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The call came from out of the country. Worried, I answered on the first ring. “Is everything okay?” It was my parents. “Dad wanted to get your opinion on something.” I let out a deep breath. There was nothing to worry about. At least, not anymore.
For the longest time, I carried, with great weight, the responsibility of being the arbiter of all things in my family. I distinctly remember my parents making me my youngest brother’s de facto third parent when I myself was still a child. Should he face a consequence for something he did? Was he prepared for an upcoming exam? The answer was always the same: Ask Melody. You can imagine what this did to my relationship with him. Fifteen years later, I’m still trying to extricate myself from his perception of me as an overbearing authority figure.
I don’t blame my parents for leaning on me. They were practically children themselves when they escaped Iran, with infant me in their arms, so I could have a future. We did, in fact, grow up together. We learned English as our third language. We navigated the duality of having two distinct communities and identities: one Persian, one American. We lived the American dream of becoming the best, my dad pursuing entrepreneurship, my mom charitable fundraising, and me getting into one of the most prestigious private schools in the country. And when my first brother was born seven years after me, and then the next one nearly five years after that, we raised them. Together.
Even when my parents didn’t ask me to step in, I usually did anyway. As though being in the eye of a storm would protect me from the swirling chaos around me. Whether navigating conflicts with family members or making major business and life decisions, my parents consulted with me. Addressing their needs always felt more urgent than exploring my own. And the truth is, I loved it. So much of my self-worth was wrapped up in my intellect, in my accomplishments, in being deemed wise and capable, in being needed and being praised. While my parents were busy making a life for us in a foreign world, I was busy doing what was within my power: being the best daughter and student possible. Star pianist, student body president, straight As, top-tier university. My parents had been through enough. If I could relieve them of any pain or worry, and instead give them a reason to be proud, I would.
Making safe, respectable choices always triumphed over daring to be joyful. Even though I spent my childhood writing poetry and playing the piano and singing, when it came time to choose a major in college, I took my dad’s suggestion and double-majored in business, in addition to music, because it was a good safety net. When I graduated and didn’t have a job lined up in the music business like I had dreamed of, all it took was a gentle nudge from my mom for me to go to law school. I’m profoundly grateful that my parents gave me these opportunities and so many more – I just didn’t have the self-awareness to know what I was choosing, and why. Making them happy was enough.
The tendency toward self-sacrifice, doing the “right thing,” succumbing to the siren song of martyrdom… this pattern of course didn’t start with me, or my mom, or even her mom before her. It’s so deeply embedded in our DNA as Persian women (especially from Isfahan, where both of my parents are from) to give rather than to receive that it feels as natural as breathing. Which is ironic, since most of the time we are holding our breath as we sacrifice, meddle, worry. We carry so much that simply isn’t ours.
But then I became a mother at 30 — to not one, but two, daughters at once — I reached a breaking point. The pressure of keeping premature twins alive and well while running my own business, managing our home, and still being inextricably linked to my parents and brothers’ every up and down was simply too much. I wasn’t a priority in my own life, and as a result I was anxious, sad, and developed a thyroid condition (which is not uncommon for women who don’t honor or speak their needs). So I started to wonder: Will my cultural inheritance of being a good, dependable daughter become my legacy, or will I give my daughters something more?
I discovered two words, and they became my north star: self love.
Instead of achievement, I chose authenticity. Instead of hurling myself toward conflict, I protected my peace. Instead of pleasing others, I finally learned to please myself. I chose the family, values and community I was creating with my husband instead of what I was born into. Every time I made a decision not from a place of obligation or habit, but from intention and love, I felt and witnessed myself healing from skin to soul.
Whereas I started my career as an attorney and then serial entrepreneur, now I spend my days writing poetry or giving speeches about the power of self-love to people of all ages. You can find my poetry books in bookstores around the world,which is one of my childhood dreams I thought I had forever deferred. Whereas before I paid no attention to my physical, emotional or psychological needs, now I hold these needs sacred. I move my body, I am mindful of what I eat, I go to therapy, I talk about my feelings. I see myself as a garden I have the privilege of tending..I even drink water.
Recently, I turned 40. As I get older, I no longer see family and community as a place to shrink myself under the weight of what’s expected, but rather as a place to love and share my truest, most abundant self. Being a good daughter does not have to come at the expense of my authenticity or wholeness. This is the legacy I want to leave my children.
And this tremendous shift in me has reverberated not just down, into my daughters, but also up toward my parents. My mom is also slowly shedding her dutiful skin so she can inhabit a lighter, more vibrant and present life experience. My hope is soon my dad will do the same.
I still — and will always — answer my parents’ calls on the first ring and do whatever I can to support them. But I’ve stopped embodying struggles that aren’t mine, or defining my worth based on my saving the day. Instead, I use everything I’ve learned on my own self-love journey to teach my parents to feel their feelings and express their true selves and needs. Because they deserve to experience the freedom that comes from being authentic, instead of good, too. And so do you.