“You don’t get something for nothing” and “Nobody owes you anything” were lessons I learned from my father. When I was little, he used to sing me to sleep—or try, anyway. Completely tone-deaf, well into my teenage years he would get a twinkle in his eye and threaten to sing as we were driving with the windows down, knowing I’d be mortified if someone from school pulled up next to us. If he was actually trying to sing, he stuck to songs he could “speak-sing,” like the most awkward slam poetry imaginable. One of my earliest memories is of asking him to sing “ Sixteen Tons ,” a song made famous when Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 1955 version reached number one. It’s about a coal miner, and the chorus laments:
You load sixteen tons, what do you get Another day older and deeper in debt Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go I owe my soul to the company store
Not exactly “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” When I asked my dad what the company store was and why anyone would owe it their soul, he looked at me, his four-year-old daughter, clucked his tongue, and said, “Well, Kate, work sucks. And you have to do it even though you’d rather be doing anything else. So it’s like giving your soul to it.” I often asked for the “ busted flat ” song, too. When he got to my favorite part, I’d sit up and sing with him:
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose Nothin’, don’t mean nothin’ hon’ if it ain’t free, no no And, feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues You know, feelin’ good was good enough for me Good enough for me and my Bobby McGhee
While I didn’t think about it at the time because I was so young, it now seems strange that I didn’t develop a sense of fear imagining that adult life would be so dire. I didn’t know who Saint Peter was, and what four-year-old has a firm grasp on the concept of a soul? I didn’t realize the singer was saying he couldn’t go to heaven because of his hard-labor job. The weight of those words—and others my dad would say as I was growing up—wouldn’t sink in until I was an adult. All I knew at the time was that if my Pops could work hard and pull himself up out of poverty, I could, too.
I knew my dad had been dragging himself to work every day since he was thirteen or fourteen, when he had worked the first shift at a bakery before going to school. His parents were poor, first-generation immigrants, and all his income went to the family. To me, he would brush off his childhood labor as “no big deal.” It was practically the only real biographical anecdote he shared with me when I was a kid. Sure, there were a couple of other stories about his twenty-five-pound cat, One-Eyed Anthony, and the time Dad broke his nose playing baseball, but nothing that explained why we didn’t spend much time at my Grandma K’s house.
Once I got too old for bedtime stories, my dad and I stopped talking; we just sort of coexisted in the same house—unless there was an argument between my mother and me that he had to shut down. I only got the gist about his childhood by talking with my cousins and occasionally plying our mothers for information. I eventually learned that my dad’s mother was likely an undiagnosed schizophrenic whose own personal trauma would manifest during her hallucinations, while his father was a raging, violent alcoholic. A picture of my father the trauma survivor emerged as I learned more about his upbringing. That he was a functioning human at all seemed to me a great testament to his strength. Yes, he worked too much and was always stressed out, but who could blame him? He had overcome so much.
My dad and my two uncles had done well for themselves, especially considering their start in life: They each owned modest but comfortable homes, and we kids had more than our fathers could have dreamt of in their youth. No one in our family was rich, but we also never had to worry about being hungry. My dad’s oldest brother owned a series of grocery and video stores and the middle brother was a solid salesman who was never out of work. I knew we couldn’t afford vacations to Disney World like some of my schoolmates, but we made it to Cedar Point and the Wisconsin Dells during the summer. I never got the Nintendo I wanted for Christmas, but we had a computer before they were in every living room. I didn’t have everything I wanted, but we were comfortable—and my trust in my dad’s resourcefulness meant not worrying even when he was between jobs.
I grew up immersed in my family’s “American Dream” story. My dad’s life was duty-focused: He had to go to work; he had to handle his mother’s accelerating dementia; he had to do repairs around the house. A lot of importance was placed on doing well and self-sufficiency. My mom made me lists of chores starting when I was six or seven—all of which had to be done in a precise way, at a precise time. Fun and recreation had limits and were allowed only after responsibilities were handled. As a family, we watched evening infotainment segments on 20/20 and Dateline that glorified people like my dad, who had overcome adversity. I devoured books detailing real stories of folks who had been dealt the worst of circumstances and thrived through grit and determination.
