Over the weekend, I started watching “Atlanta” after jailbreaking my Amazon Fire TV Stick to let me binge watch it for free! I finished the first season last night and so far, one of my favorite things about the show has been the relationship between Earn and Vanessa, which resonates with me because it reminds me so much of my relationship with my daughter’s father when we were still together. For the two years following the birth of our daughter, I was the sole consistent financial provider for my family, as her father struggled to maintain a series of low-wage construction jobs, started and withdrew from various technical programs, or didn’t work at all while pursuing his dreams of being a rapper/producer (keep in mind, we were both in our early twenties.) Throughout that time, we fought constantly, largely about money.
Like Vanessa and countless real life black women tasked with financially supporting households and children by ourselves as our men try to “figure themselves out” or “pursue their dreams”, I was overworked, depleted, frustrated and resentful. Why did I have to be the one stuck working dead end jobs I hated to put food on the table? What about my dreams? What about me? These are the questions I found myself constantly asking T at the height of heated arguments, and asking myself as I lay awake preparing myself for another day at a job that didn’t fulfill me and in a life that felt more like survival than living.
Since our separation, I’ve thought a lot about our relationship and reflected on some of our issues with my twenty-twenty hindsight. Binge-watching Atlanta these past few nights has been particularly revelatory, because its allowed me to view a version of our relationship through a detached lens. I fully sympathize with Vanessa’s feelings and frustrations at being the sole financial provider while her partner runs off “doing him” everyday. I find myself asking questions of Earn on her behalf that I’d frequently ask T, such as, “don’t you think I’d like to quit my job and just do whatever I want?” But as I watch Vanessa become increasingly discouraged and overwhelmed with her life in a near perfect reenactment of my own struggles, I found myself asking both of us, “what’s stopping you?”
And I realized, for myself at least, the answer was fear.
Somebody has to pay the bills.
But there are plenty of people who live their dreams and pay their bills.
But if those dreams don’t start off making money immediately, we could lose our home and the baby needs stability.
Yes, but do you not see how all of that is fear? The worst can always happen in any situation and so can the best.
I realized that fear had ruled me for years, despite how unhappy I was with every fear-based decision I had made. I had chosen to work jobs that I hated and invest my energy into things that neither made me happy nor fulfilled out of fear of negative consequences, and I had resented Trae for his unwillingness to do the same. I was so consumed by my fears (fears of failure, fears of financial instability, fears of living and dying in poverty, fears of inadequacy) that I hid behind a veil of anger and I lashed out at him constantly. Had I known how to recognize and communicate these fears in the moment, we could have approached these objectives together and discussed the compromises necessary to reach our individual and collective goals. We could have supported each other and worked together, rather than spending countless hours we’ll never get back fighting against each other.
This is one of the things I respect about Vanessa, because for all her frustrations, she still respects Earn as a person, partner and father and his right to his own journey toward his own goals. But I didn’t know how to do that for T. So instead, I resented him for not living the way that I’d been conditioned to believe was “the right way” and being unwilling to bend his spirit to concede to my fears. I envied his confidence and faith in himself that allowed him to chase his dreams with no concern for them failing and to pick himself back up and keep trying when they did. I punished him for the burden that he placed on me, which was really a burden that I’d placed on myself, to be the “responsible one”. And eventually, when the fighting became too much for both of us, we went our separate ways.
Part of this revelation has to do with the fact that I’m currently in a situation very similar to the one that T was in for much of our relationship. I quit my job as a preschool teacher several months ago due to ongoing discrimination and harassment and the experience had a huge impact on me mentally and emotionally. Paired with my depression and PTSD, it triggered a breakdown that makes it hard for me to even attempt to return to work in a traditional job. The experience was disheartening and devastating, but it had a surprisingly beneficial ripple effect: it forced me to think about myself and what I actually wanted for the first time in a long time. As a result, I’ve been getting by doing a series of random jobs and focusing on my writing, following my dreams, unbound by fear for the first time ever. Some months, money is really good, other months I barely get by, but every month, I’m happier than I ever remember being before.
In the months that I barely scrape by, I get a lot of criticism from friends and family members about how irresponsible I’m being and how I need to get a “real job”, eerily similar to the things that I used to say to T. In those moments, I feel disrespected, demoralized and ashamed, but those interactions have been essential to my unpacking where I developed the toxic ideology that you have to work a “real job” to have value as a person and deserve basic respect, as well as how I helped perpetuate that ideology to the detriment of people I love. But I’m also fortunate to have friends who support me when I’m struggling, remind me that at twenty-six years old, I’m supposed to be trying and failing and figuring things out, that I have my whole life ahead of me. And when they say these things to me, I think about how I’ve never been given that grace by anyone close to me, and therefore was never taught to give that same grace to someone like T on the same journey. I think about how our relationship and our family could’ve benefited if I had been.
Moving forward for me is a process of healing, learning, and growing, and that process involves unpacking the toxicity I internalized as traits and means of survival and acknowledging and learning from my wrongs and my mistakes. So far, what I’ve learned is to embrace fear and move with it, rather than let it trap and consume me and to be patient with myself, with the process, and with the people that I love. But I know that I have much more to learn still.