I Lost My Identity As the ‘Good Daughter’ When I Dared Prioritize Myself
If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
Being a parentified child who is overly enmeshed with a parent doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It also doesn’t survive without a familial, cultural, and societal structure that encourages its perpetuation. And often, it is the product of intergenerational trauma, which makes it feel simultaneously like a birthright and an integral part of one’s identity within the historical context of the family. All of this was absolutely true for me, which is why it took almost 40 years of life on this planet to see that it was happening and why to this day I continue to struggle to reconcile what happened, what I didn’t get and how those two things hurt me in numerous ways.
Mental illness and trauma are my matrilineal heritage. My great-great-grandmother had schizophrenia; my great-grandmother spent over a year in the concentration camp at Auschwitz and though she survived she was never the same again; my grandmother was left to care for herself and eventually her sister’s son as a teenager when her sister decided to pursue her dance career over being a mother; and, my mother was born with a physical disability which plagued her entire childhood. Every single woman in my family was cheated on and abandoned by their husbands and ultimately, these women cohabitated in households of up to four generations of stubborn, hurt women who had all lost their sense of identity. This is a fertile breeding ground for my complicated relationship with my mother.
Just as she had been with her own mother, I became an extension of both my mother and to a certain extent my grandmother, a bonus limb connected by the glue of female struggle and tragedy. While I may not have explicit memories of it, I am fully aware that from the moment I was born, the identities within our family unit were inextricably fixed; my grandmother was the matriarch of the family, my mother was her mother’s daughter and my mother/best friend, and I was not just “my mother’s daughter” but also the gatekeeper of all of our identities. My only responsibility in life was to protect these roles no matter what — ensure everyone felt safe, valuable, happy, and important. No more and no less. And without my understanding it or choosing it, I willingly fell into my role and excelled at it.
Throughout my childhood, other grown-ups outside of our family unit would comment on how idyllic the arrangement all seemed. No matter what happened, even as a child I maintained the status quo. I stayed out of trouble, wasn’t needy, was always volunteering to help my mother and grandmother with anything and everything to make them happy, excelled in every activity I engaged in, got straight-As, would care for my mom when she was sick, was her constant companion at both work and play and was her steadfast confidante… guarding her secrets, offering my relationship advice, listening to her problems and sacrificing my own relationships to ensure that I was always available to her. People called me a “little adult in a child’s body,” “an old soul,” “mature for my age,” and if I had a dollar for every time I heard people tell my mother how lucky she was that I was such a “good daughter and that they hoped their own children turned out like me,” I’d quite literally be rich.
As I grew up, I continued to play my part. It came so naturally that I didn’t even realize that the person I was was fictitious. It was a part written by my heritage, assigned to me at birth and that I was expected to play until the day I died. Unfortunately, that job didn’t come with a lot of awards, but… it did come with recognition and positive reinforcement. As long as I played “good daughter,” I knew people would like me, and my sense of security and purpose in life was so wrapped up in maintaining that status quo that it never dawned on me that I had no idea who I really was outside of that role.
When I began therapy over six years ago, I had a sense of dread that had been building for a while. The pressure of playing “good daughter” was getting to me. It no longer felt like it was serving its purpose. My mother and grandmother were like bottomless pits of despair. No matter how hard I tried to make their lives happy and carefree, it seemed like I was running on a huge hamster wheel that I couldn’t get off of. I felt trapped and frustrated. I felt like I was failing at being the only thing I was ever expected to be: the “good daughter.”
I knew something had to change, and change it I did. I began learning about “parentification,” “enmeshment” and “intergenerational trauma.” I began to discover the ways in which my entire sense of self had essentially been hijacked by my family, not with malicious intent but damaging nonetheless. I began establishing boundaries of what I would and would not do anymore. I started figuring out what I needed and wanted. And while it felt liberating, it sucked. I felt lost.
People no longer praised me for being the “good daughter.” People began chastising me for being so “mean” to my mother, being so “selfish” and for “abandoning” her. I started getting texts and email messages from family, friends of the family, and complete strangers vilifying me for not respecting my role in life, for not placating my mother, and for not fulfilling her every wish and desire. It was clear to me that I had fallen off of some kind of invisible pedestal and that I was no longer the “good daughter” that everyone else wanted or expected me to be.
I’m still struggling to figure out who I am without being my mother’s “good daughter.” I have spent a lot of time cultivating my own thoughts, feelings, skills, and opinions outside of hers. I’ve finally made friends who don’t know my mother or who haven’t been hand-selected by her to be “our friend.” And I’ve reclaimed my body as mine, not as a part of hers, which means I no longer worry about having short hair, not wearing makeup, or otherwise being a girly girl that needs to be a sexualized being who exists for the purpose of getting and keeping a man. It feels empowering and simultaneously confusing.
I continue to struggle with guilt and shame for having quit the role of “good daughter.” I feel ambiguous loss around being admired for how well I played that part for so long. I feel pangs of wanting to just abandon this experiment I’ve been on of self-reclamation because I miss the prestige that being the “good daughter” came with. But deep down I know that I can’t go back. I cannot abandon myself. It would be disingenuous, a lie, and at this stage, nobody would trust its authenticity anyway. I just wonder when I’ll feel at home in my own skin as who I really am, not who I was born to be, just imperfectly but completely me. Stay tuned.
Photo by Derick Daily on Unsplash