I was primed to absorb the lessons of Americana about hard work being the ultimate virtue, and learned the same myths in our whitewashed history classes in school. I felt it in the pride that emanated from my parents when we were able to build a new house my sophomore year of high school. Achievement, survival after tragedy, was the theme hidden in a lot of the songs we sang in our house. It wasn’t until almost thirty years after those sunny summer days, when Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ ’Bout a Revolution” came on my Spotify, that I really heard the words:
Don’t you know They’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution It sounds like a whisper While they’re standing in the welfare lines Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation Wasting time in the unemployment lines Sitting around waiting for a promotion
Maybe I just created the memory of my dad singing those lyrics to himself, a heaviness weighing on his shoulders, but that’s still what I think of when I hear this song. Now, at thirty-seven, I also know what it’s like to need public assistance, to not get the promotion that could change everything. As a kid, I didn’t know what revolution was. I just liked the way Chapman said “whisper” and the timbre of her voice.
The older I got, the less my dad and I talked, and the more importance I placed on my achievement. I was determined to earn his love and approval through my own hard work. As early as seventh grade, I was obsessed with doing what I had to do to earn my way into a “better” life and live out the promise of my father’s legacy. I could see the pride in my father’s eyes as I continued to do well in school and craved more of that attention. In the praise and all the stories my mom shared about my dad choosing family and duty over other things he may have wanted for his life, I heard a clear charge to follow his example.
Having internalized the bootstrap myth, I knew my part: I was to be the first in the family to go to college and have a “professional” career. I graduated high school with a 4.3 GPA and a half-tuition scholarship to a great liberal arts school just two hours from home. I earned degrees in English and biology in four and a half years, all while working full-time. For a while, it really did seem as though I had made it.
If only I had anticipated Bush’s election, the recession, and the decline of print journalism as we knew it. By the time my student loans kicked in six months after graduation, I’d quit my $23,000/year local newspaper job to go back to retail because I could make more money. After spending a year on the service industry merry-go-round, I feared it would take an act of god to land a “professional” job again. I was twenty-three, and it was the first of many times I would feel as though I’d squandered all of my father’s hard work and stress, all his years of putting himself last. After all that he had sacrificed, I had not even been able to land and remain in a “good” job.
I couldn’t have known that I was among many in my age group to be caught up in a now-famous statistic: Those of us born from 1975 on are the first generation projected to do worse, financially, than our parents. I couldn’t have known how many of my peers would go on to get master’s degrees and then work low-wage jobs trying to pay back tens of thousands in student debt. Right then, in that moment, I felt like my life was already over. At my age, my dad had owned a home and was running a local grocery store; he would go on to weather every recession and downsizing, working “respectable” jobs for decent pay until his early retirement at sixty-three. After he retired, he would turn around and go back to work. What was wrong with me? I’d had every advantage, I had two degrees, and still I could barely handle my rent and gas money. So what if I didn’t get the job I wanted, or was sad and anxious most of the time? My dad had gone through worse.
I had never once heard my father complain about his childhood or the unfairness of having to work harder than many to earn less. I couldn’t stomach the thought that I was disappointing him every day. As I approached thirty with no good job prospects, my anxiety exploded. I was behind on everything from my Life To-Do List: I was spending half my income on rent for my one-bedroom condo full of hand-me-down furniture, my student debt was the only thing I had to show for my education, my meager savings had gone to car repairs, I had just ended my only long-term relationship since high school, and I was a dog-walking bartender.
Yet somehow I could still pass my life off as stable when one of my parents came to visit. On the last trip my dad made to see me in July of 2011, I saw a glimmer of the old pride in his eyes. I took him around to some of my favorite places in Chicago—Gibson’s for dinner, the zoo, and people watching on Division Street. I felt like we’d finally made good on the agreement we made on my eighteenth birthday, when I asked him if we could have “an adult-adult relationship” and he told me, “As long as you act like an adult.” Those words have since echoed in my mind, over and over. On that visit—our last before my mom would sever contact between us—I felt I had finally achieved enough stability to look in my father’s eyes and call myself an adult. I was proud of myself, and I hoped he would be, too.
