On Parenthood and Not Being Enough

Image description: Outline of an adult shouting at a child and a parent helping a child working at a desk

Content Warning: Physical punishment

It is most often our parents who guide us through at least the first few years of our existence. For better or worse, they can leave a deep impression within us. Sometimes it takes careful examination years later to figure out what their impact was, and what acquired beliefs we might want to discard. This is one such examination.  

My intention is to identify why I often feel that ‘I am not enough’. For me, ’not being enough’ is an all-encompassing negative emotion at the bottom of every personal consideration. I am not enough to deserve love, or kindness, or a relationship, or good academic results, or literally anything positive. This internalisation has come from multiple sources, but my parents have certainly played their part.  

From a material perspective, I grew up privileged and was provided for. My father was a first-generation university student and became a manager at a local agricultural company. My mother never finished university and runs our small family-owned farm. We have a beautiful house in a rural area, right in the middle of nature. My mother valued our education immensely, which meant I got extra after-school English lessons and had all the books I ever wanted. We rarely went on holidays. My parents instead put the money towards building the farm and giving us good food and school supplies. They supported me through doing my A levels in the UK and continue to help me during my university years. For all this, I am eternally grateful.  

It has meant that my achievements always feel hollow, for there is always more to be done.

Valuing education, however, also had a darker side. My mother believed in strict discipline, including the occasional instance of physical punishment, and a lot of my self-worth got tied up in academic results. We were continuously assessed, and the night before every test I remember being quite anxious. Bs were not acceptable, and when I first got a C, I was so stupefied that I could not process it. It is difficult for me to assess how much pressure came directly from my mother and how much I put on myself indirectly due to her approach. Either way, it is clear to me that academic achievement was the be-all and end-all of my sense of value.  

My mother’s approach was to always look for further improvements. It was not enough to have straight As, or to win regional competitions, or to literally be top of the year in my subject at the best university in the world. When I told her my score for my master’s thesis (90+), her first reaction was “I wonder why they deducted these few marks”. It has meant that my achievements always feel hollow, for there is always more to be done. 

Knowledge has become a competition, and I am not enough. I know she means well, and objectively her approach has led to good academic results. But at what cost? Is it the only way? This sense of not being enough has poisoned most areas of my life. I think that she has deep insecurities about not finishing her own education and living a different life from what she imagined, so I do not blame her much.  Nonetheless, if I ever have children, I will teach them cooperation over competitiveness, and I will make sure they know moral worth cannot be reduced to academics.  

My father’s most affectionate gesture is a firm handshake.

A lot of my low self-esteem is likely attributable to a lack of affection from my parents. They have never told me that they love me, which I only realised to be unusual after moving to the UK. My father’s most affectionate gesture is a firm handshake. I awkwardly hug my mother about three times a year when I leave for Oxford. This has affected my relationships, where sometimes I feel a desperate desire for physical closeness yet a deep sense that I do not deserve it.

I have felt uncomfortable with hugging friends for years, and there have been long periods in my life where all I wanted was for someone to give me a long hug and say, ‘it’s going to be ok’. Oddly, in this fantasy, I want it to be in English and I do not want it to be my family. Midway through my teenage years I switched to thinking in English (not my first language), and all emotional development I have had has been in English. I have only loved in English. Perhaps I do not know how to love in my native tongue.

Looking up to my father as an ideal of manhood has had its toll, too. There are qualities I admire about him to this day – he provides for those he cares about, he can get basically anything done, he is a good speaker and is physically strong. But he is also a devout Catholic without any justification for his beliefs (he does not feel the need for one) and raised me in the same tradition. I have analysed this in a different article, but realising he is not who I want to be took some processing. We disagree on gay rights, abortion, and other topics. He is very non-confrontational, so this is not really an issue for our relationship, but it created a rift where there was not much closeness to start with.  

Another anecdote that comes to mind is my mother’s obsession with picking spots. When I became a teenager, she took great pleasure in picking mine. I never liked it and it made me very conscious of the poor quality of my skin. What’s worse is that my father’s toxic masculinity made me believe skin care products are not for “real” men, leading to a vicious cycle of poor self-confidence and bad skin. Picking spots hurts, and it is worse when done by someone else.

A few months ago, when at home, I told my mother to never touch my skin again in quite a resolute tone. This felt like an important moment. My skin has made me feel unlovable and not enough, to the point where in any relationship there is a voice in my head telling me I do not deserve to be in it. I am learning to ignore it and move on, but it is not fun. I do not want to burden my partners with my own issues, yet it feels important for them to know of my past.  

These days, when I talk to my parents about the shortcomings of their methods, they do not recognise what I see. My mother believes that genes determine most of one’s personality, and that I wanted to be Catholic and study excessively. It is true that nature certainly forms the scaffolding of one’s personality, but it surely cannot be all. Bringing up children has been a large part of my mother’s identity, so I understand that questioning her methods touches on deep insecurities of her own.

I do not blame either of my parents, I just wish they did not invalidate my feelings and experiences. Talking to them makes me question my own memory – did I really spend a large portion of my childhood in anxiety and self-loathing? Surely, I should just ‘get over it’ and focus on my own life. And yet, no matter how much I try to move past them, the insecurities always come back.  

I have only loved in English. Perhaps I do not know how to love in my native tongue.

Today, I am rationally aware that I deserve affection and that I can build intrinsic self-worth without academic results or the approval of others. My skin does not make me worthless, nor does my lack of belief in the Catholic God. Sadly, it takes a long time for the unconscious emotional drives to catch up with one’s beliefs. Being at home makes me feel uneasy as it brings up a lot of old memories and ghosts, but it feels right to engage with them on my terms. The ghosts might never go away, but perhaps one day their voices will be nothing but a powerless whisper, replaced by a much stronger English voice claiming the simple fact that I am enough. 

Image credit: Khadijah Ali, The Oxford Student