A Minimal Story of Familial Friction
I am currently wrapping up my end-of-November visit to see my mother and father in Orlando. The name for this holiday is “Thanksgiving” but there is no thanks being given for the perpetuation of a holiday that celebrates genocidal colonialism. At least not from me, and this is intentional. Along with everything else in my life, you already know I do my utmost to be present. I want that to reflect in the things that seem even most mundane, like national and religious holidays.
The first hurdle when visiting my parents, apart from deconstructing their attachment to American customs, is acknowledging my emotional trauma and holding myself in compassion. I must be diligent and remind myself not to self-blame or self-shame for any anxiety I feel approaching the trip, during the trip, and after the trip.
The second hurdle is to appropriately set the climate on what I will and will not participate in. This includes any traditions, customs, or behaviors that I do not feel comfortable with due to any moral misalignments. If it doesn’t sit right, I ain’t doin’ it.
The third hurdle is to release myself of the urge to treat my family like clients. I am not here ‘on the clock’, I am not here to intervene, I am not here to heal. I am here to enjoy what I can, when I can, however I can.
By staying cognizant of these three challenges, I can more easily anticipate friction and mitigate the friction any way I can. Let’s see if it worked.
On the penultimate day of my trip, my mom brings me into my old room as she says, “So… I have some things for you but I know that you don’t like things but when I saw them I couldn’t help myself, they reminded me of you so I wanted to get you the things that I thought were so pretty…” The sentence goes on, but I’ll save you from her stream of consciousness.
Let’s start by unpacking what she was saying.
“I know that you don’t like things” - I take this to be confirmation of her acknowledging my lifestyle as a minimalist.
“I couldn’t help myself” - I take this as confirmation of her inability to exercise self-control in that moment of purchase.
“They reminded me of you” - I take this to be a confirmation of her parental need to see me reflected in the space around her.
“The things that I thought were so pretty” - I take this as confirmation that she was thinking solely about her likes or dislikes, not mine.
Now let’s get back to the very uncomfortable conversation.
She continues to pick out the multiple things she had stored in my room to give me. Did I mention that my room had transformed into an altar crossed with a storage unit? The room is a graveyard of memories and missed opportunities. Stacked boxes tower next to dusty photos and fake flower arrangements. Fossilized fragments of a tumultuous childhood, and my mothers attempts to fill emotional gaps with gifts she never returned after I declined them.
Well now you know.
She explains the story behind every item and how it reminds her of things I am allegedly passionate about. The irony is that all these apparent areas of interest of mine take the form or shape of something she likes.
Bracelets with dog paw symbols; but I don’t wear bracelets.
Gold spanks leggings; but I only really like the color black and I don't wear spanks.
Fuzzy pajama pants; but I sleep in the nude.
Minnie Mouse ears, Día de los Muertos themed; but I haven’t been a child for many years now.
Finally, she brings out a book. I immediately praise her with positive reinforcement for an awesome choice in literature: America Ferrera’s American like Me (I highly recommend you read, especially if you identify with any marginalized group and definitely if you identify as "first-gen"). She is noticeably pleased with herself, which is what I wanted her to feel from my affirmation.
She then asks me the inevitable question, “Do you want any of it? But I mean don’t feel forced I just wanted to do something nice for you…” I cringe.
Here is where I hope you can picture me, standing there awkwardly, preemptively testing out my response in my head in the microseconds between when she ended her question and when I said any words at all. I knew I had to be careful not to hurt her feelings, since she is incredibly sensitive to sentiments of incompetence and unworthiness due to emotional and physical abuse she suffered by her mother’s hand.
I started by simply thanking her for thinking of me, and that the sentiment alone is incredibly humbling. I continued to state that I didn’t want her to think that I was not grateful, based on what I was about to say. I admitted to her, as I have admitted before, that when she spends money on me unnecessarily, it makes me feel guilty about waste. I then went on to redefine “unnecessarily” for her, as I have done before. “I like trips, I like experiences, I like tattoos, and eating and drinking. These are the things that I like. Anything outside of that I will likely not use and have to donate, unnecessarily.”
She stops me and says, “I get it, I get it. You’ve now made it very clear. Before I thought you were just trying to be nice about me not spending money for you, but now I see you mean it and it makes you feel bad but I don’t want you to feel bad so I am going to stop now... So trips, yes?”
I smile awkwardly and say, “Yes. Trips; yes, mami. Gracias.” She quietly packs everything back up while muttering under her voice, “Esto lo puedo devolver y esto lo voy a regalar..." I take my new book to the couch, and breathe heavily.
I’ve learned so much about my parents over the years. I understand how difficult it is to be an immigrant. It’s been a lifetime of struggle, strife, and psychological trauma for them. This is not lost on me.
I also see how much of a strain it is for them to get to know me when, ultimately, we really do not have a lot in common apart from bloodline and last names. With this heritage and ancestry comes generations of abuse, guilt-economy, religious indoctrination, cultural assimilation, individual disassociation, collective debt, and personal regret.
On the other hand, we have come into a lot of privilege here in the States. This cannot go unrecognized. I own all the privilege that comes from my predominantly Eurocentric phenotypic expression, the sound of my legal first and last name, and the elite education my parents sacrificed for me to receive.
The intersection of humility and prosperity is a tricky one to maneuver. I have tried countless times to impart my psychological and introspective insights onto my parents with the hopes of unburdening them from their own suffering. I have no idea if it has worked or not. From an outsiders perspective (because I do consider myself an outsider to them), they still seem perpetually miserable; never having enough.
I simply refuse to live this way.
We all have these experiences where we feel deeply misunderstood. This profound sentiment of misalignment is not unique to me.
We can do our best to never fault our parents for their inherited abuses. Sin embargo, we should not fault ourselves for rejecting the second-hand trauma that inevitably has been passed on to us. That is normal to reject. This is okay to feel this way.
Let’s normalize non-linear healing and we are bound to liberate ourselves from dissatisfaction. When we do so, we will no longer crave or desire the distraction of excess.
This is the goal.
This is the lifelong journey.