Family Matters, Part 1: Cousins

Family is far from easy, and I'm finally getting to writing about mine. This is the first of a few posts to come. Subscribe here to stay up to date!

Everyone tells you that business is about making tradeoffs. Business strategy is as much choosing what to do as choosing what not to do. 

The choice of going to business school, like any business decision, is loaded with tradeoffs: how else you could have spent or saved the money put toward tuition and travel; how high you could have been promoted had you clocked in 2 more years at your current gig or somewhere new; how much better your body and brain feel without subsisting on caffeine, alcohol, and convenience food.

My business school career was filled with tradeoffs, but it was a decision I made in the first week of classes that keeps coming back to me as the tradeoff that has had some great repercussions the last two years. Like many of my most interesting personal stories, it involves my family. 

I grew up as an only child, and the closest thing I have to siblings are four cousins on my mother’s side and three half-siblings on my dad’s side from his first marriage (I’m from marriage number 3; he had no kids in the second one). The relationship with my cousins is stronger in part because they’re a lot closer to me in age: my oldest cousin is 8 years older than I am, while my youngest half-sibling is about 20 years my senior. 

Even though I spent more of my childhood growing up in Northern New Jersey, when people ask me where I’m from, I tend to say I was born down by Jersey Shore, because that’s where my first, best, and most tender memories are.

Many of those memories are with my cousins. We swam and made sand castles together at a beach club on Ocean Avenue. We drank my grandmother’s signature Diet Peach Lipton iced tea in the summer and sampled Jordan almonds and other mysterious grown-up candies from her candy drawer. So long as the weather was warm, we’d go out and hit tennis balls, or, when Thanksgiving rolled around, tossed a football before feasting on turkey and yams with marshmallows. 

In the last 3 years, my cousins hit the sweet spot of getting married. The first two weddings I went to as an adult were my cousin B’s in October 2012 and P’s in June 2013. I’ll never forget B’s because the timing turned out to be precariously close to Hurricane Sandy, and I barely beat the storm on my flight home from Miami. I’ll never forget P’s because I had just gotten back from three weeks in China. After spending most of the month suffocated by pollution and largely alone, it was an indescribably joy to breathe in salt air--and breathe, period-- to be in loving company, and to bear witness to something as beautiful as P’s wedding.

Because of school, I missed the other two cousins’ weddings: L’s because it was the first week of classes in school and my cohort was supposed to attend a mandatory “Team Day” that Friday; M’s because it was the on the Friday of the first week of my internship in San Francisco last June.

At the time, I didn’t understand that at Sloan the word “mandatory” was interpreted more like “attendance strongly suggested” instead of truly “mandatory.” There were definitely people in my cohort absent from the “mandatory” event. Had I known this would be the case, I might have flown down to Georgia that Friday for L’s wedding. Regardless, because I’ve always taken school very seriously and because I feared letting down my first-semester academic work team, my “Core Team,” on “Team Day,” I missed it. Because I feared missing my onboarding training and getting off on the wrong foot in my first days at my internship, I chose not to go to M’s wedding, as well. 

M was very understanding about it—he and his fiancée both went to law school and knew the importance of developing rapport and making a good impression on their managers in their summer jobs. L was more hurt by my absence, and I had no idea how much my absence would affect our relationship in the years to come. 

I remember calling L on her wedding day in September 2014 to congratulate her and express how sorry I was for being unable to attend the ceremony, but never heard back. The first communication I received from her was a text about 10 months after that call. The tension between us quietly poisoned the select family gatherings I managed to attend in moments away from my MBA. Whenever I saw my aunts, uncles, and cousins, I would say, “I still feel terrible. Has she forgiven me yet?” The first time I saw her since the wedding, last Thanksgiving, we barely spoke, let alone made eye contact. Despite exchanging holiday cards, I know the bad blood hasn’t completely dried. And I still feel guilty. 

My cousins are now reaching the point of having babies, and last week, foregoing the MBA trip to the British Virgin Islands, I made it a point to meet P’s 3-month-old baby, my first cousin once removed. 
I intend to be there to meet M’s and B’s babies when they make their way into the world in the coming months. But most importantly, I plan to fly down to Tampa this fall when L has her baby and try to make things right. I hope making the effort of going down to visit her and being present for this second major occasion in her life will put us on a real path to healing our relationship.

Returning to the discussion of tradeoffs: I’ve been quick to prioritize my academics over self-care, as my last blog post discusses, and have been just as quick to prioritize my school obligations over my family relationships. One of the things I am most excited about with the end of my MBA, official Friday, is that I will not have to choose between my academics and my family. But I’d be kidding myself if I said that my MBA was the last time I will have to make the choice between professional and personal obligations, and for matters far more serious than a “Team Day” or summer internship.

As I start work at my first real, non-academic job in July, this will become the thing I need to most remember: if I want to bring my best and fullest self to work, I will need to seek out work places that care about me as a person with a family. If my managers happen to be people who care less about family, I will need to find the courage to set clear, incontrovertible boundaries over my family. If I’m going to count, “making time for the people in my life who matter, family above all” as one of my core values, I actually need to do make the time. 

In other words, even as an aspiring leader and soon to be Master of Business Administration, I need to be reminded to the importance of choosing people over profession. I am not my work: jobs will come and go, and I hope the job I begin in July will be the first of many happy ones. But family—both the friends I choose as my family and my blood relations, for better or worse—is forever. And with graduation, I am committed to giving that forever the space to command its due respect, attention and care.