Please help me understand my parents' behaviour.
July 15, 2018 12:08 AM   Subscribe

Over the past two years, my relationship with my folks has become rather strained. I would like to understand where they are coming from because I don't want to be resentful and would like a cordial relationship with them. Details follow.

I am 32/F and this long post is going to be about my relationship with my parents which hasn't been the best of late.

This post needs a lot of context, so, in the first part, I'll write a bit about their parenting style and my formative years
My parents were both teachers in government institutes and belong to a generation where getting a permanent government job was considered the pinnacle of success. Particularly, because it offered guaranteed pension and other benefits after retirement. I also feel that their idea of a successful career leans toward the conventionally desirable professions (at least in the South Asian culture and community I grew up in) such as medicine, engineering, and teaching.

Growing up, most of my life decisions were made by my folks. This included decisions such as which academic stream I would pursue or which career path I would follow. They placed a very high premium on getting excellent grades. I was one of the brightest students in school. I never really questioned my parents or their decisions. Nor did my parents encourage that. In their eyes, they knew (or still know) best and their children should follow their advice blindly. This carried on for a really long time and generally life was good because I was a straight A's super studious nerdy kid. Needless to say, they were very proud of me and flaunted my numerous academic achievements. To them, I was meant to do great things. Sky was the limit.

This brings me to the more recent, part two, where things started to change

After graduating from my Master's, I was awarded a fully funded PhD programme at the most prestigious university in the country. My folks couldn't have been happier. This was in my late twenties and as I moved to another state and started living by myself for first time, my worldly experiences grew exponentially. I started making decisions for myself and worked towards being a functional, independent adult. In the meanwhile, I got married and it ended in a divorce. My parents were not excited about it and adopted the 'hide it under the carpet' approach (they are still supremely uncomfortable about disclosing my divorce to anyone, even two years after it came through!). However, I was still continuing with my PhD and that made it all good for them. About a year ago, I realised that the PhD path wasn't for me. In fact, I realised that through out my life, I haven't really taken time out to figure out what I want to do, and where I want to be, and what makes me happy. Instead, I've just been mindlessly jumping from one academic degree to another. So, I withdrew my candidature. And I now have a job (with a publishing firm) which is not prestigious, but one I like, one that pays the bills, and one that gives me time to also enjoy life.

My parents, especially my dad, are finding it hard to come to terms with it. They are quite open in expressing their dissatisfaction about my recent career choices. To them my current job isn't secure enough. Or not high paying enough. And that it's perhaps good as a side hobby to make some extra bucks but not a 'real career'. So they keep offering me advice on what I could do next - such as improve my language skill set and work for the foreign services, or clear exams to be eligible to teach at a university, or reapply for another PhD. Basically, do something else, more valuable than what I'm doing now. I have expressed on countless occasions that I am happy where I am and that's what matters to me. However, that doesn't seem to appease my folks who think I am throwing my potential away and taking life too easy. Another line of thought is that they are only looking out and want the best for me.

They are also not open to discussion or hearing another point of view (mine) without taking it personally. Often, I hear statements like 'what wrong did we do raising you that you've thrown a glorious career away to lead a minimalistic life', or 'why are you making your old parents unhappy', or 'why can't you choose another normal profession like others'. Expressing myself, no matter how politely, is always offensive to them because somehow having a voice means I am disrespectful to their choices and advice. They also consistently tell me that I've made two huge mistakes in life, and can't afford to make anymore. And this usually implies that I should heed to their advice because left to my own devices, I don't have the experience or the knowledge to make sound life decisions. They are also very against the idea of failure and look at it as a sign of weakness. In all of this, I see my ageing becoming hugely disappointed with life because I didn't turn out as they hoped. I often wonder if they are depressed; they just seem so unhappy and embarrassed.

My equation with them as reached a point where their tone is usually one of being very disappointed in me (divorced, quit PhD). The pride they used to feel is all gone. They feel embarrassed in my presence, especially when I reveal my divorce and career change. And while I should not seek validation from them, it still affects me how easily their affection for me has changed. They continue to act like I'm a toddler that needs constant adult supervision. I'd very much like our relationship to be cordial but it's becoming increasingly difficult when I sense so much negativity, disappointment, and emotional manipulation in most interactions.

