Sara is a successful woman in her mid-30s. She has a child, a loving husband, successful career and even managed to get on the property ladder. She’s pretty much ticked all those archaic, heteronormative boxes we still use to define what being an adult means. Yet Sara has a secret. A hidden desire she’s held onto for years, meticulously planning out every little detail from the exact position to even how she’d hide it afterwards.
Now before your mind goes wandering down a fantasy blackhole, it’s a tattoo. Nothing big, just a small one inked on her right wrist with four meaningful numbers. ‘Is that it?’ you’re probably asking yourself. And you’re right; in terms of desires, it scores pretty low on the risqué scale.
So, why on earth doesn’t she just get it done? Well, to put it simply, because her mum says so. “For me, it’s the fear of disapproval,” Sara says. “I genuinely worry my mum would never speak to me again.”
Let’s face it, Sara’s not the only one who still cares what her parents think; our relationships with our parents can be just as complex at 30 as they were at 13.
And on one hand, who can blame us? They brought us into the world, kept us safe, fed, and watered us – they quite literally kept us alive. It’s no wonder for many of us, our default is to think our parents know what’s best for us – even more so than ourselves. And even if we are in our 30s and parents ourselves.
While the easy bit is understanding where the need for parental approval comes from, what’s not so easy to comprehend is why so many of us still crave it as adults.
Take Mila, 27, a media account executive who deals with clients worth hundreds of thousands of pounds every day, “I still excitedly phone my parents when I get a good client review, just like it’s my school report,” she laughs, “Really, it’s my way of letting them know I’m doing well at adulting.”
Like many things ingrained into us as children, there’s no automatic off switch at the point we mature into a fully fledged adult (perhaps just years and years of therapy). And even if there was, what constitutes the point you reach adulthood anyway? I’m 32, soon to be 33, an age so many of our parents would have had 2.4 kids, a stable career and most likely, a house in suburbia. However, like many millennials, my life tells a different story, reflecting a world very different to the one our parents found themselves in at the same age.
We’re living at home longer, putting off having kids and not staying in one job forever. And, while age and life stages don’t equate to being an adult, the realisation that we most probably are all grown up can sometimes feel like a revelation to ourselves some days, let alone our parents.
Psychotherapist Nikita Amin explains, “many millennials can’t afford to stand on their own two feet as quickly as the generation before, often leading to adults still feeling like children in the presence of their parents.” She adds, “this creates a dependence on parents where seeking approval becomes a lifelong dynamic.”
It’s a theme intensified over the past year with an estimated 35% of adult children returning to their family home since the start of the pandemic. “In some ways, my brother and I will always be the ‘kids’,” says Daria, 29, a solicitor from Hull who moved back in with her mum and dad six months ago, “but I definitely feel that’s been exaggerated since moving back.”
When you’re living in the same house you grew up in, it’s hard not to revert back to the dynamics you shared with your parents as teenagers. “I find myself in daily debates about how messy my room is, or slinking around when I need a cigarette to avoid another disapproving look,” she confesses. “I’m nearly 30 for crying out loud!”
Of course, it’s hard to throw off the traditions and expectations of older generations, which have been shaped by a multitude of social, economical and cultural factors. For many second and third generations, the expectations that come with growing up in an environment very different from that of their parents or grandparents, creates a notable cultural gap, encompassing everything from education to who you date.
Sara’s parents for instance grew up in Iran, “at a time where tattoos and piercings would have just been socially unacceptable,” she says. “Remembering this helps me rationalise why we have such different takes on so many things.”
Like Sara, understanding where our parents’ opinions come from can be an important tool in both connecting with them and helping us realise that our choices aren’t any less valid if they differ from what they would have done. And although it’s often difficult to see at the time, it certainly shouldn’t make them love you any less because they don’t approve.
Without sounding like a self-help book, approval does not equate to love which is a helpful reminder for any relationship in your life. So when exactly does the need for parental approval become unhealthy?
Psychotherapist Amin advises at the point it stops us living authentically. “If we find ourselves excited about something but choosing not to do it because our parents disagree, that’s when we need to reassess,” she says.
As I mull over Nikita Amin’s words, thinking about all the complexities that come with my own parent/children dynamic, I’m reminded of something my mum always says about my brother. “He always asks for my advice but always does what he wants anyway,” she says - yet he never stops asking for it and she never stops giving it. Yes, parental approval might be nice but it’s certainly not necessary.
Helpfully Amin points out that most of the time when we ask for approval, it’s more about simply wanting someone to agree with us or be a sounding board to our reasons why. “In these cases, if you’re not getting what you need from your parents, find people who fill this absence – whether that be a friend or a partner,” she says. “It’s OK for someone else to give you what your parents couldn’t.” How liberating is that?
In the words of poet Philip Larkin, “they fuck you up your mum and dad, they don’t mean to but they do.” Even if their opinions and approval comes with all the love and best intentions in the world, at a certain point, I guess it’s up to us to decide how much we let parental opinions overshadow how we live.
Perhaps what’s really important is learning to trust your own choices and being happy with them, in spite of what your parents may or may not think. Sara should really get that tattoo.
*Names have been changed