My Indian Parents and Their Twisted Definition of Boundaries

The long road to teaching my parents to respect my individuality

My Indian Parents and Their Twisted Definition of Boundaries
Photo by Laercio Cavalcanti on Unsplash

The long road to teaching my parents to respect my individuality

“What if it doesn’t work out in the end? Leaving a government job could be the biggest mistake of your life.”

That’s what my mother told me when I confided in her my plans to quit my job and become a full-time writer. She could have told me she was upset, that she would prefer I stay put and continue working. But instead, she chose to project her fears onto me, as if that would make things better.

My parents and I have had a weird relationship since childhood. On paper, everything is perfect. We talk daily on the phone. I’m free to visit them whenever I wish to. They keep sending me clothes and home-made food items whenever they can, and we often plan family vacations together.

But beneath this veneer of perfection, are deep-rooted cracks. Cracks that had started showing themselves when I was in school — too young and naive to assert myself without feeling like I was overstepping my boundaries.

This story is not about those cracks. It’s about my efforts to stitch them together over the years. I’m not quite there yet, but I try. Every day, I try.

When I was in my teens, the concept of “personal space” didn’t exist. It was normal for my mother to check my bag and go through my journal. She had a say in who I befriended at school and whose birthday parties I was “allowed” to attend.

While deciding who their child spends the most time with can be a valuable tool in teaching them important life lessons, experts agree that controlling children’s friendships while they are young won’t help them to nurture positive relationships in the future. As Kasey Edwards of The Age puts it, the best option is to help teach children life skills they can work with and continue developing independently.

Also, my parents thought it was okay to treat me like a prized possession. Whenever I learned a new song or dance sequence, it was normal for them to ask me to perform in front of strangers who came to visit. But if I didn’t ace an exam or failed a test, I couldn’t complain when they bemoaned my lack of skills loudly in front of their friends and relatives.

As horrific as this sounds, complaining about children is considered normal in India. As this article published in The Times of India puts it, “Parents complaining about their toddler or teen is viewed as normal wherein they will even get sympathetic sighs, but the same about an adult kid will get terribly awkward for the listener. This is because families are supposed to be generally happy, especially if there are adults involved. And this stigma over familial issues is often skirted beneath the carpet, lest it shows its ugly face to the world.”

As I grew older, I learned to draw better boundaries. I learned to speak up for myself and tell my parents that my journal was my safe space and they had no right to go through it. I refused to perform during family get-togethers, letting my parents know that it was unreasonable for them to parade me like a cherished pet.

It was hard, but my parents were willing to listen.

Step by careful step, we slowly built walls around ourselves, demarcating our boundaries, claiming territory, and not letting anyone else in.

It didn’t work at first, but there was rhythm, and they were willing to change. I was willing to be patient. The transition was bumpy and filled with potholes, but we made it out the other end.

I won’t lie. When my mother told me things might not work out after I quit my job, I felt bad. I was already conflicted about taking such a life-changing decision. Her words didn’t ease my self-doubt.

I needed to forgive her for not being supportive. I needed to forgive myself for being mad at her. And I did that by telling myself this simple thing — my mother took a job right after graduation, and through the next 35 years, she stuck with it. To her, the job’s not just a means for supporting her livelihood. It’s her prestige — a shield to protect herself in a world designed to bring women down.

I can see the rush of pride on her face whenever she has to explain to someone how high up the corporate ladder she is. She relishes that there are no women in her position and everyone at the office calls her “Sir.” I notice how she always puts in more effort in office work than she’s required to — the innate need to define her self-worth by how productive she’s been overpowering her better judgment.

For my mother, her job is her identity. She didn’t want me to let go of mine.

And for that, I forgive her.

I forgive her because she knew of no other way to express her concern. She knew of no other way she could be there for me when I was so hell-bent on “destroying my life” by choosing to be self-employed.

Life has taught my mother what it takes to succeed at a job, but all she knows of the freelancing world is that it takes struggle. And for that, I forgive her.

And I forgive myself for needing support when all she gave me are doubts. I forgive myself for detaching my sense of self-worth from her approval. I forgive myself because no matter what fears my mother inadvertently fills my head with, I’m going to go ahead on this path I’ve chosen for myself.

I’m a 28-year-old woman. And even now, my parents have a hard time understanding I’m an individual. Every day, I try to bring them a little closer on the path to knowing me better. Every day, I fail a lot, but I succeed a little.

Those little successes are one day going to define my relationship with my parents.

Until then, I forgive them for all they say and do. For they — we — are still a work in progress.

You Don’t Have to Love Your Parents at All Times and It’s Okay
How I detached my sense of self-worth from social conditioning.
Things I Wish My Mother Told Me
A conversation I didn’t have with my mother I will definitely have with my daughter.

I create content in many different forms related to self-improvement, body-positivity, and feminism on several other platforms. Join my email list to make sure you don’t miss out on anything new.