Many children of authoritarian parents try very hard to do what their parents say, meet their parents’ expectations, make their parents proud, and excel at everything they try. When this doesn’t get them what they crave—love, a kind word, recognition—their inner world begins to change. Some continue to excel while resenting their parents; other decide to fail, because they are getting too little out of excelling and because they want to teach their parents a lesson. Here is Martina’s story.
I was often rewarded with toys if I received A’s, and my parents would brag about me to my relatives, which only added pressure on me to be perfect. If I made a mistake or received a lower than expected score (such as a B+), I would be punished, reprimanded, and/or made to feel guilty.
When I was in third grade (about 8 years old), I distinctly remember a time when my father was on a business trip abroad. I received three B’s on my report card. My mother called my father about it, which stirred in me great feelings of anxiety. I remember feeling very scared and sick to my stomach. When we picked up my father from the airport (he had been gone for days), he wouldn’t look at me, hug me, or pick me up. I felt completely invisible.
My parents were also very religious, especially my mother. My parents are both Filipino and devout Roman Catholics (I was born and raised in California). There was a period of time we went to confession every week. I always felt like there was something wrong with me when I felt like I had nothing to confess. I wondered if I was “too proud” to recognize what I had done wrong. Surely, I’d done something wrong that week!
In one instance, I cannot remember what I did, if I “talked back,” as my mother would call it, or something else, but I made her angry enough to demand that I kneel before her and beg for forgiveness. She then hit me with her house slipper. I remember crying, feeling terrified, and wanting to disappear. I then was forced to go to confession. I was grounded and not allowed to watch any TV or go outside. Try as I might, I cannot remember what I did wrong.
And so, growing up, I lived in constant fear of being yelled at, grounded, or made to study more. I sometimes resorted to forging my parents’ signatures if test results were not up to snuff. I even forged a signature on a test I got an ‘A’ on because I forgot to tell my parents about the test itself.
My hair began to change in 5th grade. It became very wavy and thick, almost impossible to take care of. I remember my mother would seat me on her vanity chair, pull hard as she brushed, and comment on how ‘ugly’ I kept my hair. Comments on my looks continue to this day. She tells me to wear slippers in her house because she thinks my feet are ugly. If I’ve gained weight, she’ll comment on it; if I lose weight, she’ll comment on it as well. If I wear make-up, she’ll tell me, “You should always look this way, you look much nicer.” They’re small, passing words, but they cut and cut and cut.
Due to their religiosity, I was often told by my parents that whatever I achieved or was talented in was because I was “blessed” and that I should be “grateful to God.” But if I fell short of their expectations, it was always because of some failing on my part. I had, and continue to have, issues with confidence and self-worth. Beyond this, I have come to dislike and distrust organized religion.
As a girl, I had to be modest in both personality as well as attire. I could not show “too much skin.” My mother would frequently “cover me up” in public, force me to tuck my shirt in, and sometimes say out loud, “You stink.” My father, on the other hand, was disappointed in me for playing with makeup and trying nail polish at thirteen. In college, when I decided to dye my hair another color, both my parents said I embarrassed them.
But grades and looks were not the only thing under the microscope. On more than one occasion, my mother commented that she “didn’t like my friend.” One of those friends was my best friend whom I left behind after we moved to another city. She would call me almost every day. This irritated my mother to the point that she shook the phone in her hand and yelled, “Why is she always calling you and calling you?” I began to cry and said, “We’re best friends. I miss her.” She responded by grabbing my shoulder, shaking me, and yelling at me to “Stop it! Shut up!”
In high school, my father disapproved of even the idea of a boyfriend. Grades came first and foremost. Yet it was in high school that my grades began to collapse. I was burned out. I didn’t care anymore, and found myself often wishing to die. At sixteen, my best friend in high school was asked to prom. I had a very deep crush on this girl and felt no ill will towards her or the boy who asked her out. But I still felt unable to go to prom or enjoy it without a date. I turned to my mother for support, and she said, “Well, that’s why girls can’t be friends forever. There’s always jealousy.” My mother didn’t touch me or hug me or comfort me. I honestly don’t feel like I can tell her anything. I’ve stopped telling her anything, and yet she wonders why I never call her except on her birthday and on Mother’s Day.
Having so many things in my life chosen or decided for me tried my patience. I felt as though I was living in a box with only a single window from which I could watch my peers, and on occasion receive praise and rewards if I performed as commanded. I studied writing in college and to this day I feel guilty for resenting my parents for their treatment of me, despite their efforts and sacrifices to pay for my dreams. There’s a persistent feeling that I will never be validated, that I will never have a victory to call my own. I keep craving for the day that I will achieve something of great significance and be recognized for it, but I am aware of the fact that even if I accomplish such a thing, it will not bring me happiness.