Family

My Mother Was So Addicted To Giving She Put Herself In Massive Debt

Photo: Juanmonino, Creativa Images, MattGush | Canva 
Addicted to giving

Families work on an informal system of gifting. Parents give food, board, and care to children when they are young. As they become adults, parents provide education, down payments for homes, and bailouts when the young adult gets in trouble. When the parent grows old, children return the favor by giving their parents the gift of care and sometimes financial support. When the parents die, they leave what they haven’t used to their children.

Sometimes it goes wrong.

I’d never considered my mother generous, but if trouble came, everyone in the family knew you could count on her. She was the rock on which our family was built. She bailed all of us kids out of trouble at some point in our lives — some of us more than once.

She and Dad had money. They didn’t talk about how much they had, but they could live in a big house and drive new cars so we figured they had plenty. Some of us kids took a winding road to adulthood, but nobody ended up living in the folks’ basement writing a manifesto, so we figured it had all turned out fine in the end.

In our circuitous routes to adulthood all of us, more than once, stopped in to see Mom for money.

In early childhood, we learned how it worked.

We went to Mom. Mom would talk to Dad — convincing him that giving was the right thing to do — and the cash would be forthcoming. Mom was closed-mouthed about these bailouts. She respected our privacy and didn’t want to see us embarrassed.

No one ever went directly to Dad. That’s not how our family did it.

It wasn’t always money. When one of us got sick, we might find mom cleaning our kitchen so it would be nice when we were feeling better and cleaning it more thoroughly than it had been cleaned in years. When we needed child care, or a ride, or a properly cooked Thanksgiving turkey, she was there.

Then grandchildren made their appearance. Once grandchildren figured out what money was, and how the family worked, they went to Grandma just like we had gone to Mom. She paid for summer camps, band uniforms, school clothes, orthodontia, new bicycles, used cars, and, more than once, a plane ticket home.

As far as we were concerned, Mom had always been old. We wished her Happy Birthday every year but never connected that with physical deterioration. But she felt it.

Every year it was harder to clean her kitchen, much less get over to her children’s houses and clean theirs. She couldn’t take the grandkids skiing anymore, but she could buy their season passes. She did what she could.

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The pleasure Mom got from her giving was profound and deeply fulfilling.

It was unconditional love in action. When helping her children and grandchildren, she felt a sense of purpose and fulfillment like no other. To keep feeling that way, as her ability to physically take part in our lives declined, she turned more and more to her checkbook.

We, the kids, didn’t talk among ourselves about the help we got from Mom. I went to her for help with life’s surprises but never saw any reason to tell my siblings about it. They didn’t need to know my stuff. Unbeknownst to me, my siblings had done the same. And then the grandchildren.

Nobody saw it as a problem. It was the way our family worked. Mom and Dad had plenty, and if it ever became an issue, she was not a shy woman. She would just say no. And if she didn’t, Dad would put his foot down for sure.

The grandkids grew older. Their triumphs and failures became more expensive. When they needed money for that school-sponsored trip to Europe, a new transmission in their first car, or to get out of jail, they didn’t go to their parents. They made a private deal with Grandma.

I ended up practicing law. Mom helped me get my practice off the ground. It wasn’t the only time I’d gone to her, but it was the final time. After I’d been in practice for a while, I heard rumors that my siblings and the grandkids were still using her as a cash machine, but that was their business, not mine.

Photo: Ivan Samkov/Pexels

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One day I got a call from Dad.

He’d been contacted by a bill collector about a credit card in Mom’s name that he knew nothing about. The man wanted $900. Dad was surprised, but he was good at handling the hot potatoes life tossed him. He asked if his proposed $900 payment would retire the debt. “No,” the caller said. That was the minimum acceptable monthly payment. It was interest only.

Dad investigated. Mom had well over a hundred thousand dollars in debt spread across several credit cards and bank loans. She had been siphoning out of the household account and selling personal things, without Dad’s knowledge, to make minimum payments, keeping him in the dark, and keeping the collectors from the door.

Once outed, Mom, who prided herself on being the responsible one, and who had delivered many lectures about personal and financial responsibility, was humiliated. She could no more explain why she had done it than addicts can explain why they steal to feed their habits. Dad and I pulled the records and audited the accounts. All the money had gone to the family.

My law practice was elder law. As soon as I had gotten it up and running, I was suing people who used an elder’s kindness and generosity to empty their accounts and put them in debt. Sometimes those people went to jail. After learning the trouble mom was in, I realized I was one of those people. We children and the grandchildren had been doing the same thing that I sued people to prevent.

The elder abuse laws in my state are complicated, but if I could boil them down to a single rule, it would be that when dealing with an elder you must refuse significant gifts unless you have personally investigated and determined that the gift will not financially harm the elder who is offering it. Failure to follow this rule gets you sued and required to pay back three times the value of the gift. In egregious cases, you get to spend a little time in jail. Every one of my mother’s children and grandchildren had violated this rule.

Mom was at fault, too.

She loved the pleasure of giving too much, and like an addict, was willing to steal — for borrowing with no ability to pay it back is exactly that — to feel once again the deep satisfaction she got from giving. She chased the feeling like an addict chases the high. We children provided the drug she craved.

Dad called a family meeting. We were not a family-meeting kind of family, but this was serious stuff. It all came out. Everyone thought they were the only one. Each of us was her favorite, the most deserving, or the most in need. Whatever the reason, nobody thought it could hurt Mom. And because the gifts were secret, only Mom knew the true extent of the damage.

The first thing we had to do was recognize that Mom could not stop. Her need to give was stronger than her sense of self-preservation. Not even the embarrassment of being caught would stop her. We had to step up. We had to stop accepting gifts from her. Nothing. Nada. Never again, no matter how deserving or needy we became.

The second thing was to pay it back. This was tougher. Mom made gifts. She never asked for it back, but I knew from my law practice that the fact that an elder wants to give does not save you in civil court, keep you out of jail, or absolve you of responsibility. There is no defense or justification that Mom wanted to give. We were the recipients of stolen money and we needed to give it back.

Photo: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

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Paying it back meant hardship.

I didn’t like it. I had the money to pay it back, but I had other places I had planned to spend that money. One of my brothers had to take out a home equity loan to return the money she gave him. As of today, some grandchildren have not been able to pay it all back, and one continues to maintain because mom wanted to give, that he doesn’t have to.

We paid mom’s debts and replaced the money taken from my parent’s accounts and it is all ancient history now. But from what I have seen in my law practice, that makes my family the exception.

Mom continues to offer. She takes us aside and assures us it will remain a secret. The addict’s mantra: if no one knows, it hasn’t happened.

But as far as I can tell, the family has held firm. She still craves the drug, but today her descendants keep the medicine cabinet locked.

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Orrin Onken, a retired elder-law lawyer, writes about aging, cooking, and addiction on Medium. His legal mystery novels are available on Amazon.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.