. I went in every day with nothing to do. It was like a George Costanza plot line from Seinfeld and it was actually quite anxiety inducing. After suggesting that I quit, my mother practically spat into the phone, “sure, quit your job, then you’ll have nothing!”

Another time, during a similar conversation my father sighed and said, “well, where we went wrong was having you study engineering, you should have done something else.”

Where we went wrong.

While growing up in those tree lined streets, all I had to worry about was getting good grades. So, that is all I worried about. I never went out, never dated girls, never did drugs, never drank. I was obedient. I got straight A’s and into the Ivy League. And this, to my father, means “where we went wrong.”

I remember reading a quote somewhere, it said, “Be careful how you speak to your children, one day it will become their inner voice.” It’s from Peggy O’Mara who, apparently is the editor of Mothering magazine. I’ve never read her publication but she’s dead on. In my adult life I’ve always been so ultra cautious, living below my means and saving saving saving.

But there’s a spectrum, isn’t there? If I had a kid who said, “Dad, I want to write poetry for a traveling puppet show,” I don’t know what I’d tell him. Would I say, “where did we go wrong?” I don’t know. I think my parents and I disagreed on where I fell on the spectrum. I happen to think there’s a great divide between refusing to give up your dream of making hacky sack an Olympic event and refusing to cling for dear life to any developer position that comes along.

I think it was their deaths that made me feel okay about quitting. The safety net was removed entirely and that’s when I took the risk. I guess I realized that I’m going to follow them one day and can I really go my entire life without having the balls to quit one job? How many more years might pass of delayed (probably fictional) bonuses, self-reviews, and half-assed Secret Santas? Or maybe it was that, finally, I could no longer factor my parents’ approval into a decision. In any event, it was both one small step for me and one giant leap for me.

It’s been almost a year and I’m happy to report that there’s a lot more leeway in life than I previously thought. I haven’t lost it all. I’m not homeless. I don’t think I will be, either. There are some changes, though. I can’t save any money at the moment. I am burning through emergency savings. I need to say no to things out of concern for how much they might cost. My medical bills, without the backing of a company plan, are ridiculously high (yes, even with insurance). But I’m paying my bills on time, I’m not in debt, and I’m feeding and clothing myself. I’m a fortunate guy.

I had a therapist that said that living my best life would honor my parents. It’s a little new-age self helpy but my therapist said it, so what do you want?

My mother wanted to be an actress. She was a blurry extra in a film once but when it came time to really give it a shot, she never went to New York to face the possibility of rejection. Maybe it was her own mother’s voice in her head. I’ll never know because I never asked.  My father wanted to be an independent businessman. He started his own one-man consulting company after he took a package from Kodak but I don’t think he ever felt supported enough in his efforts. The lack of belief from your loved ones really is a big obstacle.

The irony of my newfound disobedience is that I’m living the life that they would have wanted for themselves. I’m doing improv comedy in New York City and I’m freelancing as an independent web developer.

I do have another memory of talking with them about a job. It was my very first. I had been fired after only two months in New York and was facing an expensive lease and no income. I told them that I thought I should move back to Rochester. They both said no immediately. It’s funny, I think my father actually said, “no, you come back with your arms raised in victory.” (He really like Churchill.) The flipside of thinking “you never quit a job” is that, simply, you never quit.

That’s a hell of a lesson.

9 thoughts on “Parents, Jobs, and Death

  1. Really well written , Rob.

    I’m in L.A., also trying to travel the path of least misery, and also not quite breaking even. But I always remember some wise words from a man with whom I used to play softball:

    “What the fuck! Get your head in the game!”

    1. Haha, thanks, Barry! Good to hear from you. And was that me? Man, when I get into the zone, I can’t be held responsible for the words coming out of my mouth.

  2. Rob,
    Your inner voice speaks loud and clear, with passion and reason, from conviction and for a purpose. Not bad then, Mom and Dad. Between the lines, it feels you’ve had enviable role models. I seem to finish every column feeling a better man. Thanks, Rob.

  3. Wow. That’s very good. I too believe in this:-
    “Be careful how you speak to your children, one day it will become their inner voice.” For me, the damage has been done. I’m undoing it now and sometimes get mad at mum when we talk on the phone.

    Recently I quit my job and went on a sabbatical for 9 months. Doing meditation, leadership and motivational courses. Some freelance work… Just wondering whose dream am I living before. So much anger. So much guilt. So much emotions.

  4. Good article, Rob. I picked it up from Huffington Post. Imagine my surprise when I saw your name at the end. I knew your parents. My husband and your father were old friends from Cornell.

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