A Blessing & A Curse: What It’s Like To Be Financially Responsible For Your Parents

Do you honour your present or your parents’ future?

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I wish I could tell you that when my parents sat me down, asking me to shed almost all my savings for a family investment, I was immediately selfless and unreservedly generous. That I opened up my metaphoric wallet and in slow-mo, rained dollar bills in our compact dining room.
Instead, I cried. I threw a tantrum. The reality of sacrificing your own desires for your family isn’t always valiant or pretty. But in the end, I did it, because that’s what you do when you take on the role of financially supporting your parents.
For a lot of people of colour, intergenerational care is a cornerstone of culture. Unlike the typical Western approach of rearing children until they hit adulthood and subsequently kicking them out of the nest, the pathway is much less linear and much more complex for many children of immigrants. It’s not uncommon to have parents live with their eldest child. Nor is it surprising to hear that many first-generation children bear financial responsibility for their parents too. 
The balancing act of financial freedom — particularly when you care for dependents as well as your parents — has long been documented and isn’t specific to people of colour, either. The so-called ‘sandwich generation’ (those who have a parent aged 65 or older and are either raising or supporting a child) proves to be a great visual analogy; the frustrating experience of eating a sandwich where the filling is set on slipping out is humbling. Alas, the metaphor only grows when we look at the rising price of groceries and the current inflated cost of living. 
I try not to enter conversations about financial responsibilities with people who don’t carry the same burden. I’m met with a flurry of confused, however well-meaning, commentary. “Isn’t it their job?” “Why do you have to take care of them? Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?” 
Modern-day self-care is, at times, a guise to sell us stuff. It can be difficult to navigate for people who have been taught that self-care is, rather, care for all. In the Western world, we're told that spa days and retail therapy can cure bad mental health days (because obviously, poor mental health is the fault of an individual, not created by a spectrum of structural issues).

Many children of immigrants grapple with subscribing to both Western values and their own ethnic values — and this push and pull is hauled into the limelight when it comes to money.

“Growing up here in Australia, there is a lot of focus on taking care of your individual wellbeing,” psychologist Smruthy Nair tells Refinery29 Australia. “[But] the math doesn't add up for a lot of people, especially people who[se] cultures have a sense of community building and [the understanding that] healthcare comes from community care,” she says, pointing to obligations of family gatherings where social and financial resources are pooled. 
It’s in direct opposition to the ‘every man for himself’ mentality that others pride themselves on. Many children of immigrants grapple with subscribing to both Western values and their own ethnic values — and this push and pull is hauled into the limelight when it comes to money. 
“Why is it hard to explain to a person whose cultural expectation does not include giving money to the extended family? It's hard to explain to them that you can't just say no. You can't just say no to giving money to 18 family members. That's a financial obligation that [some are] expected to live up to,” Nair says.
The Western assumption that someone would immediately want to say no to these duties is inaccurate, too. Wendy, 23, tells me that she and her mum are best friends. The pair constantly FaceTime, take walks around the block before dinnertime together and bicker lovingly. 
For the past few years, she and her younger brother Rory, 21, have been helping to financially support their mum. All the utility bills — wifi, phone, water, gas and electricity — as well as their share of rent (which is higher than their mum’s portion) are taken on by the Gen Z siblings.
“If we're out with our mum, we don't feel comfortable letting her pay for things, so we usually take that on. We're like, ‘No, no, let us pay’. She's like, ‘no, no, it's OK’. But we're like, ‘No, it's alright. Save your money. We got you’,” she tells Refinery29 Australia.

“Our parents have given us so much and, especially if you’re a child of an immigrant, you've seen them work so hard. My mum’s a single mum, so she's done pretty much for herself. I know I have to give back.”

