My parents are committed to the quest of perfection even though they probably don’t know it. They’d never say that they want their children to be perfect, even though they show us.
“We love you guys no matter what,” they’d told us growing up, with their thick accents punctuating the words “love” and “what.” “You guys make us proud,” they say now, not remembering the conditions for this pride that they had established since youth.
In 1995, they traded old-world traditions of Ghana for the shiny new fabric of America. They’d had three beautiful brown-skinned daughters, evenly spaced 2 years apart, and often dressed us up in matching overalls and turtleneck sweaters. In their quest to create a perfect life, my father had become a physician and my mother, a nurse, and though they loved us, they’d expected nothing less of “the perfect 3.”
For them, it was just the natural order of things. And though we were far too Christian to believe in evolution, my parents understood that their offspring ought to be more successful than them in every way.
Maud and Abraham believed that since my sisters and I were given the chance to grow up in America with reliable resources, running water, and a chance to make it, there were no excuses as to why “the perfect 3” couldn’t be more prosperous than they were able to be. In the above family photo, you can see that my parents are shorter than us. Genetics be damned; it’s because they often didn’t have food to eat growing up.
So it’s true — there are no excuses.
Abraham had come into this world as child 7 out of 12 with an illiterate mother and a seamstress father. Growing up too poor to have electricity in the Ghanaian mid-century, he’d had to study by candlelight to pass his A-levels, sold meat-pies on the street to pay for secondary-school interviews, and perfected his English to complete his medical school entrance exams.
By seizing the means of education to achieve a better life beyond the plantain fields, he’d made it.
Maud came from a family of 29 siblings, half- and whole, with a philandering father and a mother who was beaten and made to sleep outside every time her cheating husband — my Grandpa Koo — came home before the stew was ready.
(Grandpa Koo had six  other wives to cook him stew, but pulled off my aunt’s fingernails with pliers when he found out she’d had one  boyfriend in 1978).
After struggling for years against a Ghanaian value-system that said her worth as an attractive woman was only in becoming a wife or a mother of her own, she’d entered into teacher training-college and, later, nursing school.
She’d made it, bruises and all.
And as much as they loved the opportunity of America, they hated how much potential was wasted. My father complained that too few of our friends had high aspirations. A few years ago my sister’s friend, “Mandy”, decided to pursue dietetics instead of nursing that like she had originally planned. My mom said that my sister Ama should continue to be friends with her, but to avoid letting her friend’s laziness impact her own studies.
Our childhood was relatively happy, and we took our parents’ idiosyncrasies as a symptom of their immutable foreignness. At holiday gatherings, all the cousins would compare crazy stories of who had been grounded the longest for getting a “B” on their report cards, and who had been beaten the hardest for watching a movie with a kissing scene in it.
We laughed and we laughed at the way our parents treated us, and it was almost a competition to see who was the most physically or emotionally battered by their parents’ harsh words and inattention to emotions. All of our parents were chasing a life of perfection, and our greatest therapy was each other.
We rarely celebrated Halloween, because my parents often regarded it as the devil’s holiday — a symbol of an evil world. One day after we begged for hours, they let me and my sisters go trick-or-treating. They slapped stethoscopes and surgical masks onto our three tiny bodies, and proudly told our neighbors that we were neurosurgeons before they’d even asked.
They let us go to four houses and threw away all of our candy after we returned home. If “the perfect 3” developed diabetes when they could have prevented it, they could never forgive themselves.
We’re all old now, and can eat our candy in secret. There’s a few times where we each decided to majorly question their quest for perfection, though.
My eldest sister, a pharmacist, recently had the audacity to date someone a year-and-a-half younger than her. My mother cried for 2 days when she found out that my sister’s boyfriend was 24 to her 26, and threatened to boycott the (theoretical) future wedding.
“Why would we come to America,” she’d said on the phone, “for you to spoil your life? Can’t you see that you need a man as the head of the household?”
“We still love you,” they’d said to Akos, after eventually coming to terms with my sister’s dating rebellion, “but you are ruining our sacrifice.”
(They still pronounce their r’s and their l’s a little incorrectly, as those taught in the Akan dialect of western Ghana often do, and it’s almost charming. Love becomes “rove” and sacrifice, “saclifice.” Their jumbled words don’t make their obvious disapproval sting any less.)
My middle sister, a grad student in Biology, dared to upset the order of things by choosing to study ecological biology instead of human biology. They made her take the MCAT twice against her wishes and once on her birthday. When my sister decided to enter grad school in compromise with my parents, pursuing a masters in epidemiology instead of being able to research bee migrations like she’d hoped, my father spoke of his disapproval in hushed tones.
“She’ll regret her choice to not do medicine eventually, but by then, we’ll have nothing left to give.”
“We still love you,” they’d said to Ama, after grappling with the harrowing fear that my sister wasn’t ‘medical’ enough, “but we don’t understand why you won’t listen to us.”
For me, the last-born daughter of “the perfect 3,” I would have been the last chance my parents had for their quest of American perfection.
Now, we don’t swear in our very Ghanaian, very Christian household, but in my sophomore year of college, when I told my parents that I wanted to become a dentist instead of a radiologist like they’d always dreamed of, ‘crap’ hit the ‘gosh-darn’ fan.
