I never get this thing right.
I’d like to chalk up my failures to the fact that I’m “just” an uncle who doesn’t have the kind of authority and influence that a parent does. I’d like to credit my shortcomings to the fact that for most of the lives of our nieces and nephews we have lived hundreds of miles away and have been able to show up in person only a few times each year. When my nascent efforts “fall down go boom” like my little grandniece when she tries to walk across the room, I like to think: Well, what do you expect, uncle, you don’t know them the way you would have had you been there day in and day out when their personalities were developing.
I make all sorts of excuses.
But the bottom line is that I don’t know the melody to this tune and I’m mouthing the words in the hymnal and doing my best to fake it.
But I guess it’s okay. After all, I’m just the uncle.
My 17 year old niece and her friend were over here for lunch after church today. We ordered in Chinese. My sister-in-law came over with the baby. I helped my niece with an assignment. Normal stuff.
My niece’s freshman English professor is requiring her to assemble a portfolio that includes a “career plan.” She mentioned this a couple of weeks ago and I suggested that it does not have to be a “real” career plan, as it is unreasonable for anyone to expect a college freshman to have the direction of her life mapped out like a FORTRAN flow chart. (Don’t you love how nicely that reference dates me?)
Then she sat down next and told me the rest of the story. She is going to state that her career goal is to become a forensic psychologist. Why? Because her research found that those in the field typically enjoy a salary of about $59,000 annually.
Um, excuse me?
“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” I began, “but sometimes you go about things backwards.” My wife shot me a dirty look. “You should choose a career because it is something you truly enjoy doing, not because of how much it pays,” I continued.
“But I have my daughter to think about,” she responded without missing a beat. “I have to think about money.”
“Yes, but!” I began talking with my hands, which is what I tend to do when I am passionate about my subject. “You’re 17 now, but you won’t be 17 forever. Before you know it, you’ll be thirty and forty and fifty. Your daughter will be married and off living somewhere else and what will you be left with then? Your career has to be for you.”
What I didn’t say was “and I won’t be around to offer you advice then, but perhaps you’ll remember what I said way back when.”
I found it somewhat humorous that my niece thinks that $59,000 is a really excellent salary. I may be unemployed now, I told her, but when I am working I earn more than that and I’m not a doctor or an arbitrage specialist on Wall Street.
And then you need to think in terms of inflation, I told her. My middle management jobs pay me more than my mother ever earned, and she has two master’s degrees and a doctorate. $59,000 today may well translate to $80,000 as you progress in your career.
That’s when my niece dropped the bomb. “Well, I’m really not sure about forensic psychologist,” she confided, “because I would have to get a doctorate and I really can’t do that.”
Um, say what????
“You can continue your education through a doctoral degree if this is what you really want to do. Your aunt and I will help you in any way we can. But please, don’t ever say I can’t.”
I don’t know where this I can’t stuff comes from, but it frustrates the heck out of me. Is it a product of feeling beaten down because she is caught between being a teenager and an adult, being yelled at by her mother for not doing her chores while she has her own baby to take care of and term papers to write and physically demanding part-time work to do so that she has a few bucks in her pocket? Or am I being slapped in the face by the very thing I read so much online about: That even in this day and age, girls make their way through school being bombarded by the clear message that success in the business world is only for the boys?
This makes me want to tear my hair out. Arrrrgggghhhh!!! Where are the Aibileens of this world to tell our girls “you is kind, you is smart, you is important?”
How dare an intelligent young woman like yourself deny your self-worth and unlimited potential?
You don’t often hear me say this, dear niece, but you’re wrong. You’re dead wrong.
Such demonstrations of lack of self-esteem make me want to explode. But what else are we to expect when all around us is broadcast the message “You got pregnant in high school, so you can’t. You have a single mother and you’re poor, so you can’t. You’re from an ethnic background and you’re a woman, so you can’t. Don’t hit your head on the glass ceiling on your way out.”
I want to do everything I can to contradict this mentality. I want you to have confidence in your abilities and to bask in your successes. I want you to pump your fist and shout at the sky “yes, I can, I can, I can!!”
But I’m just the uncle. I know what my place is supposed to be, yet I constantly find myself straining against those boundaries.
My dear niece, I know that you haven’t had much in the way of male role models in your life. You were two years old when I met you, and the next year your father left. He almost never showed up for his visits and it’s been a long haul of social services and lawyers and courts to extract from him the small amount of child support ordered by the court. Your mother got remarried, to a man with eight children of his own. That marriage imploded after a few years; you didn’t really know who to call “Dad.”
Well, my dear, I can’t make up for any of that, and I wouldn’t dream of trying in any event. I’m just the uncle.
But I’ve tried to set a good example to the best of my ability. I know you don’t have the financial advantages that I had, but I hope that my academic degrees and the breadth of my knowledge that I am always sharing with you will inspire you to follow me down the path of education and self-enrichment.
Others tell me not to expect too much.
I say phooey! I expect plenty, my dear niece. And my number one expectation is, in the immortal words of Shakespeare: “This, above all, to thine own self be true.”
But what do I know? I’m just the uncle.