Wendy, 23
There was never a conversation about the passing on of the household costs. After seeing the stressful toll that paying bills was taking on their mum, Wendy and Rory instinctively took over. It hasn’t been an easy road — far from it, we both tear up a bit on the phone — but it’s a journey she’s proud to be on.
“Our parents have given us so much and, especially if you’re a child of an immigrant, you've seen them work so hard. My mum’s a single mum, so she's done pretty much everything for herself. I know I have to give back.”
“Sometimes it's a lot though. But then you really have to face reality and just be like, ‘OK, this is what I’ve got to do’. Growing up and knowing how much my mum’s done for [us], I just want her to live a good life.”
The rags-to-not-really-riches story is customary, especially when you remember that Australia has a migrant majority (over 50% of residents were either born overseas or have a parent who was born overseas). 
“There's a lot of pressure to either provide for parents or provide for extended family who are back home [and] who might not even be [in the country],” Nair shares, pointing particularly to working professionals aged between 20 and 45 who she sees as clients grappling with this exact issue. 
While financial pressures can be mandated by parents — one person tells us that the first thing her mum said in response to her travel plans was, "What about my retirement?” — other times, the sense of responsibility is self-led. “I put my own burdens on myself. I'm like, these are the expectations I need to meet and I have no idea like where these expectations have come from,” Wendy admits. 
The complicated truth is that being financially responsible for your parents isn’t a bad thing. It’s not black-and-white, unlike some discourse around the topic would want you to believe. Children should not be responsible for their parents' bad decisions," comments one Instagram user on a recent R29 post, with others adding, “Expecting these adult children to now care for them feels very shocking.” and “We do not owe our parents for doing their jobs as parents.”
Financially supporting your parents and extended family can imbue some with a sense of purpose and happiness. “It can be healthy when there is transparent communication, and no guilt [and] emotional blackmailing involved,” Nair says, adding that preexisting communication and conflict resolution skills will flow over into financial conversations.
“[If] you have a healthy connection with your extended family [and] your culture, and you believe that by participating in family and being a part of something bigger than [yourself], [you might] love it and get something great out of it, [like] a sense of connection [and] inclusion.”
Perhaps it’s because these values are familial and traditional, but some turn their noses up at these responsibilities in the name of feminism and the patriarchy. But as Rafia Zakaria wrote in Against White Feminism of her Pakistani mother, grandmother and aunts, “Their resilience, their sense of responsibility, their empathy, and their capacity for hope, are also feminist qualities, but not ones that the current feminist arithmetic will permit.”
The burden of financially caring for others can weigh immensely heavy, make no mistake. "If somebody is not able to meet those obligations, it can result in guilt or shame,” Nair says. “Then you [might] see the external manifestations of these internal unresolved conflicts."
“You might see them completely avoiding their family, then completely pretending that their name is not their name, their culture is not their culture. You might be someone [who becomes] a people pleaser [with] zero boundaries; [someone who] tries to make more money, says yes to everybody, [then] runs themselves down.”

“Don't plan for them, have a plan including them."

Smruthy Nair
I ask Wendy how she cares for her mental health. “I don't think I've ever thought about that,” she answers. “I don't know… I think that just the fact that I'm helping makes me feel good. I don't like to think about things too much because then I get sad. Maybe that's good… that’s probably really bad,” she laughs. 
Though it’s antithetic to the ‘sweep it under the rug’ approach that’s often taken with money and mental health conversations in Asian communities, Nair recommends being transparent about worries and starting open conversations with your parents. 
“Don't plan for them, have a plan including them. Don’t just sit and kind of think about the doom and gloom and get anxious because that's not going to help you. You have to have a plan that involves all parties you're thinking about,” they say. Practically speaking, seeking out financial education and culturally-sensitive support spaces can also be important tools in your kit. 
In the same vein that receiving a massage isn’t the universal self-care fix for all, the insistence of caring financially for your parents isn’t a reality for every child of immigrants. It doesn’t make you a bad child, son or daughter, it makes you one that’s figuring out how best to honour yourself and your family at the same time.
If you are struggling with debt and don't know where to turn, call the free National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007. The helpline is open Monday to Friday, 9:30am to 4:30pm.
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