The following is a guest post from @authenticbrowngirl, who is hosting an event in partnership with Women’s Lives Leeds, Parentification – an honest and authentic conversation about ‘ Untold Stories of Motherhood’. Tickets and more information available here.
One of my friends recently gave birth to a beautiful boy, and as she expressed the lack of sleep lately because her son is teething. I naturally started giving her advice about what to do. She stopped me halfway through and said, “how do you know all of this, you don’t even have children”. I gave her an awkward smile and said, “that’s very true, but I have siblings”. This conversation stayed with me throughout the day, and in the back of my head, my therapist question echoed “do you know how to be a daughter? Or how to be a sister?” This question left me very uncomfortable, and for the past six months, I have asked myself this over and over again. The ugly truth is I don’t.
As an immigrant, we often speak highly of our parents’ sacrifice. How they left their homes for the sake of their children, but we never include the daughter’s experiences, the struggles or suffering.
My mother gave birth to a beautiful girl in 2005, and we were ecstatic to have her home. I never realised that her arrival would change my life. She woke me up the morning after, handed the beautiful, fragile little child over to me, gave me brief instructions and left for work. Those instructions were my introduction to motherhood. I was 12 years old. At the time, it felt more like an honour to be given such responsibilities. My mother worked hard and sometimes she would do night shifts straight after a 12-hour shift in order to provide for us and due to lack of affordable childcare and paid leave, my family couldn’t afford my childhood. I didn’t just experience a parentified childhood but also inherited the onus of stepping in wherever my parents couldn’t. This involved, parent-teacher conference, childcare, emotional caretaking and managing the household to name a few.
I started learning how to make sacrifices early on. In secondary school, I always made excuses of needing the toilet, but instead, I ran home to change diapers and prepare bottles of milk and run back to the classroom. I was thankful that my school was only five minutes’ walk from home which made this around two minutes run. Once the teachers found out about my little “toilet break charade”, I explained the situation and promised to work harder, but I had to help my mother out.
I will forever be grateful for how understanding my teach was. She knew it was wrong, but after I had begged her for hours, she gave in. I had earned being called “mum” at the age of 15 and even now they find more comfort in opening up to me.
I was confronted with womanhood that prioritised servitude and eternal sacrifice at the expense of my own well-being and self-determination. Everything I was taught about being a good daughter was rooted in my willingness to endure. I didn’t realise I was being groomed for a lifetime of overworking myself to no avail. I felt guilty for not assisting, the type of guilt only immigrant daughters can sometimes feel. My parents left their home, family and country for me to have a better life and here I was contemplating whether I should sacrifice my teenage years them. I was constantly reminded of my privileges roof on my head, clean clothes or food on the table. My parents didn’t know any better. I constantly felt indebted to them.
My guilt manifested itself into constant self-doubt, high tolerance for poor treatment, depriving myself of new exciting experiences and anxiety about living a life of my choosing. I raised myself despite needing mothering, and I carried myself throughout life. I experienced motherhood before childhood. It is deeply rooted in a martyr complex because it was instilled in me that one day I will be compensated for my sacrifices and suffering. Perhaps, I would receive better treatment, happiness or maybe even an end to my pain. Oh boy, I was dreaming big. It never happened! I realised that I would never be awarded or compensated for all the emotional labour nor receive an apology for interruption my progress or manipulating me into making decisions that hinder my freedom.
I always question what kind of life I would be living if I didn’t have to carry this weight on my shoulders. If I didn’t have to worry about my sibling’s progress at school, their friendships, their homework and developments, truthfully speaking, I don’t know how to be a sister or daughter. I raised three children, nurtured them with emotional and practical support and serving the intimate needs of a parent. I find it extremely difficult to step outside my mother role. My therapist once asked me “what do you love about yourself?” and as I responded, she kept cutting me off. I was so frustrated, she then said: “everything you have said so far has been how you’ve been of service for others.” It made me questions, who am I beyond what I can do for others? I have experienced the inner turmoil of navigating self-doubt, anxiety, depression, guilt and self-sacrifice. I carried myself throughout life and every curveball, overcoming exam fails, heartbreaks, verbally abusive relationships, depression. I couldn’t rely on anyone else carrying my burden.
I still question what kind of life I would be living if I didn’t have to carry this weight? Swallowing my pain hasn’t improved my condition in the slightest. I am having a tough time believing that I will be redeemed by martyring myself. Will there be forgiveness at the end? Is this just another one of patriarchy’s scams? What benefits have I reaped? I didn’t even get an appreciation dinner or a plaque with words of gratitude etched into it; thank you for giving up your childhood, for always giving in to your selflessness, guilt, and benevolence. There is no end game to martyrdom. No accolades.