True Costs

Editor's note

In the 2017 movie Lady Bird, there’s a particularly emotional scene in which the main character, a teenage girl after whom the movie is titled, is again arguing with her mother, this time about a school suspension. 

Marion, the mother, describes how hard she and her husband have worked to support Lady Bird and her brother. She is angry that the children aren’t grateful, that they are, instead, ashamed of the conditions of their cash-strapped life. “Do you know how much it costs to raise you?” Marion says. “How much you’re throwing away every day?”

“Give me a number,” Lady Bird says. “Give me a number for how much it cost to raise me, and I’m going to get older and make a lot of money and write you a check for what I owe you so that I never have to speak to you again.”

These words—the callous reduction of a parent-child relationship to a monetary transaction—are painful to hear, and Marion’s retort is quick and devastating: “I highly doubt that you will be able to get a job good enough to do that.”

As a parent, this exchange made me squirm. Some months, when it feels crushing to write checks for summer camps and sporting activities and school fundraisers, worry makes me say sharp things to my kids, things like, “You lost another jacket/book/pair of gloves? Do you know how much that cost?” 

I lecture them about how fortunate they are and nag them to be grateful. I describe the single pair of shoes I got each year in grade school, bought large in September to accommodate growth by May. I describe the dinged-up free school-lunch token deep in my pocket, how I quickly slipped it into the waiting hand of the cashier and then rushed off, not wanting to see the pity in her eyes.

What I’m really saying to them with these words and stories is “I love you and want you to have everything, but I can’t give you everything. And still, we are so lucky. We have more than enough.” What I worry they are hearing is, “You are indebted to me. For all I’ve done for you, you owe me.”

When I think about this strange concept of familial debt, one particular day stands out. It was a few years after my parents divorced. I was in grade school, and we were living in a series of short-term rentals while my mom finished nursing school. That day, we were standing in line at the bank. In my mother's hand were some savings bonds that relatives had given my sisters and me, bonds that over the years would mature and be worth more than their face value. I imagine it was hard to think about the schooling to come years down the road when there were bills overdue and groceries we needed that day.

Though dollars might be the easiest way to name our obligations, to call attention to them, money is both an inadequate symbol of and a complex distraction from our true debts—the invisible ones, the ones we will never be able to repay. Cashing in those bonds and trading the future for the present cost my mother more than years of accrued interest. It cost her pride. It cost her hope. 

So it feels closer to the truth to say that my kids and I, my mother and I—on the best of days and the worst of days—we owe each other everything. And that is a debt so large that repayment isn’t possible. Even with all the money in the world, we will never be settled up. 

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