Pains of My Parents: My Journey to Break the Stronghold of Generational Traumas
January 25, 2022
It hit me like a ton of bricks while driving Uber a couple of days ago, pains that I locked away and sorrows I barricaded in the deepest recesses of my mind came rushing out like the Ghion River during the rainy season in Ethiopia. I am not sure if it was Kuku Sebsebe crooning in the background or the tsunami of woes that have darkened my door over the past two months that surfaced memories I buried long before I reached voting age, all I know is that tears were being coxed out of my eyes as I sobbed uncontrollably thinking about my dad.
All this time, I thought my struggles were directly related to the anguish my mom endured for most of her life. Her endless bouts with depression and the countless times she hurt herself were so jarring that it blurred out all other issues—“saving my mom” took front stage while everything else receded into the shadows. To normalize what was anything but, I turned my dad into a superhero as I mythicized every aspect of his life. Fikremariam Million was not just my father, he was a bulwark against melancholy whose affirmation I sought above everything else.
This unhealthy elevation of my dad into a selfless and hyper-dedicated provider hid aspects of our relationship that were deeply injurious. I forgot about the separation anxiety I would feel whenever he traveled overseas for work while we lived in Ethiopia and the deep longing I had for my dad to be more present in my life. I do not write this to in any way mar his memories but rather to give a fuller context to my dad as a means of understanding that he was not a legend but a human being who made mistakes even though he was breaking his back trying to feed and shelter his family.
The one central oversight my father made was thinking that we had to attain the “American dream” no matter the cost. This meant graduating from living in an efficiency when we first arrived stateside to renting a basement to renting our own condo to finally owning a home. Every climb up the social ladder led to an increase of labor as he took on more and more jobs trying in vain to keep up with the rent. While he provided materially, he robbed us of his presence. Worse yet, the constant strain and stress of pacing the runaway cost of living took its toll physically and mentally.
He overreached because he was not taken care of as a child. His father murdered shortly after Ethiopia expelled would-be Italian colonizers in the 1940s, his mother gave him away to another family in Harar because she feared losing yet another son to early death. These twin acts of abandonment left a deep imprint in my father’s mind, he grew up feeling neglected and made a covenant with himself that he would never do to his children what was done to him. In an attempt to protect us from the pains he felt growing up, he gave my siblings and I our own sets of traumas.
In my father’s mind, he felt like he could have accomplished anything in life if he only had someone who pushed him and held him accountable. Like a pendulum, when he had children he swung in the complete other direction as he refused to let me rest on my laurels. I once came home with 4.5 stars out of 5 on my English paper and his immediate response was to say “why did you not get 5 stars”. Never mind that English was my second language and that I was still in ESL, in his mind anything short of perfect was not worth celebrating. My dad’s crucible was that he never had a father pushing him to do better, mine became that I never had a dad telling me “good job”.
I did not realize these things growing up in Woodbridge, Virginia; I was too busy trying to assimilate in order to avoid being ostracized. Unable to gain my father’s approval and unable to garner validation from my peers at school, anxiety became my new norm and ennui my best friend. Despite failing to get the “good job son” I always yearned from my dad, he and I formed a kinship that would go on to shape how I viewed life long after he lost his. Some of my most pleasant memories growing up were the times he took me on a ride-along as he drove his taxi, in between passengers, we debated everything from sports, history to politics.
My ability to think fast on my feet and engage in a tête-à-tête with anyone irrespective of the topic is owed directly to my dad who taught me that second place is the first loser and that anything less than 100% might as well be zero. “People can take everything from you”, he would tell me, “but they can never take away what you know”. My admiration of my dad ran so deep that I read endless books and researched countless topics just to get the best of him in our debates. What he never said with words, he said with his eyes as he held back a smile every time I improved my arguments and sharpened my retorts.
Alas, no matter how much I learned and presented new ideas to him, he refused to relent and say the two words I desperately wanted to hear from my dad. “Good job” would have to be found elsewhere other than my dad’s utterances. He pushed me to this extent not out of malice but out of maladaptive love, he was just trying, in the only way he knew how, to make sure that I reach my fullest potential and not end up driving a taxi like him when I became an adult. Alas, what he did to correct his deficits led to a deficit of my own, I came of age thinking that nothing I did was good enough and drawing inspiration not from within but by trying to disprove my doubters.
These imperceptible agonies did not register on my radar because I honestly felt like I had nada issues with my dad. All these things changed recently when I started witnessing my own son exhibit some of the traits I used to have as a child. On a recent visit I traveled to New York to visit my son, he was holding on to me so tight that it broke my heart. Hearing him cry “daddy” when I had to leave shook me to the core, the same tears I used to cry as a child now being cried from a different perspective as I witnessed my son endure the same grief I once felt as a six-year-old in Addis Abeba.
A recent conversation with a dear friend as she opened up about her daughter was eye opening because it led to the realization that I am not alone in this journey of healing that I am. She conveyed to me that he daughter is struggling because she is trying to do the complete opposite of what she saw her mom do growing up. This insight hit me like a lightening bolt, like tides ebbing and receding, we go from generation to generation reacting to the pains of our parents not realizing that they too were reacting to the pains of their parents.
What I am realizing now is that all of us are caught in a web of traumas that have had a stronghold on our families over decades if not centuries. We either mythicize our parents or vilify them not realizing that they, just like us, were imperfect souls trying to do the best they could as parents with limited information. There is no blueprint on how to become a parent, it’s an on the job training that comes with continuous learning on self-healing and child-rearing. Sadly, most parents focus on the latter as they do the best they can to raise children while ignoring the pains all of us harbor deep inside—the vast majority of which comes from traumas we experienced as children.
Whereas my father rarely said “good job”, I catch myself saying “good job” to everything my son does no matter the size of his accomplishment. Realizing subconsciously that my father was largely absent from my life because he was working so much, I find myself being very protective to the point where I try to protect him from necessary bumps and bruises that are part of growing up. The same way my father course-corrected too much by being off-hand and I did too much without knowing by trying to be too cautious that my son won’t hurt himself, many of us vacillate between two extremes not realizing that we are in bondage to a pain that we experienced in our youth.
Easier to “save” others than to heal ourselves, we frequently overlook ourselves as we try to be there for others. As painful as these past couple of months have been, I am learning a very important lesson that my father never grasped. We cannot be there for others and love them fully if we are not fully present within ourselves. All of us have broken parts but we are too busy pretending to be well to attain wellness. The most essential part of healing is having enough self-awareness to acknowledge the sources of our wounds.
For the sake of my son and my future children, I am going to redouble my efforts to address the pains I have for too long ignored. What I am finding out every day is that issues that are as small as mustard seeds become as gargantuan as mountains when we run from them. Confronting past wounds turns dragons into ticks. The more I turn inward to mend, the less I care what others say about me. The validation seeking and “good job” searching Teddy is replaced with someone who draws inspiration from God and no one else.
The road ahead is long and strewn with many obstacles, yet I am confident that I am on a path towards true healing that has escaped me for most of my life. There are many decisions I need to make over the coming weeks and months, but for once I am going to be patient and let things develop on God’s time instead of trying to control all outcomes. God willing, the pains of my parents will stop with me so that my son can grow up writing his own story sans projections from his dad::
“Parents are the bones on which children cut their teeth.” ~ Peter Ustinov
Teddy Fikre is the founder of Guzo to Healing, formerly the co-founder and editor of the Ghion Journal, he launched Guzo to Healing on his on guzo (journey) of healing from past wounds in order to liberate himself from the prisons of regret and guilt. The greatest journey we take is that which we travel to heal ourselves and by extension help others who struggle.