When I was teaching and my students were unhappy with a grade that they earned, they always said the same thing when I asked them why they were upset. “My parents are going to be disappointed.”
From not making the A-team, to not wanting to take over the family business, it goes without saying that all of us, at some point or another, have experienced that horrible gut-wrenching fear of disappointing our parents. Why? Because most people acknowledge that parenting is hard work and involves a lot of sacrifice. Our parents brought us into this world and we feel as though we owe it to them on some level to make them proud.
But what about when your parents didn’t bring you into this world?
Growing up, I was very cognizant of two things:
- My existence was in no way, shape or form a result of my parents (adoptive) having sex.
- That also meant that having me as a daughter was a deliberate choice.
The first fact was wonderful–particularly during my early teenage years when all of my friends endured the agonizing talks about The Birds & The Bees from their parents and promptly realized that their parents had sex at least as many times as numbers of children. I was able to remain blissfully ignorant of any intercourse my parents may have had since there was no proof.
The second fact however, was a weight that I carry with me to this day.
You see, when I say that I was a deliberate choice, I don’t mean to suggest that having a family the traditional way is in any way not a choice. I know that people choose to have babies and go through difficult and sometimes heartbreaking lengths to have their own biological children. But in my opinion, choosing to adopt a child is different.
In order for me to be adopted, several key things had to happen. For starters, my biological mother had to decide to put me up for adoption. At the same time, my adoptive parents (whom I will just call “parents” from here on out) had to search for an agency, fill out countless stacks of paperwork, sit through interviews and home visits, pass an intense vetting process, wait many months to know if they were getting a child, and also pay a sizeable amount of money.
Mind you, this was the process back in the 80s. Now, adoptions are even more tightly regulated. Adoptions from China often entail multiple visits by both parents to the home country and can cost upwards of $40k. Most people that I know do not readily have $40k to spend willy nilly on anything, let alone a child.
But going back to this idea of choice–I was chosen. In fact, if one thinks about it on a cruder level–I was an investment.
My parents never ever spoke of my adoption in such blunt terms. Sure, they told me about the process and how long they had to wait. They even told me that they were afraid I wasn’t coming because Diane Sawyer did a piece for Good Morning America during the Seoul Olympics highlighting the number of American families that were adopting Korean children. The Koreans were embarrassed because the piece also showcased the fact they they did not adopt their own children, and they threatened to put a stop to adoptions from Korea as a whole. But they told me these things because they wanted to me see how important I was to them and how much they loved me.
I understood this growing up, and I consciously knew that in their eyes I was their daughter just like anybody else. But subconsciously I lived my life dictated by this constant feeling of pressure–pressure to be the perfect daughter because I was chosen.
Some of my friends who are the youngest of multiples joke all the time that their parents were way more lenient on them than their older siblings. “Yeah, by the time I was in high school, my parents had gone through so much hell with my brother and sister that as long as I didn’t get arrested, they didn’t care,” one said.
I never felt so lucky. In fact, I felt the exact opposite. In my mind, I wasn’t just chosen and expensive. I was also an only child. There was no one before me to make me look better, and there was no one coming after me to make up for any of my shortcomings. I was my parents’ one shot to get it right.
The pressure that I felt to be the perfect child was not something that was tangible in my day to day life, but looking back, it is easy to see that nearly all of my decisions and choices stemmed from the desire to please not only my parents, but everyone.
Many of my perfectionistic tendencies were “typical” and school-based. I always wanted to make sure that I had straight A’s through the better part of my academic career. The first time I got a C on a test was in sixth grade in advanced math. I was so terrified to tell my parents that I hid it under my pillow and cried when I broke the news. Up until that point, I had always gotten A’s without much effort, so I never had the “you can do better” talk with my parents.
That talk never came. My mother was a teacher, and both she and my father openly shared how they both struggled to earn average grades in school. They didn’t care about the letter at the top of the test; they only cared that I was doing the best that I could. Still, in that moment, I felt like the universe had taken its bright red pen and scrawled “Return to Sender” across my forehead.
