Fail to Please

We just got back from visiting both sets of parents in another province. 

My dad was telling me about the Awards Night performances from the Music Festival.  He then looked at me sadly and said, “You never did win any awards, did you?”

My first emotion was shame.  I had failed my daddy.  But, instead of apologizing like usual, I pointed out that I did come in first and second in many of the categories (especially those with only one or two people in them :). 

Most of my life, I have been trying to make my daddy proud.  Like his father, he would talk about other people’s achievements, but never his own and never those of the person he was talking with.  It gave me the impression that he wanted me to be more like those other people and that what I did was never enough. 

For our town’s art festival, my brothers and I never won the adjudicator’s awards, but we almost always won the People’s Choice.  But I wasn’t happy because I thought I had failed. 

The only place that I didn’t have that fear was sports.  My parents were always at drama, art, and music festivals, but they didn’t come to basketball, badminton or baseball games.  I didn’t have to make anyone proud, so I just played for the fun of it!

I realize how much I’ve let my fear of disappointing my dad influence my decisions.  Neither of my parents realized their full potential.  My dad would have made a great professor and though he does enjoy his business, I think he sabotaged himself. 

My mom believed that she was stupid and has worked at manual labour jobs for less than minimum wage most of her life.  She has had opportunities to do something she used to dream about, but didn’t have the confidence to fight for it.

Part of me wants to succeed for my dad.  To make him proud.  To make his sacrifices worthwhile. 

Part of me is terrified that I’ll fail.  That if I’m not the best, I’m not good enough.  I’d be a disappointment.  It is easier not to try.

But my relationship with my mom is opposite.  I feel bad when I do well.  Instead of making her proud, I’m afraid I’ll make her feel inadequate.  Like I”ve insulted her by doing better than she allowed herself to do.  When I fail, she is very supportive.

While studying premed, my dad was always happy to hear about whatever scholarship I won.  The only comment my mom made was that I should study hairdressing instead. 

I feel guilt.  Why should I have opportunities that she didn’t?  Could she be proud of me?  Or am I competition?  Does my success reflect as her success or does it magnify any perceived failures?

Of course, my choices are my own.  And while I want to make my dad proud and I don’t want my mom to feel inadequate, that isn’t something I have control over. 

Also, I wonder if my brothers ever felt like they didn’t measure up to me the way I felt like I wasn’t as good as whatever friend I was being compared to.  Do they feel like they have to fail or succeed to make my parents feel a certain way?  I’ve never asked.

5 thoughts on “Fail to Please

  1. Jen says:

    Reading this, I felt like the little girl that didn’t want to make my mom sad or my dad mad. That desire to keep them from feeling those emotions has been my driving force most of my life. Its taken me a long time to come to the place that you described. Those are THEIR feelings and that is not something I have control over.

    Could you ask your brothers?
    I talked to three of my four siblings about growing up in my parents’ home, and it was amazing (and very bonding) to hear their experiences. Some were a lot like mine, some weren’t.

    (For instance, my dad beat my brother nearly to death. From that night on, I was TERRIFIED of my dad, and hated him. My brother, stopped being afraid of him that night. He felt like he’d faced the worst, and it wasn’t “that bad”, so he didn’t feel fear. Same event, very different responses.)

  2. Chris says:

    I think the relationship between parent and children, as adults, is sometimes difficult to understand. After all, children are made in the ‘likeness’ of their parents, but this doesn’t always happen. I have always felt like my parents have supported me throughout my childhood. I know my dad would have liked it if his oldest son had played more sports, but I accelled in the arts and music, and they were just as proud.

    So it was strange to hear 3rd party a few years ago that my parents are actually someone intimidated by me. Both my parents have never had a post-secondary education of any kind. Somehow my successes and the foreignness of my profession to them must at times seem intimidating. I wonder sometimes if they are thinking “how did my son become smarter than we are”. I’ve always thought as myself as ‘smart’, but not more-so than what my parents are capable of. Then, is it a matter that they didn’t live up to their full potential? Education is somewhat about unlocking your full potential, not being smarter, yet I feel sometimes sad that I now know some of the ideas and things I like to talk about and am involved in as an adult are so foreign to them it makes them feel uncomfortable. Overall I’d have to say I’ve become much more cautious about what I talk about, and how much I disclose about the day-to-day of my life or what I’m thinking.

  3. My dad always talked down anyone with education, making a virtue of the vice of his own lack thereof. Mom was proud but she didn’t get to say much as you know. Maybe in his own way Dad was too. I hope.
    Your dad focusing on your “not winning” instead of what you won is unfortunate because I am sure he never meant to hurt. We all say dumb things. Some of us more than others, I am afraid. Family trait?
    Your dad certainly sold himself short as you say but he had reality to deal with, too. Life happens as we muddle through. What is success or what is failure? Depends on the goals and who sets them. Set your own, that are important to you. I managed to hold a job and stay in church and stay married until the kids were raised. My only goal now is somehow to have someone say at my funeral something more than “he sure was funny”.

    • prairienymph says:

      I don’t blame my dad since I mostly talked about my ‘failures’. I wonder if he ever knew about the ‘successes’.

      By ‘reality’ are you referring to me? I know my name means ‘surprise’ for a reason.
      On one hand, having so many kids at the time they did was not good for my parents. I wonder if my mom would have gotten sick without the extra strain of pregnancies. On the other hand, I’m glad I’m alive and that we grew up where we did. My parents never made much money, but they had flexible jobs and us kids could always be with them.

      Thanks for the reminder of what goals are important. My main problem is that I don’t think I’m enough. I define myself by what I can or cannot do.

      There are a lot more adjectives to describe you than just “funny” 🙂

      • No, I didn’t mean you. Were you one of the realities? I just meant some things are never going to happen so best move on. The reasons they aren’t going to happen vary from person to person and time to time.
        As to adjectives – I can just imagine the look on your face when you wrote that. You are an imp.

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