A Father’s Bequest

Steve Abramowitz

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU wish for: Your kid may grow up to be too much like you.

Many parents do an exemplary job raising their children. The rest of us bumble along, knowing we aren’t perfect but praying we’ve been good enough. I believe I fall into the “good enough” category. But I also believe I went overboard expressing approval for the ways my son Ryan was becoming like me—or the person I once desired to be.

Ryan, now age 35, emerged from our family cauldron a really good guy. Yet I see how my need for his admiration made me less attuned to his own emerging identity. He strove to win his father’s approval and has become in many ways, laudable and not, much like me.

Children aren’t here to be their parents’ trophies. My parents didn’t realize that—and nor did I. When Ryan struck out with men on base, he saw the disappointment on my face. He heard me confront a high school administrator about the validity of a standardized test on which Ryan’s performance proved to be ordinary. I encouraged Ryan to apply to two schools that had rejected me, a last shot at redemption.

How do I know my need to relive my life through Ryan’s achievements left a wound? That’s easy. Ryan has called my wife Alberta and me on it numerous times. He knew he wasn’t good enough to be a starter on the high school freshman basketball team, yet I questioned the coach. He felt humiliated when we closely edited his college admissions essay.

Always a good public speaker, Ryan was incredulous when we suggested he was probably the best teacher at the Jesuit high school where he worked. “What’s with you guys, you’ve never seen me teach?” A constant feeling that he never quite measured up, which we unwittingly fed, took a toll on our son’s self-esteem. Despite his growing skill as a sports bettor, Ryan routinely underestimates his role in wins and underestimates luck in his losses.

Ryan’s struggle to differentiate his work from my former stock trading is complex and conflictual. I actively traded individual stocks and options as a way to keep engaged and involved with life in the midst of an extended midlife depression. As a child, when Ryan walked into my home office, he saw his father alternately checking his figures and graphs and looking up to catch the breaking news on CNBC.

To Ryan, it looked like I was having a grand old time pursuing my passion. This impression was reinforced by watching me devour Barron’s first thing Saturday morning as if it were a religious ritual. In fact, I was battling a mood disorder and was lucky to turn the page on my trading era without drastically depleting my money-market reserves.

Fortunately, I had made some advantageous purchases of small residential income properties that served as a buffer, but I was no tycoon. Partly to protect me and partly as a way of compensating for her husband’s steep career fall, Alberta idealized my exploits to Ryan and to herself. Unaware of the extent to which the family’s privileged financial situation resulted from inheritance as much as any astuteness on my part, Ryan was intimidated. “Dad, I just don’t get this stock market stuff like you do.”

For a long time, I thought defiance was behind Ryan’s decision to banish investing from his life. But I no longer think that. Through his embrace of sports betting, with its focus on discrepancies and probabilities, Ryan has identified with me in a way that allows him to blaze his own trail, but without having to compete directly with the family mythology about my investing prowess.

This is, not coincidentally, how I separated my identity from that of my own father, a shrewd commercial real estate operative. I chose stocks as my investment vehicle, and only tried residential rental properties after a stroke partially paralyzed my father and he was no longer invincible. But even today, I don’t own any commercial properties.

Three years ago, Ryan left his job as a high school math teacher to experiment with a career as a professional sports bettor. Resisting the disbelief and ridicule of friends, as well as his parents’ apprehensions, Ryan has shown he can prevail against the oddsmakers. He sits engrossed at his desk, eyes on a computer screen rather than a TV, ready to pounce on small but actionable disparities between the market price and his prediction model. What the father did during his stock trading period is remarkably similar to what the son is doing now. Ryan has borrowed from me, all the while becoming his own man.

In several other ways, Ryan’s identification with me has been less easy to watch. As a child, I was excused from most chores and more than a few family obligations, like weddings and bar mitzvahs. That primed me to flout social convention. I even avoided the marriage ceremony of two college friends I had fixed up. But in the end, instead of continuing to flout social convention, I succumbed to my shyness and introversion, and took refuge in a traditional lifestyle.

Wanting Ryan to be the free spirit I had abandoned, I took a page from my parents’ childrearing playbook and promoted a laissez-faire home environment. Not surprisingly, Ryan today is unmoved by invitations and exhortations. Like his father, he must be coaxed out of his standoffishness and withdrawal. Alberta has taught me the value and joy of belonging. Will Ryan meet his own liberator?

Steve Abramowitz is a psychologist in Sacramento, California. Earlier in his career, Steve was a university professor, including serving as research director for the psychiatry department at the University of California, Davis. He also ran his own investment advisory firm. Check out Steve’s earlier articles.

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