I also checked all of the “overachiever” boxes by maintaining an impressively busy schedule with all of the desirable extra-curricular activities such as violin lessons, orchestra, horseback riding, figure skating, baton, marching band, clarinet, student ambassador programs etc. While I genuinely loved doing all of these things, they were also status symbols and markers that I internalized as proof that I was worthy of the sacrifices.
People say that it’s only normal for children to want to please their parents. In fact, some say that children should want to please their parents. But, my desire to please was more than just wanting to do well in order to receive praise or recognition. I felt like it was my duty to serve them as much as they served me, and if I failed, everything they did was for nothing.
Aside from those typical perfectionistic tendencies, nearly every major decision of my life was rooted in this feeling of needing to prove my worth or make up for others’ sacrifices on my behalf.
My parents pulled me from my local high school and sent me to a district a few towns over because we were tired of the micro-aggressions and blatant racism we experienced in my hometown, but this switch came with a sizeable tuition payment. Wanting to lessen the financial burden, without consulting anyone, I told my guidance counselor that I wanted to double up my course-load to graduate a year early. While I managed to do so, I wound up in the hospital in the winter of my junior (senior) year because I overdosed on sleeping pills. The grueling pace of coursework mixed with my extracurriculars left me sleepless and desperate to just get some rest.
In college, I started out as a psychology major but switched to music education after my first semester because I felt guilty that my parents had supported me through fourteen years of playing violin and clarinet. I felt like I owed it to them to pursue music because they were at every lesson, recital, concert, football game, etc. throughout my entire life. Ultimately, when the music route didn’t pan out, I was crippled by the thought of changing my major yet again–this time at the end of my sophmore year.
I knew that shifting to English would likely result in an extra semester or two of coursework and didn’t know what that would mean financially. My parents had been so supportive when it came to paying for high school, and I knew that they would likely say that we would “make it work,” but I couldn’t take the chance. I had nightmares that they would talk behind my back about what a disappointment I was, and I feared that they would finally start to regret adopting me.
So, similar to high school, I loaded up on credits and got more course overrides than I could count. I made sure that I would not only graduate on time, but a semester early. On the one hand, I am glad that I did because it set me up well for graduate school, but on the other hand, I really do regret missing out on a lot of college experiences because I was buried in work most of the time.
This pattern continued well after college. Overworking and fighting to prove myself and my worth became a compulsion. I put everyone else’s needs before my own and held myself to such tight commitments and high standards that my mental and physical health suffered greatly. I lived in constant fear. Fear of letting people down. Fear of not being enough. Fear of people thinking that I was not what they’d hoped I was.
I taught students who would have breakdowns in class and confide in me that they were terrified of disappointing their parents with a low grade. I counseled kids through coming out to their parents. I kindly reminded students that their happiness should come first and that their parents would be proud of and love them no matter what.
But I was twenty three years old, and I didn’t believe that about myself.
I’m thirty now, and to be honest, feeling beholden to others and feeling worthy are things that I still struggle with. Sure, I have come a long way in the sense that I know my parents do not have any expectations of me (good or bad) and that they did everything they’ve done for me out of nothing but love–and they would do it all again a thousand times over without question.
But there are still moments in my life when I feel the tug of guilt. I still don’t think I know what it is like to live life solely for myself. Not knowing what I want to do job-wise since we’ve moved wakes me up in night sweats. Not because the unknown is scary, but because I am terrified that all of the sacrifices my parents made for my schooling will be for nothing. To me, the thought of taking a career that is not tied to education would be like slapping my parents across the face.
The irony of the entire situation is that I live under this self-inflicted pressure-cooker of perfection and achievement because I want to do whatever it takes to make my parents happy. I want them to have the perfect daughter because they waited for so long and jumped through so many hoops to get her. Additionally, I owe my life to them. Every opportunity I’ve ever had has been because of their love and support. But at the end of the day, if you were to ask my parents what their version of the perfect daughter would be, they would tell you that they want a daughter who is happy. A daughter who lives the life that she wants and who doesn’t feel beholden to them in any way, shape, or form.
So even though I am still working on letting go of the idea of being the perfect daughter, I am beyond grateful that I have the perfect parents and that in our eyes, we are the perfect family.