I have a strange early memory from childhood. My mother handed me a telephone and told me my dead father was on the line. While this was a bit confusing, I was less than five years old and lots of fantastic things seemed possible. When a dead father appeared on the telephone, I went with it.
My father wasn't actually deceased. That was a mythology my mother offered because she didn't know how to explain abandonment to me. I don't blame her. For many of us, the story of how we came into being is complicated. Parents have the tough job of figuring out which parts are healthy to share and which could benefit from a little poetic license.
After that mystifying moment, my mother started acknowledging this person as being among the living. "What's-his-face," her estranged husband who helped her produce me. Though no longer dead, he continued to have a ghost-like influence over my life.
I don't remember any other direct communication with him apart from that telephone call, during which my mother says he never spoke back to me. I only knew my father as a reluctant and paltry monthly check. He was also an invisible accomplice for my mother's high expectations.
My mother has struggled throughout her life with an undiagnosed developmental disorder. She grew up in a 1950s working class Black family in Detroit. There was little information about why she had trouble learning to speak and was withdrawn from school. These days she would have had some form of early intervention but back then she was labeled “slow” and sent to unsympathetic evaluations that declared she was challenged with a yet undetermined inability to learn like other children.
Naturally, this issue impacted my mother's self image. Her pattern became seeking out “intelligent” men for validation. Enter my father. He was a graduate student from India in the process of getting a PhD in chemistry. He came from a high caste family of scholars and professionals. He allegedly started college at the age of 16. After he left us abruptly when I was a toddler and never looked back, my mother was determined, out of matronly love but also a certain level of vindication, that I would be smarter and more accomplished than him.
My mother's learning challenges led to a strong interest in early child development. Even as far back as high school, she began studying the teaching methods of Maria Montessori. I started attending private Montessori pre-school at eighteen months. She cleverly crafted her own handmade educational toys to teach me math and reading skills. All of this was very novel at that time. My mother was mocked by family members for spending every last cent of her modest income as a single mother on the education of a baby.
My African-American mother was her own version of the immigrant “tiger mom.” I had a healthy amount of natural intelligence and curiosity, but her will was quite a force. I had a steady intake of engineering toys, anatomy books, gadgets, museum visits and science fiction. I ended up going to some of the best schools in the country and became a big nerd. Because chemistry was apparently my father's backup career after he gave up on medicine, my mother was determined that I should be a doctor. She went to extraordinary lengths for my education and my future as a doctor was non-negotiable. I rebelled as a teenager and decided I was more interested in arts, literature and social sciences. When I declared I no longer wanted a career in medicine at around sixteen, my mother stormed out of our apartment and refused to speak to me for an entire day.
In a world where single moms are assaulted with statistics about their kids achieving less than those raised by two parents, I am proud to point out the powerful superhero parenting exemplified by my mother. If the ghost father could be summoned as motivation, at least she could gain some sort of added value from his absence in our lives. I imagined my father humbled when I accomplished anything and smugly judging any of my shortcomings. The result was that I went through life with ferocious internal competitiveness and always had something to prove.
The problem with performing to please a ghost is that your intended audience can never be satisfied. My mother has long forgiven me for not becoming a doctor. She encourages my writing without even the slightest undertone of disapproval. She has been every bit as unconditional as my father has been absent. Yet, I can never seem to free myself from the glare of his phantom scrutiny. After a life of trying to prove myself to this ghost, perhaps I'll shift to asking that he instead prove himself to me.
Sharda Sekaran is a NYC-based writer and human rights activist. Read more about family and identity from Sharda here.