Parents want their children to have the best lives they can. Most of the time, if the parent lacked something in childhood, he or she will make sure that the children have it. Although doing this parents have the best intentions, they often pressure and hurt children projecting their own losses and desires on them. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng reveals how parents right the wrongs of their experience of racism and sexism through their children showing the consequences of such actions. The family realized parents’ past insecurities and traumas, which they projected onto their children through constant pressure and expectations put a strain on their relationships and tragically, killed their daughter.
The novel focuses on a family where parents have complicated backgrounds. The father, James, is an Asian American, who struggles with his racial identity since childhood when he has often been bullied and ignored. The mother, Marilyn, wants to work and have a successful career because she resents her own mother, who has stayed at home and has never worked. The couple projects their past traumas onto the children pressuring and bullying them because they do not meet parents’ expectations. In a way, it shows that parents have not resolved their own issues, which served the reason for such a behavior of James and Marilyn. The author writes, “The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you – whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to” (Ng). These words imply many things, which go unsaid in the family. In particular, the parents do not discuss their past and how it affects them now, but they still feel the pain. Instead of fixing the problems, they concentrate on their children wishing to protect them from the mistakes they made. However, it has the opposite effect.
Marilyn has a conflict with her mother as well as sexist issues. Marilyn’s mother stayed at home, which according to Marilyn was disrespectful and could not be regarded as a job. Since childhood, she wanted to be the opposite of her mother and become a doctor. Therefore, she wanted to battle the stereotypes about women and prove that she would not become a housewife. After marrying James, however, Marilyn’s perspective changes. She works after the birth of their first child, but turns into a housewife after the second child. Realizing that she has turned into her mother, the person she despises because of a lack of profession, Marilyn loses herself and leaves her family for a short time only to find out she is expecting another child. Although Marilyn returns home and never leaves again, she knows she is not the person she has always wanted to be. She did not break sexist stereotypes, she confirmed them, which made Marilyn’s situation even harder for her to handle. The author describes Marilyn’s struggle with her mother’s past and own present perfectly, “How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers” (Ng). Marilyn wanted to break free from her mother’s “curse”, but she failed losing her aim and becoming a different individual.
Marilyn’s sexist treatment of Lydia, her middle child, is the result of her own disgust towards herself. Marilyn does not work representing the typical “female stereotype” she has always wanted to break. Thus, she focuses on her oldest daughter hoping the latter will break the stereotypes herself. Mother makes sure Lydia studies all the time and succeeds at different classes in order to become a doctor and represent a new class of the working women, who are smart and independent. Marilyn believes that her actions are just and caring and she does good to her daughter. Lydia, on the other hand, does not want any of that. She is not interested in becoming a doctor; she simply wants to please her mother. It is only Lydia’s death that makes a mother realize what she has done and how it has affected her daughter, ““Lydia, five years old, standing on tiptoe to watch vinegar and baking soda foam in the sink. Lydia tugging a heavy book from the shelf, saying, “Show me again, show me another.” Lydia, touching the stethoscope, ever so gently, to her mother’s heart. Tears blur Marilyn’s sight. It had not been science that Lydia had loved” (Ng). Mother understands that Lydia never wanted to be a doctor and she never had the same sexist problems her mother did. Quite the opposite, the child wanted to go her own way, but she sought family support she could not get. Consequently, this led to constant lies and pretenses because the daughter acted as her mother wanted her to.
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The novel also portrays racism changing the relationships between the father and his children. James, bullied and mistreated in childhood because of his race, is still very insecure. Despite being a married man with a loving wife and children, he still fears his race brings only negative things to him. When his wife leaves, he attributes it to his race. Having no friends as a child, he wishes for Lydia to be different from him. He wants her to be popular despite her Asian background hence Lydia lies to him about her popularity and many friends. She creates an image for her father that she is popular and thus, he rests assured she does not have the experience he has had. Lydia realizes that she is unhappy with the lies, but she wants to please her father and make him less anxious with her, “Lydia knew what they wanted so desperately, even when they didn’t ask. Every time, it seemed such a small thing to trade for their happiness” (Ng). The daughter decides to trade her happiness to make her parents happy, but her personal issues remain unresolved just like the traumas of her parents.
The racism James feels creates tensions with his other child, Nath, because James feels that he has no friends acting just like his father used to do. This makes James favor Lydia in hopes that she will be different and more popular. Favoritism shows that James is a racist himself because he wants his children to be typical White Americans to blend in with the community. He feels inferior passing these thoughts to his children as well as criticizing and pressuring them because of his own emotions and fears. The same is going on with his wife, who is a sexist. She thinks a woman needs a career whereas a woman can do whatever she wants with her life. Thus, being a housewife does not make her any less important than being a doctor. Marilyn fails to realize that people’s choices should be based on what is best for them rather than the desires to prove something to society or break the stereotypes. This causes tragedy in the family. In the end, Lydia realizes parents’ weaknesses and promises herself to do something about it, “There on the dock, Lydia made a new set of promises, this time to herself. She will begin again” (Ng). The child realizes she needs to do what she wants, “She will tell her mother: enough. She will take down the posters and put away the books. If she fails physics, if she never becomes a doctor, it will be all right. She will tell her mother that” (Ng). More importantly, Lydia understands she has to help her parents, “…She will tell her mother, too: it’s not too late. For anything. ..she will stop pretending to be someone she is not. From now on, she will do what she wants” (Ng). This is a turning point in the book, which shows the readers the importance of admitting one’s fears and being true to oneself.
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The story of one family beautifully crafted in the book is also a tale of racism and sexism affecting children’s lives. Parents begin to realize how their sexist issues as well as traumatic racially-charged experience has led to the death of their child, which gives them a possibility of redemption and finding hope. The novel warns about the dangers of pressuring children with the parents’ past traumas and reveals the threats of imposing sexism and racism problems on teenagers.