I do not want to reach a state where I have to cut my folks out completely. But it's hard to continue with the way things are, especially when they are totally shut to the idea of discussion. I'm just looking to understand where my parents might be coming from and what I could possibly do to retain my own sanity while interacting with them.
posted by satipatthana to Human Relations (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Do they feel they made sacrifices in their life so that you could go down the path they intended for you? Therefore they want to derive their satisfaction in life from your success rather than theirs?

They come across very strongly in your question, before cutting them out or reducing contact could you state more clearly to them your position - that you don't see your lived experiences as mistakes, and how you find happiness? It may be worth writing a letter if established dynamics make it harder to say in person or they dismiss it too rapidly.
posted by JonB at 12:57 AM on July 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm usually pro-accomodating family expectations when you can, but your parents considering your divorce and leaving a PhD for a job you like as shameful to them is enough to draw a line. There's no leaving the family business or other complications here, just them seeing you as a possession to do what they demand for their benefit, rather than a person they hope to see happy.

Talk to your friends. If you are in asia or have Asian friends, you'll hear similar stories from at least some of them. I have friends who have cut ties or just see their parents for specific holidays. They get their family support and love elsewhere because their parents can't get past seeing them as possessions. I think it's harder in traditional places where there's so much emphasis on adult children being closely involved with their parents so parents like this can go on further, but I promise you that you aren't the only person dealing with shaming and controlling parents.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 2:24 AM on July 15, 2018 [13 favorites]

Are you the first generation child of immigrants? Are you an only child? It would be good to know these things for context.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:53 AM on July 15, 2018 [6 favorites]

Are you the first generation child of immigrants? Are you an only child? It would be good to know these things for context.

My parents and I continue to live in our country of birth (a South Asian) country. I have a younger sibling who moved to Europe for higher studies and eventually got a white collar job there. My parents, though proud of her 'material and financial' achievements, often give her flak for voicing her opinions (as they normally do for anything that goes against their own values and thinking). However, she is let off easy because at least she's minting money and living a lavish lifestyle in a European country that they can flaunt to the society!
posted by satipatthana at 3:04 AM on July 15, 2018

Do they feel they made sacrifices in their life so that you could go down the path they intended for you?

That's a very common discussion path. They feel they've made a lot of sacrifices for our upbringing (which I acknowledge and am grateful for). And often play that card two ways - one, to suggest that I am where I am because of them, and, two, that they gave up their lives and happiness in raising us. Of course, my own take on this will be largely biased, I do feel, I was a very well-behaved child and I never threw tantrums or asked for material gifts. In fact, for the most part, my parents had an extremely volatile relationship (my father was an alcoholic and my mother has an uncontrollable temper). Therefore, for the most part, as a child, I was soothing them and trying to ensure peace at home.
posted by satipatthana at 3:09 AM on July 15, 2018

I'm just looking to understand where my parents might be coming from

In their experience, the path to stability/success/happiness involves working in certain fields, and they can't see that alternate paths could also work out well. I don't think you will ever convince them on this.

what I could possibly do to retain my own sanity while interacting with them

From experience, if you want to have a civil or even positive relationship, the best thing to do is to tell them you're done hearing criticism about your job and your past life decisions, and if they criticize you, you will leave. (Or hang up the phone, or whatever.) Then do it. This just needs to be something they don't bring up. They can think whatever they like but they need to keep their mouths shut on this particular topic.

(For reference, my mother has made it clear that I'm a giant disappointment because I haven't followed the one true path to happiness for a woman which is to get married young, have babies, and live near my parents. My mother doesn't even think I should have a job. Parents can be impossible to please. She's never going to change her mind about any of this but at least I don't hear about it anymore).
posted by sunflower16 at 3:10 AM on July 15, 2018 [20 favorites]

Also, regarding this comment above:
them seeing you as a possession to do what they demand for their benefit, rather than a person they hope to see happy.

This isn't necessarily true. They may very well hope to see you happy, and in fact I think it's likely that they hope to see you happy. The problem is that they believe there are a few set paths to happiness and you've chosen none of them, so they can't fathom how you could possibly be happy. It's similar to people who cannot fathom that a single woman could possibly be happy.
posted by sunflower16 at 3:34 AM on July 15, 2018 [18 favorites]

Based on your follow up you also seem to have a history of feeling responsible for their happiness. So maybe try to not do that? What I mean is, it sounds as if they may not have been very happy when you grew up and maybe they still aren’t. But they got used to you pleasing them and now you do you and well, they can’t or won’t see that that path makes you happy and can’t seem to be happy for you. That’s all about them though, not you.

