Anger and sadness, I know them well. My body knew I didn’t know love before my mind did. Anger felt like a single flame in my head that quickly turned to a raging wildfire of a headache, only to be washed down by my tears in the end, set free by the weight of quivering guilt in my throat, so heavy I couldn’t breathe.
I always knew it. All the signs pointed towards it. I never felt properly loved by my parents. I’ve realized this wasn’t love for a while now, but I didn’t know what to call it.
Their love isn’t love. It is shattered glass pieces of what feels like love. What they do is provide. Provided the essentials. A nice home, enough food, clothes to keep me warm, and more. They toss me crumbs of affection and affirmation, pieces left behind for me to follow. When given they were once devoured. Yet with every bite I was left even more dissatisfied, because it fell flat and was given with conditions. They lack the emotional vulnerability that comes with love. Rather they are at times aloof and brash with their words. The hard truth is my parents don’t know how to love because they’ve never been properly loved by their parents either. Misguided truths about love, passed down through generations, from their parents to mine.
We all have collectively refrained from coming to consensus on a definition of love to the point that we don’t know what it is anymore. If we don’t know what it is, how can we ever both give and receive love? How will we differentiate abuse from love? A definition is rudimental to creating a strong foundation that can be further be built on. Love is one of the pillars that steers us towards the path of happiness. We can’t achieve happiness without love. So, what is love? Love is, as I discovered while reading Bell Hook’s All About Love, a line she borrowed from M. Scott Peck’s self-help book, The Road Less Traveled, “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” I felt a sense of peace as I read this line, though I had been previously living with an ill-defined version of love I recognized I had been blindly following this definition of love by accident after graduating from college. The definition shows us that love is a will, an action not a feeling. We often believe love is something we have no control of, something we just feel. This is not right. When we believe love is an uncontrollable instinct we lose sight of control and accountability. Love rather, according to Hooks is, “an act of will – namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” You have control. You always will.
Hook’s words made sense of the pieces I’ve discovered in trying to understand my tumultuous relationships with my parents. One vivid memory comes to mind with my mom. One that is saved under as a red flag.
My mom and I exchanged bullet stares while words like flaming arrows flew out of our mouths, cutting holes into the flimsy love I was taught she had for me.
“¿Y que vas hacer con eso?” [“what are you going to do with that?”] my mom roars when I tell her I want to pursue an artistic career. Silence floods over me even though I want to scream. I can only let out an audible exasperation, tired of her doubt and disapproval.
“¿Vas a comerlo? ¿Vas a comer mierda? Todo que haces es una malidita mierda.” [“Are you going to eat it? Are you going to eat shit? Everything you do is shit.”]
“Mami puedo hacerlo,” [“Mom, I can do it”] I say knowing it won’t change her mind.
“okay, vamos a ver en el furturo,” [“okay, we’ll see in the future”] she says with a knowing eye and venom that makes me roll my eyes. Her last words are the same ones she constantly uses to guilt trip me. But rather than push me to follow her wishes, it only leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, a distaste for her. A better translation of the last sentence is, “you will suffer. You will fail. Don’t come back crying to me because I told you so. I won’t help you. You don’t deserve it. You wasted your dad’s and I’s money and time.”
Abuse can’t coexist with love. My parent’s tendencies to be verbally abusive, manipulative, and make me the object of their anxiety driven angry lash outs, has planted anger in me. Consequently, my parents don’t love me. Their abusive ways aren’t love. Love and abuse can’t coexist together. I know I’m not alone in my experience. The sad truth is verbal abuse and manipulation in the form of guilt tripping is rampant in all types of families, making no exception to the Latinx families.
The tone in which many Latinx parents talk to their kids is degrading. Often, they talk to us as if we are clueless about life and as children who don’t deserve respect. We are seen as not knowing what is good for us, as if we’re animals. We’re seen a little more human as we become adults but even then, their weight of criticism falls on us heavy, trying to keep us in line with their beliefs and truths.
I’ve seen countless examples of parents being abusive from commenting on a girl’s weight, to rampant machismo, to overly controlling parents often rooted in their pious ways. Something as simple your parents disproving what you want to study because it’s not worth the sacrifices, they made can quickly come manipulative. This guilt trip of is it worth your parent’s sacrifices is exhausted. It is used to keep children of immigrants in line, push them to put their parent’s wants over their own children’s needs, which is then is poorly justified with the argument they just want what is best for you. They can’t dictate what is best for you. As a young adult, you should have the capacity to do that yourself. Yet again, since they’re the parent they must always be right, therefore you need to follow their rules. This is very dangerous, especially for those children who wind up following their parent’s every wish. What they don’t realize, while it keeps their parent’s happy, it instills fear and kills their own happiness.
