I met someone recently who feels let down by his parents. He told me this poem describes his thoughts.
Philip Larkin — This Be The Verse -
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
It stirred me into thinking how I have been shaped by my parents — deliberately or otherwise.
As a child, completely self absorbed as young ones are, I cannot remember attributing any personality to my parents that wasn’t to do with us their children. Through narcissistic eyes, I determined as their world, they were confined to a singular purpose directed towards our physical and mental well being. Fed, clothed, educated and disciplined. An unspoken pact moulded us into little models of optimal determination and ambition. In return for this devotion we offered to become improved versions of generations of children past. And so I thought I knew my parents. But through time in a slow awakening from my internal absorption, awareness of the depth and multi dimensionality of their being; of a history cratered with desires wrested attention. Maturity has encouraged lucid appreciation for their individuality untainted by the lens of my prosperity.
Today on the scales of worthiness, society deems success less noble unless borne from a life of deprivation; hardship and lack of opportunity. Cynically many scale up impoverishment and being shunned to authenticate their life’s triumphs. But my parents truly did live that life and I am so grateful their determination to shape destiny and generosity to family lay the foundations for my blessed life.
It seems wrong to describe my parents in a singular way. They are changelings as we are too; dependant on the present circumstance to be defined. However writing has to have an angle so as they deserve, effecting nonchalance, l will attempt to explain where they began. My parents were born into poor families in small insular villages in India where success was reached via deeply furrowed but narrowly cultivated pathways. But the drive to branch out and push boundaries was like an umbilical cord nourishing and pulsating in each of them, setting them wildly apart from their contemporaries. When my grandfather passed away, my father was a child. To be educated he was forced to live with distant relatives apart from the protection of his mother. Treated as a second class citizen he felt he didn’t belong, a sense that has never left him. Around his studies he was expected to help in the business of the family; forced to wake early and sleep late there was no time for childish fun. But despite the hardship, the drum beat of betterment was not going to let him fail, cajoling him to study and work in the UK which he did. In the 1960’s this was no mean feat.
Extremely unusual for women in her time, my mother was determined to escape the fate of uneducated women who mostly faded into the backgrounds of their lived lives. Persuading her sceptical parents that the merit of study would overcome the shame of being an unchaperoned woman, she was allowed to go to University. Too poor to afford electricity, she studied by candle light or street lamps, each night washing one of her two outfits to dry for the next days striving.
In the absence of his father and finite ability of his older brother, my father took on family headship, sending copious amounts of money back from his meagre earnings to India to ensure his sisters married (India operates a dowry system). He later returned where through an arranged marriage process he met my mother. I am sure they recognised in each other that burning light of aspiration. Marriage and a promise that their stay in the UK would be short persuaded her to live abroad. Whether it was ever intended to be kept, I don’t know to this day, but I and my brother were born here and here we all remain. In their new foreign life, my mother taught herself English, undertook a PHD and still earns royalties for ground breaking scientific discoveries. My father on the side of full time work ran market stalls, renovated houses and mastered photography. Together aside from establishing their own lineage they have financially supported four generations of extended family. Theirs is an incredible legacy. In its dimensionality sits wonder, determination, love, entrepreneurship and energy. It was never just about me and my brother and I am embarrassed to have been so myopic.
But don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of their patrimony I find difficult to grapple with. My parents as immigrants can at times seem stuck in the past with a rose tinted view of how the traditions of India perpetuate and are hurt when their children don’t wish to carry these forward. They experience a gnawing guilt of diluting their heritage by living in foreign lands and a thought their children have failed by not fully embracing culture; our inaction adulterating their perception of us. I have ascertained that their success particularly against a backdrop of hardship has been immense; needling me into disappointment with my flaccid attempts to compare. And having worked so hard their whole lives they don’t know the meaning of ampleness. The unrelentingness trait is hardcoded into their DNA. Consequentially life is not enjoyed easily. I wish I could make their minds lighter, put them on the path to frivolity they unintentionally laid in their off spring.
I think we can appreciate how some children feel burdened by parental legacy. Perhaps it is too stifling, too successful, too expectant, too awful. Inter-generational trauma occurs when hurt experienced by a generation can alter the expression of DNA in a future generation, passing down those feelings — not by changing actual DNA but through Epigenetics. Although no one is sure how it occurs, extreme stress, starvation, addiction for example can explain generational challenges within families. The World Bank undertook a study on inter-generational mobility and found our prospects are mostly tied to the social status of our parents implying it is hard to change our circumstances. Another inescapable burden of parental legacy.
Many of us incubate traits and the tendencies of our parents, conserving in some form as we grow older. It is inexorable we will encompass in our Venn diagram of personality, shades of theirs. I guess this is what my friend meant by observing the Larkin poem; we cannot shoulder full responsibility for ourselves. I feel incredibly lucky to have been sculpted and supported by my parents back stories and blazing impulses and for that I will be forever grateful — but not everyone will feel the same and that I understand….