I think the only way for you to have a pleasant relationship with them is to basically not engage on these topics, leave or ignore as required. That’s really hard because we would all like to think that we can be open with and feel loved and supported by our parents as we go through life. But that is not always going to happen. And they are unlikely to change their outlook at this point. So seek support and validation from the other people in your life. All you can do with your parents is to minimise the unpleasant interactions.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:17 AM on July 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

This is such a common story amongst Asian parents. When I’m being charitable, I remind myself that they really do want me to happy; they just have a very narrow definition of what happiness means that is driven by the frankly traumatic experiences that they’ve survived. The key to being charitable is accepting they’ll never change and setting up firm boundaries. See them less. Disengage. Tell them less. Find ways to cope (check reddit’s AsianParents sub, vent with other people in the same situation, be honest with yourself about how much contact is healthy for your relationship and stick to it.)

It’s really hard to accept that you’ll never have a close relationship with your parents, but you can’t make them accept you. You can only grant them the grace of accepting them as they are, and as with all acts of emotional labor, it starts with taking care of your own emotional needs first.
posted by snickerdoodle at 5:24 AM on July 15, 2018 [12 favorites]

They feel they've made a lot of sacrifices for our upbringing (which I acknowledge and am grateful for).

You mention that your parents had an unhappy relationship: I would say it’s possible that the sacrifices that your parents made, in their eyes, include staying in a desperately unhappy relationship for thirty plus years. The idea of seeking your own happiness at the expense of future generations is one that is anathema - because they gave up any happiness to increase your chances, as their parents before them did. In their eyes, you are probably the one breaking an unbroken chain of sacrifice.

I suspect also they may feel you are breaking the unspoken contract between parent and child - they care for you when you are young, you care for them when they are old. Your current job may be enough to pay your bills, but probably isn’t enough to pay for your bills plus comforts and luxuries for their old age. They may feel as though you not worrying about a job where you can care for your parents on its salary is itself shameful and ungrateful.

I wonder also if they feel that your divorce and dropping out of the PhD program make it less likely you will marry the person they would have you choose - another professional - and make grandchildren they would be proud of - if they feel you are breaking the generational contract not just in luxuries but in substance (having children).

If so, I think the best way you can approach them is to do so from a hyper-real emotional place. They avoid the subject, but maybe in private you should discuss it. “Why do you feel this decision means I don’t care for my aging parents?” “What do you mean, I can’t afford to make more than two mistakes?” In a sense, the only way out of feeling like a child in your relationship with your parents is to challenge that dynamic and put them in a place where they are on the same level as you.

I have found understanding where my parents are coming from has made me a lot more tolerant of their frustrating ways, because it lets me place them in their context and understand they, too, are trapped by the environment they grew up in.
posted by corb at 6:05 AM on July 15, 2018 [24 favorites]

I would like to understand where they are coming from.

I think this is always a really hard thing. Your parents grew up in a different world, and they are influenced by that in ways you can't always know. My generation was raised by parents who were scarred by the Great Depression, and they valued job security in a way that seemed ridiculous to my generation. It is very likely that your parents experienced social and economic events that make them worried for your future now. The PhD probably means job security to them, and it's likely that marriage means a type of security as well.

Another thing to think about is that it's quite likely that your parents are massively better than their parents were. When I was in my mid-30s and was raising two children by myself, my mother told me, during an argument, that she "gave [me] a lot of freedom." I was infuriated, but decades later, I realize that her own mother ran her children's lives until she developed dementia, so into their own old age, and my mother was trying to do better and not always succeeding. Now that my children are grown, I can see that, even though I tried and sometimes succeeded at doing better than my own mother, I made a lot of mistakes too.

I don't have suggestions for how to move forward with this - my parents both died pretty young, so the problem was "solved" in a devastating way. And there are doubtless cultural issues for you that I'm not able to address. But it's very easy sometimes to dismiss the genuine concerns parents have and their own crap from their (likely shitty) childhoods, and if you want to have a good relationship with them, at least being aware of those issues will help. You sound like a good person who is truly trying to understand them, and that will certainly help.
posted by FencingGal at 6:29 AM on July 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

From the jobs your parents picked it sounds like they value security. I would suggest their words & actions come from a place of concern that you don't seem to have that same financial security that they value. They are worried if something goes wrong you will get hurt, ie a financial set back would upset them greatly so they assume it's painful for you too.