Guilt is born out fear of failing our parents. Are we making their sacrifices worthwhile? They didn’t leave their home country and work countless of inhuman hours just for you to get D+ in your math class. Some children of immigrants beat themselves up for not doing well in class and if they don’t, their parent’s will be sure to remind them to feel guilty about their actions. This fear is a tool rooted in the authoritarian parenting style most Latinx parents take-on. An authoritarian style puts great emphasis on obedience and respecto (respect), that includes clear rules, high standards, strict punishment, control, and little communication. Some well-known examples of this style are the punishment of children with the use of everyday objects, from la chancla (a sandal) and the one I knew really well growing up, el chicote or el sinto (belt). While latinxs on social media poke fun of the choice of parenting style, it is no laughing matter. The fear rooted in the authoritarian parenting style is a black hole that can lead to a host of problems from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and mood disorders. According to another source, in addition to the aforementioned outcomes, it can also put children at risk for suicide and somatization (physical symptoms that manifest as the result of anxiety and great emotions). If the fact we are more likely susceptible to depression and anxiety wasn’t bad enough, latinxs are 5x more likely for anxiety and depression than non latinxs.
It doesn’t get better especially for Latina women. 10.5% of U.S. Latina women ages 10-24 years are more likely to attempt suicide, while 7.3% of White females, 5.8% of Latinos, and 4.6% of White male teens attempt suicide at a lower rate. It has become so bad that it has been labelled an epidemic. But this isn’t recent news. The state of the well-being of young Latina women hasn’t been be well for a long time. There are many factors that contribute to this, but if we go back the characterization of authoritarian parenting style, clear rules, high standards, and control, those are all heighten when raising a Latina. You are controlled in many ways, from where you can go, what you can wear, how to sit, even how to talk. You also inherit more responsibilities, mostly that of a traditional homemaker. As a young Latina woman this a lot to bear, when what you crave the most is to be free and express yourself like any other person.
Even with so much evidence of their parenting style harming their children’s mental health, mental health is taboo in Latin culture. If you’re depressed, you’ll get over it over time according to some parents. Others will even laugh at you, tell you you’re being dramatic. The fact that most parents can’t see their children are not well, a mental state they were partially had a hand in, is ignorance. How can this ever be love?
On the flip side, love is care, commitment, trust, knowledge, responsibility, and respect. While our parents may fulfill some of these characteristics, most of them can’t be accomplished without hurting us.
The point of this essay wasn’t to blame my parents or your parents for all our struggles. But rather to see what part they play in this role we call life. A life we all want to be a happy one. Again, one of the biggest pillars for happiness is love. When you don’t understand love, believe the pseudo “love” you were raised by your parents is real or fail to realize abuse and love can’t coexist it makes living a genuinely happy, loving life difficult.
First step is recognition, while the next step can be understanding why, you can directly skip that step and go towards action. Personally, I need to know the why before I move on to action. But be warned that sometimes you can get stuck in the why’s and forget the action, which is the most important part of changing. I read Hook’s book so I could improve my life, especially in the love department. Discovering I was never loved properly by my parent made me realize I was clueless about love. If I wanted to be happy, I needed to rewire my definition of love and forget about the painful love my parents taught me and I subconsciously modeled my life off.
One thing is for sure, I don’t blame them for not being able to love me. My parents are capable of love. Everyone is. But not many of us had a good model of love. So, we don’t know what it is or how to act it out. They’ve been afflicted by many traumas, passed down through generations, some that I’ve only begun understanding over the last several years. I am the result of multitude times and spaces converging into one. Time that has taken different dips and turns, in them encoded my family’s history. I can’t be mad at my parents for living. While I strongly believe people can change, it’s not my duty to show or force my parents how to love. If I am going to live a life of love, it’s through my actions my parents might see where they’ve gone wrong. Maybe then my parents can learn to become the student and I the teacher, only if they are willing to follow. The strongest tool I have is my love through my actions. I have control over my actions and so do you. In acting with love we can change the past, present, and future.