“But why are you throwing away opportunity?” Maud shouted. “You’re too smart to waste your life on nasty teeth!”
Dentistry was my white flag in the “forced-choice paradigm” of my parent’s world. The only worthwhile careers, of course, were in healthcare, but they thought that I would be the one to finally bring home the physician glory for them. I was their last chance to squeeze “a real doctor” out of their immigrant sacrifice. A pharmacist and a biologist weren’t enough, of course.
We’d all compromised our wants for our parents’ wishes, my sisters and I, but my compromise — being a doctor of teeth instead of a doctor of the human body — was the final slap in the face after three unsuccessful attempts at perfection. Of course.
I was the last kid who had always listened to them. I’d always defended their control issues to my older sisters as, “they’re trying,” and I’d always translated for the waiters when they couldn’t understand my mother’s order of chicken or my father’s request for pineapple juice. Because I had been on their side for so long, Maud especially couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t listen to them regarding a big decision in my life.
“You don’t trust that we know what’s best for you?”
My parents couched my decision to become a dentist — a respectable career to most people who had not put everything on the line — in the language of “you’re not listening to us,” and “you’ll regret this later.”
It was hurtful to endure, the idea that my decision-making was “rebellious” if it wasn’t the same as their decisions. I was being a bad child (read: college adult) by wanting to become a dentist instead of a doctor, which seems quite ridiculous in the grand scheme of things.
Having to live our entire lives as “the perfect 3” is fucking ridiculous in the grand scheme of things.
It’s absurd that our disagreements with our parents are automatically deemed as disobedience. The haircut with bangs I wanted in sophomore year was a personal offense to my beautiful mother because she believed that I looked “mannish” and refused to let me get them. My decision to take a gap year before dental school seemed like a waste of time to my calculated father, who saw his M.D. as the golden ticket out of poverty. I’ve felt forever stunted by my inability to make my own decisions without them being mad at me.
Maud and Abraham are ridiculous people from ridiculous circumstances, but I’m just now beginning to confront my resentment towards these people, my goddamn parents, who won’t tolerate my autonomy. This understanding makes me feel confused and weary and I don’t know what to do with it.
If I could pursue my own dreams 100% organically, and if I married a rich fella who could support a beans-and-rice career of mine, I’d consider writing. With Ghanaian parents, I know can’t pursue my own life or even my own husband — not fully. I’ve come to accept this, and it no longer saddens me like it did early on in my adulthood.
But because I just need to grasp a little bit of my own autonomy out of my parent’s sacrificial palms, I’m choosing dentistry instead of medicine. I enjoy the creativity and direction of cosmetic dentistry and I can’t have them steal everything — I need to do this for myself.
I am bitter and grateful for their quest for perfection. I didn’t think I could master Organic Chemistry, and I did, with my mom encouraging me daily. I didn’t think I could survive the 11th best school in the nation in one piece, and I graduated with a degree in Neuroscience and Psychology in May. I know I couldn’t have made it this far without my parents instilling in us that we could do anything, and I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ve got the world’s snarkiest cheerleaders on my side.
I’m applying to dental schools currently, and they’ve stopped asking if I’d maybe want to think about applying to medical schools as well, “Just to make sure I don’t regret (read: ‘leglet’) my decision in the future.” I think they now understand that even if I do regret becoming a dentist in the future, it will be my regret and mine alone.
And although Maud still quips, “Are you sure you won’t be bored looking at teeth all day?”, I know that they still love me. And although Abraham still warns me to check the projected job market for dentists in the future, because “Dentistry isn’t as essential to life as medicine is,” I know they still care.
Their sharp tongues are only a reminder of their resolve to make “the perfect 3” better than them. This version of love is the only version they know — this hard-ass mindset is the only thing that got them out of Sebedie Village and Kokofu College in order to give Akos, Ama, and Akua the lives that they deserved. The lives that Maud and Abraham should have gotten in a perfect world.
My father often wishes that he could retire back to the Takoradi breeze of Ghana. He says when he’s in his 70s, he will hang up his stethoscope, grab his coconut, and row across the tip of Accra in Southern Ghana. He says his wife, my mom, will be his 1st mate. I think he is tired of his life of perfection, but I don’t know if he has the words to admit it. I applaud his determination because I know it’s for us.
My mother, after successfully navigating three different careers — teaching, nursing, and finally, working as my dad’s clinic and billing manager — still considers having my sisters and me to be her greatest accomplishment. This is very troubling, I think, but due to the stories she tells of her father’s abuse and her mother’s passivity, I can understand why she’s so invested in making sure “the perfect 3” are equipped to do much more than she ever could.
When old-world sacrifice meets new-world autonomy, it is hard to delineate between the lines of abuse and self-preservation. It is hard to tell who has given up more — the captain and his first mate to ‘make it’ against all odds, or their 3 crew members who were never given a choice.
They’re slowly learning that the ride doesn’t have to be perfect, though.
One day, I think* they’ll let me try sailing on my own.
*= This ‘think’ is truthfully a combination of ‘hope’ and ‘demand’. For right now, I’ll keep trying to ‘think’.