I still didn’t know how I was going to build a career, but my dad’s visit inspired me to try. I researched grad schools and studied for the GRE. I discovered a nearby university had a public policy and government master’s program, which seemed like a good way to break into the full-time advocacy work I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to go back into straight journalism, and working for a nonprofit or government agency that made people’s lives better sounded like something meaningful I could commit my life to. But I didn’t get into the program I wanted, I lost a couple more jobs, and my income was cut in half. Next was the summer I lost three contracts in under a month, necessitating a cross-country move to crash with a friend.
I began to realize that the “American Dream” is a myth that works out for very few people. As I befriended more folks who had “done everything right” as I did, cracks began appearing in the foundation on which I had built my self-blame. Those who were managing to build lives that appeared to conform to the myth had been the (usually very grateful) beneficiaries of family resources. They weren’t set adrift the day they entered college; most were able to save money and live with their parents when necessary.
My first psychiatrist here in California after the move cemented the realization of how rarely bootstraps are enough. “You’re what we call ‘a ten outta ten,’” my soft-spoken doctor said, referring to my generalized anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders. “Frankly, I’m not really sure how you’ve been functioning up till now.”
“Not well. That’s why I’m here,” I said.
“Clearly, your IQ has helped along the way,” she said. “But at some point, you can’t outsmart your neurobiology.”
As I broke down in her office, I felt all the self-blame I’d harbored evaporate in waves. Rather than being a failure for not having achieved more, an expert was telling me it was a damn miracle I’d made it to thirty-five mostly in one piece. I knew I couldn’t call and share any of this with my father, but I wondered if he would believe it. Would my mental health diagnoses sound like excuses to him, or would he have compassion for me? Might he even be proud that I’ve survived despite everything working against me?
I have been living in a safe, supportive environment for almost two years now. An amazing woman saw my Twitter rant about poverty and the impossible climb out of it when I was an unpaid, eighty-hour-a-week live-in nanny for a former friend. She reached out and offered me a free place to live for a year; I now pay her rent. This past Christmas season with her and other members of the community I’ve built here was the first in years where I felt like part of a family. I belong here in a way I had stopped hoping for when I was first uninvited from holidays with the family that raised me.
My dad has allowed my mom to dictate the terms of our relationship since she disowned me five years ago, so I don’t hear from him anymore. I’ve reached out despite his silence, but it’s too painful to keep trying. We managed to get brunch together, the three of us, when I was in my hometown reconnecting with a cousin and childhood friends a few years ago; I was hopeful, but the cordiality didn’t last long. Eventually my mom demanded that everyone in her life unfriend or block me on social media and promise not to be part of my life. She wanted to punish me for being open about how I grew up.
When my dad didn’t block me, I wasn’t sure if it was open defiance of my mom or simply because he’s rarely on social media. I summoned all my hope and texted him during college football playoffs in the Winter of 2014-2015, thinking I might draw on our shared lifelong love of all things Notre Dame. His responses made it clear he didn’t even know it was me. Even without my mom forbidding it, he still wasn’t eager to be part of my life. On some days I am actively angry about the seeming finality of his choice to withdraw—he could be in contact with me if he wanted to be. On other days, I mourn the loss of his presence and wish I knew if he follows my work. His older brother does, and I hear bits and pieces about him mentioning somewhere I’ve been published or someone I’ve had as a guest on my radio show. But I don’t know if any of that matters to my dad; if he knows about or approves of the career I’m building as a writer and an advocate for social justice.
I often wonder what he would think of me. My work is unlikely to ever make me wealthy enough to have what he had in his forties and fifties. By “American Dream” standards, at least as my dad knew them, I will probably fail at honoring his sacrifices, his survival and success. But maybe that’s okay. Now, when I sing the end of Chapman’s song—“Poor people gonna rise up and get their share”—I ruminate on life without the harmful myth I grew up believing in. Rather than doing materially better than my father, I’m thriving by carving out a space where my other priorities can be met, even as I dream of a more equitable system for everyone. While I still hope to one day find out if my dad sees me—and what I’ve become—as worthy of what he went through, in the meantime I can continue healing from the lie that held us both captive. Perhaps our combined legacy will turn out to be one that encourages others to set aside their bootstraps.