As an older person truly the best way to show your parents you are going to be OK, is to give it time & let them see you being OK. That you are happy & secure in your current insecurity. Maybe you could instead of trying to talk them around to your way of thinking, express what you are doing in terms they understand. I have this financial safety net, this could lead to this career/job which is something I really want to do.

Also I'd be interested in what sort of background your parents came from? Is it one of poverty where having a secure job was a good thing? Can they still remember being poor? You're lucky enough to be in a place where you can be relaxed about job & financial security. Because you've never had the struggle your parents had. That's great, but if you think about it like that maybe you will understand their fears more & work to help alleviate them, instead of thinking of it as criticism of you, think of it as concern. My fathers literal last words to me before he got taken to the ICU to die from the lung cancer that was killing him was to nag me to check my oil before driving to the hospital to see him. It was his way of saying he loved me & worried about me.
posted by wwax at 8:22 AM on July 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Something that worked for me with my parents: discuss things from a rather abstract point of view. As in: you describe the situation and your wants like an outsider would. F.i.:

At an appropriate moment, when there are no 'hot' discussions going on, start out with describing what they're trying to achieve. Probably they're worried about the future of their child. So start out saying something like: "I know that you're worried about [my financial wellbeing, my future, ... ] but you have to accept that I'm a grownup and that I can't just live for my parents. I need to be happy and make my own choices, just like you did. [address their underlying fears: ] I'll really be ok, have a place to live, have a career, even if it's not exactly what you would do in my place. [... elaborate how you'll be ok. And how it's what makes you happy. ].

This worked unexpectedly well with my parents when I was in a similar situation.
posted by jouke at 9:08 AM on July 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have no advice to offer, just empathy. I am in similar shoes as a divorced south-asian mom, and my parents vacillate between giving up on me vs. desperately hoping I'll somehow turn my life around. They are deeply embarrassed when I am open about my life and choices. For my part, I vacillate between wishing to understand them and maybe having a better relationship, vs. withdrawing myself to tend to my own hurt feelings from their behavior. I just don't know. This generational divide seems to me to be quite unbridgeable.
posted by MiraK at 10:53 AM on July 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Strong boundaries, that's what made our relationship better. (I'm Asian American). It took many years of hanging up the phone on them, because they weren't respecting my boundaries because they didn't see me as separate from them. Even when I got married, because they didn't like the guy I chose. To them, I existed only to be their reflected glory. I'm glad that you've come to realize what you value and that you have agency in your life --- that's an accomplishment! Keep it up, and as they age, they'll tend to soften. My parents did, once they realized that they were hung up on unimportant things.
posted by honey badger at 11:18 AM on July 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

You can't be raised parents who so clearly project their hopes, dreams, and values onto you without internalizing those things, even if they disagree with your conscious hopes, dreams, and values. You might find therapy helpful to unearth the internalized shame you feel about your choices so that you can change your emotional tone and conversational frame from one where you feel apologetic to one where you're clear and comfortable about your values, boundaries, desires, etc when you talk to them.

That will in turn make it more possible for you to let their projects slide off you and be their problem, rather than your problem. Obviously this takes time and work to get there, but I think even a small shift could make a big difference for how you and they interact.
posted by spindrifter at 11:40 AM on July 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

It sound like your parents are also very embarrassed in their community about your choices. Can you think of anything for them to brag about? Is that job hard to get (even though it doesn't pay well - you picked from hundreds of applicants). Do you meet famous people? (Meeting in hallway or just getting them a cup of coffee counts) It doesn't actually have to be that big a deal if it sounds good. I remember that my grandmother was so proud of her sister, who won an award from a prestigious professional society. The award was not actually for her professional achievement but for a volunteer service at the local chapter level. (Actually any career in engineering is something to be proud of for a woman born in the 1910s. It just made me laugh when i looked up the actual citation to see how important it was to my grandmother to make it a big deal.) In other words, it doesn't have be a big deal to you, just has to sound good to help your parents feel like they can still brag about you to their friends.
posted by metahawk at 2:28 PM on July 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

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