Throughout my young life, I heard my father say it over and over:
“I want my children to grow up independent and self-sufficient.”
He wanted us to study hard, get an education and create the means, preferably legal, to take care of ourselves. Most importantly, he wanted us never to fall dependent on government handouts or worse, our family, for survival. We were expected to find a way to make it on our own.
I got lucky. I was born an artist. It was my entire focus growing up and after graduating from art school, I began working in the ad industry. From layout artist and illustrator to art director and graphic designer, each new position was a step forward. I always did freelance work on the side and in my early 30s, with clients already lined up, I finally quit my 9-to-5 to freelance full time. “Hanging my own shingle” was always the goal, especially after watching my father start and flourish in his own accounting business.
Daddy was real big on living an independent life. Not just in business but in every way. If you really wanted to get under his skin, ask to borrow something from him. Money. His car. A couple of eggs. Anything. You’d feel his chilly disdain clear across the room. He respected people who had their own. And thought very little of those who didn’t. Following in his footsteps seemed like the most natural thing in the world to me.
Somehow he managed to raise me this way even after spoiling me for years. It was quite the feat.
I must have been about sixteen when he switched the game plan on me. Up until then, if I asked him to drive me somewhere, he would. If I asked him to buy me the outfit I saw in a store window, the latest Vogue or Essence magazine, or a new set of color pencils, he’d grumble some but eventually he’d give in.
I suppose he felt it was time to stop that. And he did it with just one sentence.
Me: Daddy, can you take me to the mall?
Him: Sugar, how would you get there if I wasn’t here?
It became his answer to everything. How I would get there — to the mall, to the party, to my friend’s house — was now my responsibility. Of course this new approach of his bled over into other areas of my young life. How would I acquire the money to buy the boots I wanted if he didn’t just hand it over like usual? If I needed school or art supplies, how would I get them in ample time instead of waiting until the last minute and then asking him to get them?
How would I get there if he wasn’t here?
I think the challenge of it fascinated me. But not right away. It took me a minute to learn how to pinch pennies from my allowance and save for the things I wanted. That is, before I finally got a summer job. Once or twice I found myself without a drawing tablet and pencils before learning how to take the train downtown to the art supply store to buy them myself. And I soon acquired a boyfriend with a driver’s license. See? I was learning self-sufficiency. One way or another.
But my father’s lesson had taken hold. By the time I graduated from art school, I’d grown so stubborn and independent that when I started my first real job and moved into my first teeny-weeny apartment, I refused to accept my mother’s Christmas gift that year. She wanted to buy me a brand new winter coat but sensing her maternal need to “take care of me,” I refused it. Until my aunt called one night and labeled me an ingrate. I realized that in my childish efforts to show the world that I was a self-sufficient adult, I only managed to hurt my mother’s feelings. I accepted her gift. And grew up a little bit in the process.
But Daddy was proud of me. He felt he’d done his job. Years later when I stepped out on my own, he invested in my freelance business. And when it tanked he supported me until I regrouped and got back on my feet. It was a tough six months. From March of that year until September, I took his check with tears of shame streaming down my face.
Acquiring the first of three new clients that September, you better believe my father was the first to know about it.
Since then I’ve been forced to lighten up about it all. Life has thrown a few curves our way and I’ve had to ask others for help. It doesn’t happen often and there are some things, money and clothing to name two, that I’ll never ask to borrow. But if I need a ladder for an hour or so, I’ll borrow it from my neighbor before running out to Lowe’s to buy one. If I need a ride to the airport, I’ll ask a friend and slide her ten bucks for gas before calling a taxi or an Uber. I’ve given rides and loaned tools and I’ve learned there’s no harm in it.
It’s good to be independent, self-sufficient and to have your own. But it’s also okay to help others when needed, and it’s okay to ask for a little help yourself. And feel no shame about it one way or the other.