Ten Money Questions for Abigail Garner
For several years, Abigail Garner has been at the forefront of the Queerspawn movement. Queerspawn means that you are an adult child of one or more LGBT parent(s). Abigail is the author of Families Like Mine: Children of Gay Parents Tell It Like It Is. She provided us with poignant views on family finances, the challenges of owning a small business and trying to fuse the label “rich and famous” with reality. I enjoyed the interview. I’m sure you will too.
1. Typically, same-sex parents have to make a mindful and concerted effort in order to have a child. Often times, this requires spending thousands of dollars to get pregnant, adopt, or pay a surrogate. Does this investment make them better parents?
Nope. It makes them more anxious, financially-strapped parents.
Sometimes the financial situation gets so overwhelming, but determined parents-to-be stay the course, reassuring themselves the breakthrough is right around the corner. Seventeen corners later, they have drained their savings, maxed out their credit cards, lost any hope of saving for retirement, and they still aren’t parents yet. It can be financially devastating, not to mention the emotional toll.
In the process of the increasing financial strain, money too easily becomes the default blame for conflicts, so what would otherwise be red flags in a stressed relationship get ignored. The tension gets swept under the rug and then when a kid comes on the scene the relationship is on the rocks and finances are shaky. And that doesn’t begin to address the costs of, say, a second child, much less their braces and college tuition.
I recommend that hopeful couples agree on a financial cap in advance, and then take a break if they exceed that cap. Use the break to refocus on the relationship, get a sense of your financial picture, and reassess the tough questions about how — and if — they want to proceed. The relationship is in serious jeopardy when one or both of the people in the couple start to resent the financial sacrifice but won’t bring it up with their partner.
2. What is your most significant memory about money?
My mother, worried about utility bills getting paid when I was three or four years old. We were also on food stamps for a while, and received assistance to pay our Minnesota heating bill. When I asked my mother for details a couple years ago, she was adamant that there was no way I should have any memory of that, since I had been too young to know it was even going on at the time. It just goes to show how children tune in to grown-up conversations even when parents are sure they are blissfully unaware.
3. What is your worst habit around finances?
Not documenting cash expenses well enough to deduct them when I file my taxes. The worst is cab fares when I’m traveling. I return home with a pile of blank receipts that are just worthless for recording, so I just have to let those deductions go. At the end of each trip I vow I’ll do it differently next time.
4. Do your dads see eye-to-eye on money?
Not always, but they have figured out how to agree where it matters. There is a specific “household” account that they each put money into, and joint financial commitments come out of that.
5. If you could buy one thing right now what would it be?
A Sleep Number mattress.
6. Who taught you the value of a dollar?
My Mother’s dad, who always told me, “Act like you have buck in your pocket and people will treat you like you do.”
That “buck,” I have learned, is about people who are not financially privileged finding a means to access systems that are traditionally created and maintained for people who are financially privileged. For my grandfather, acting like he had a buck in his pocket meant not being perceived as a poor immigrant — forcing himself to be as “American” as he could be, changing his very Polish last name and always speaking English so that he could advance in the business world.
For me, the system I have gained access to has been media. Having the power and privilege of a platform in the media often gets conflated with having a lot of money. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been described or introduced as “rich and famous.” Getting quoted in the New York Times might make me “famous” in the 15-minute-Warhol way, but it most definitely has not made me rich.
My grandfather’s lesson still stays with me, and its meaning grows even more profound as the years go by. Wealth isn’t the only tool for accessing systems of privilege, but many people assume it is.
7. Is there a price attached to activism? Do you ever wonder what path your life might have taken if you had a straight dad?
The bigger question is what price is attached to being a small business owner, especially in a line of work that is often labeled “controversial.” I’ve spent ten years without the comforts of traditional employment that someone with a bachelor’s degree is expected to have. I am responsible for my own health care, my computer upgrades and repair, office supplies, legal and accounting fees, any professional development…the list goes on and on. Those are the details that I spell out for younger people who say they want to “do what I do.” They need to get the full picture of the business, not just the fun moments they see at a book signing.
The upside to the financial challenges, however, is you are forced to examine what you value outside of money. During lean times, I have stuck with it because I have had no doubt that I was doing the work I wanted and needed to be doing. Through the years I have been approached with a few offers that had nice price-tags with them, but the cost to my integrity would have been too high. I have closely guarded creative control of my personal story and while a more Lifetime Movie story arc might be more consumable for the masses (and could be profitable for me), I leave the barely-based-on-a-true-story spinning for the likes of James Frey.
In terms of alternative life paths, I am just discovering that now. After more than 10 years and over half a million words written on the subject of queer families, it’s time for me to switch gears. I felt “called” to speak out on behalf of LGBT-parented families, and I now feel like my self-appointed tenure is winding down. My career step is likely to return to the world of philanthropy that I walked away from to pursue my speaking and writing full time. I have served on “both sides” of philanthropy — as foundation staff and as development staff — so I’m casting my net wide in my job hunt this time around. We’ll see what happens.
8. Which is more important: how much money you make or how you spend it?
Neither. It’s where you live. Choosing to stay in Minneapolis, with its manageable standard of living, strong public services, and lots of free and low cost cultural opportunities has made all the difference in my quality of life. I wouldn’t have lasted a year as a social entrepreneur had I been trying to make rent in a housing market like San Francisco or Manhattan.
9. If you were gay parent, would you spend money on an R Family Cruise? Why or why not?
If I were in a family that was in the financial position to put thousands of dollars into a vacation anyway, then sure.
But if it’s financially out of reach, I want to reassure queer parents that they are not failing their children if they don’t go. I get very apologetic emails from parents telling me they really really want to build a support network for their kids, but they feel so guilty about not having the money to go on the cruise.
These are families who tell me they are scrimping every penny they can, skipping their summer trip to see Grandma, taking off a few months of piano lessons, all so they can access the holy grail that is Rosie’s Cruise. That is sad, and it sets families up for disappointment, since they have impossible expectations for this single week in their lives, only to return home feeling no less isolated, crashing hard from the high of a week of cruise utopia.
There are way too many gay parents out there who think that R Family Vacations is the only place they can meet other queer-parented families, largely because the company was inspired by a celebrity lesbian mom and publicity has snowballed to make it the front-running public symbol of LGBT Family “community.” If you cannot afford a cruise for your family (and even if you can) look into local resources — or consider becoming the founding family of a local network for LGBT families. That way, your children will have a sense of community and support all year round.
Full disclosure: I was presenter on the first two cruises (2004, 2005) and I had a great time on both trips. I was an invited guest, so my trip was covered by R Family Vacations.
10. Does money buy happiness?
Yes, provided you have a solid awareness of your own values. Otherwise, the happiness will quickly turn hollow.
More about Abigail Garner
Abigail Garner is the author of Families Like Mine: Children of Gay Parents Tell It Like It Is. On the cover, Melissa Etheridge describes Families Like Mine as “a profound book that captures many aspects of gay parenting that [Etheridge has] experienced personally.” For more about the book, go to FamiliesLikeMine.com. Abigail also writes a blog, Damn Straight.
Read other Queercents interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive.