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Accepting the Duality of Our Parents
Hello from San Francisco!
This week, I’m visiting a good friend in San Francisco and given the time difference, this one is coming out a bit later than usual.
This week, I’m exploring the duality of feeling grateful for all our parents have done for us while still acknowledging what they may have not done, which can be extremely challenging for children of immigrant parents.
Let me know what you think, I’m alway looking forward to hearing feedback.
Accepting the Good and Bad of Our Parents
The Best Characters are Good and Evil
In literature and film, we come across characters who are either all good (e.g., Goku from Dragon Ball Z or Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings) or all evil (e.g., Voldemort from Harry Potter or Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs). All these are meaningful characters, but they lack a certain depth.
Walter White from Breaking Bad, however, makes such a compelling character because he occupies a hazy in-between. He is both good and evil, and that complexity grips us. He does wrong but for reasons we all understand, and that dissonance keeps us captivated, and, in a subtle way, empathizing. On a subconscious level, characters who are both good and evil feel the most human.
In reality, we are all a mix of this light and dark. We all have a tinge of selfishness alongside our altruism, and a touch of envy mixed in with our admiration. We've all helped and hurt others. We all have pieces of our past that make us swell with pride and others that make us cower in shame.
For some reason, though, we naively forget to extend this duality to our parents. Many of us are pressured to think of our parents as all good or all bad when they are in fact a messy combination of both, like the rest of us. Culturally, there’s pressure to believe our parents are infallible, but denying their faults welcomes a resentment that snowballs into something more caustic when left unchecked. Children of immigrants, especially, deal with a unique sort of confusion around processing the in-between all our parents occupy.
How Much to Blame Our Parents
A staple of the second-generation immigrant experience is being thankful to our parents for working so hard and respecting them for building a life for themselves in a new country, while also feeling frustration and a bitterness towards them for their antiquated habits, maladapted home-country mentalities, and underdeveloped emotional infrastructure.
Given these shortcomings and the little T or big T trauma we've suffered as a result, we might find ourselves thinking they aren't good people. Although understandable, internalizing that about our parents is a formula for mental turmoil. It locks us into a lifelong anger that erodes our peace of mind and fractures our relationships. Attempting to understand why our parents are the way they are can be a helpful exercise in beginning to remedy this anger that many of us know so well.
First, many of our parents are trapped in a scarcity mindset brought on by a disadvantaged upbringing, and learned early on to act more out of fear than out of frolic. The concept of doing or buying something purely because they want to is hopelessly foreign. Having a want that isn't a need is just as far-fetched an idea. This mentality can manifest in attitudes towards how their children should spend their time and money, approach romantic relationships, and treat other people, which likely differ from their childrens’ mentalities.
Further, most of our parents don't come from home cultures that afforded them the luxury of healthy emotional development and self-awareness, and thereby lack the introspection and conscientiousness necessary to recognize how what they say and do might harm their children. The quintessential tension immigrant children must resolve is deciding how much to blame their parents for that.
It's obvious that blaming their parents entirely for not having the education or parenting to develop an expansive emotional vocabulary isn't the right strategy, but it doesn't seem quite right to absolve them of all responsibility either. For better or for worse, we are painfully aware that pieces of our parents are caught in our chromosomes, waiting to manifest in unpredictable ways over the course of our lives. Wherever we end up on the how-much-to-blame spectrum, therefore, has some undeniable consequences for our self-image. Blaming them too much for who circumstance has shaped them to be can also make them feel defeated and fuel our anger in damaging ways.
Confronting the Guilt of Being Critical
In South Asian culture, it's sacrilegious to be openly angry at or critical of our parents. It's understood that the ideal, desired child speaks of their parents with an immutable reverence, regardless of their parent's actions. Anything less than consistent respect is seen as ungrateful and unworthy of the parent's monumental sacrifice.
This attitude inhibits parents and their children from honestly acknowledging parental shortcomings. As children, thinking negatively about our parents is usually followed by guilt and shame, regardless of our age, so we're deeply conditioned to do the opposite. We reflexively give them the benefit of the doubt, minimize their mistakes, and make excuses on their behalf in front of others. Accepting our parents as flawed people creates within many of us an overwhelming sense of cognitive dissonance we’d rather not deal with.
Contrarily, children of immigrants are not spoiled, ungrateful children if they acknowledge the humanity of their parents, but rather, they're delusional if they don't. There's no such thing as parents who get everything right, and accepting that inevitability frees us to confront their shortcomings and identify ways to heal without having the unhelpful knee-jerk reaction of shutting ourselves down.
Denying our parents were anything less than ideal robs us of the opportunity to learn and grow from the experience of being their children, further perpetuating the cycle of emotionally underdeveloped parents raising children destined to be emotionally underdeveloped themselves. Acknowledging a previous generations' parenting mistakes paves the way for future generations to be emotionally sophisticated in their parenting approach, optimizing for happiness and fulfillment instead of merely survival.
The truth is, many of our parents had mothers and fathers who were abusive and traumatizing, severely stunting our parents' growth and leading them to unwittingly perpetuate harmful behaviours in their own households. Our parents have tried, and are continuing to try, their absolute best with what they have, but still fall short in some areas. Our parents can love us more than anything in the entire world, and still be shockingly unaware of our needs, emotional or otherwise. In other words, they don't know better because they have never seen better. But it’s in our power to change that.
We can love our parents and acknowledge their fallibility in the same breath. If we have done our job well, our kids will do the same.
Our Duty to Meet in the Middle
As children of immigrants, we have the opportunity to meet them halfway by recognizing their oversights, understanding their backgrounds, and being extra articulate about our needs and expectations. Of course, even suggesting that we have needs that aren't met is likely to be met with incredulousness and offense, and that's merely because our parents take supreme pride in being able to provide extensively for their kids, which usually starts and ends with providing for us physically and financially, which they have been able to do in many of our cases. Simply put, implying we have an unmet need suggests they need to do more, when in fact, we need different.
An easy way to counteract this oversimplification is to reinforce what they're doing wrong with what they've done right. It reminds them that we don't have it out for them, we have the wherewithal to understand and appreciate how much they’ve done, but there are some concrete matters that need their open and non-judgmental attention.
Ultimately, we must be able to hold both these truths in our minds simultaneously. That our parents love us dearly and have provided for us spectacular opportunities, but they have also missed some extremely critical parts of who we are, deeply wounding us. Our parents are unlikely to be either Goku or Voldemort, but somewhere in between, and much closer to Goku than the alternative.
So this week, I'm giving you all permission to be wholeheartedly angry with their parents if giving that anger space to be properly processed will make room for you to be equally and wholeheartedly grateful for all that they've done. They need to feel thanked as much as we need to feel seen, and I believe we can, with some luck and some tact, have both.