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How My Parents’ Battleground Affects Me
Anonymous
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“Why does it matter which way I squeeze the toothpaste?” my father yells.

“Because it’s more efficient to squeeze it from the bottom!” my mother screams back.

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“No, it’s not!”

And that’s how an argument between my parents usually breaks out. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s over something small, like toothpaste. Or my dad forgetting to do the laundry or reading the newspaper instead of doing chores. My mom initiates the fight by criticizing my dad, and he tries to defend himself, which only fuels her anger.

“They say you can at least have happiness if you don’t have money, but look at you! What did you bring to me? No happiness and no money!” she screams.

“Can you just stop? Everyone in this whole damn building can hear you!” my dad snaps back.

“No! Because you started this! Because you pissed me off!”

“Can’t you just shut up over this small thing that tipped you over?”

During most of these fights, I look up from our family computer, and plead, “Mom, Dad, stop. It’s OK.” But they don’t listen and when it gets too nasty, I start crying. I feel helpless.

It takes them a long time to notice that I am sobbing. My mom comes over, hugging me while continuing to yell at my dad, “Bastard! She’s crying, and you are still not shutting up.” That marks another round of fierce fighting.

It makes me want to slap myself in the face for crying, for giving them another reason to fight. I wonder whether either of them actually understands why I cry or if they care about my feelings.

After a few minutes, my mom lets go of me and returns to her battlefield. They continue to try to stab each other with words, and occasionally I have to cling on to them to prevent them from slapping or hitting each other.

I Don’t Deserve This

I can’t remember a time when my parents didn’t constantly fight. I began noticing it when I was around 4. I would wonder, “What did I do to deserve this?”

My parents fought even back when we lived in China and led comfortable lives. But when we immigrated here to unite with my mother’s family, it got worse. They didn’t speak English and had to work long hours to make ends meet, and this made them tired and stressed.

I didn’t know if they fought because they hated each other, or if fighting was simply their immature way of communicating their differences and expectations.

When I was 11, there was a whole month when they were bickering almost every day, and on the days that they weren’t, they wouldn’t talk to each other at all because they were still pissed from the fight that morning, the day before, the day before that, and on and on.

That was the worst month.

Other months were not as bad, but they were not good. There was a time when they had a fight every weekend for three consecutive months.

Throughout the years, I’ve tried to talk to my mother and father separately about how the fighting affects me. I wait for a peaceful period.

“Mom?” She was cooking. “It’s really stressful for me when you argue with Dad.”

“I know it’s hard for you. But it’s not like I want to argue with him. If he wouldn’t piss me off in the first place—”

“Can’t you just let it slide when he does something you don’t like?” I felt the need to cut her off before she got angry by launching into a tirade about my dad’s flaws.

“I used to let things slide, but he just gets worse. If I continue to be nice about it every time, then—”

“OK.”

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I left without letting her finish because if I had, it would initiate a fight between them when my dad returned from work.

When I talked to my dad the next day, he said, “I don’t want to fight either, but she’s so critical. Why does she get pissed at everything? I can’t believe that I married her in the first place!”

As I grew older, I began to notice that when I did something good, my parents were in better moods and fought less. For example, I saw that when they learned that I was going to be transferred to the honor class in 6th grade, they didn’t fight for two weeks. When I received a good score on the SATs, they didn’t fight for three and a half weeks.

Tactics for Peace

So I focused on being good, although that meant learning to suppress my desires. I tried to copy some of their behavior that they consider to be good: not spending money unless I have to (although I really want to spend all of my money collecting postcards), waking up early even on weekends (although I really want to sleep until noon sometimes), and watching the super-informative TV programs (although I really like some of the poorly crafted Chinese comedies).

My preoccupation with finding ways to make my parents feud less started changing me in other ways, too.

I spent more time studying and less time with my friends even when I was sick of looking at my notes. I knew that if my grades dropped, my parents would panic and start worrying about whether that drop would hurt my chance of getting into a good college, which would cause a huge argument.

I’m not rebellious; I think it’s my nature to be obedient, not squander money, and have good grades. But sometimes I want to buy something from Amazon, like the newly released album of a favorite band or a key chain with my favorite anime character. But I close the tab because I think if they pick up that purchased album or key chain when they are in a bad mood, they’ll yell at each other for not stopping me from buying it. I feel confined in a cage called “desperately trying to please my parents.” Inside I am wild to break free.

In high school I learned another tactic that worked well: initiating conversations about subjects that involved both of them having to do something either for or with me. “Are either of you going to attend this college event with me?” or “Who’s going to pick me up after I come back from the college residential program?” Usually they’d both answer my questions, respond to each other without realizing it, and they’d start talking to each other again.

Seeking Help

I didn’t realize at the time how emotionally exhausting it was for me to constantly be thinking of how to keep the peace.

All of my life I have dealt with this stress by myself. I’m an only child. I have tried talking to my friends, but none of them share my struggle. My aunt and uncle on my father’s side, who I’m close to, rarely fight with each other. I feel alone.

I have searched the internet for young people who have similar problems and that’s helped me feel less alone. For example, one girl said her parents also fought frequently, and sometimes, her father was abusive to her mother. But then her parents’ relationship improved after she left for college. “You can only do so much for them as their child, and it’s up to them to fix their relationship,” she wrote.

I also talk to my guidance counselor about my parents’ situation. Even though he can’t resolve their quarrels, it helps when I cry and talk about my feelings to him.

They Finally Hear Me

But then, a few months ago, I gathered my courage to talk to my parents again. Together this time. I approached it with humor: “I can only go to Queens Community College because if I go anywhere else, I would be living in a dorm and then nobody will be here to stop your fights,” I said.

I knew that would get their attention because they care so much about what college I go to.

I told them how hard it is for me to concentrate on schoolwork and college prep when they squabble and that I am concerned about them physically hurting each other if I’m not home. I also said it makes me feel uncomfortable when they debase each other.

Then they started to talk to each other about a solution. They reached the consensus that if they start to raise their voices at each other, they want me to step in and tell them to stop.

Since the talk, my mom criticizes my dad less, and my dad apologizes more and defends himself less. And lately when they begin to raise their voices at each other, they catch themselves and stop without my intervention.

There are times when their conversations still escalate into a fight despite my attempt to stop them, but they often make up now.

Perhaps they were finally ready to hear how their fighting affects me because they don’t want to hurt my chances of getting into a good college. But the reason isn’t important to me. I’m just relieved; it feels much better and I can relax.

Now that I’m older, I don’t think they hate each other. I think they are simply not compatible, and they are disappointed and stressed out by the gap between their dreams of success and reality, and because they still haven’t figured out a way to face these disappointments. Understanding them, combined with their efforts to fight less for my sake, makes it easier.

Of course, divorcing would be the easy solution. But even though they threaten each other with divorce, I don’t think actually going through the process has ever crossed their minds. They are used to living with each other this way.

I’m proud of myself that I gathered the courage to talk to them about the detrimental effect their negative behavior has on me. Though I continue to feel an obligation to mediate their relationship, I know that for me to pursue my own life I can’t continue to feel like it’s my responsibility. That will be easier for me to do once I go away to college.

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(NYC-2018-03-16)