Van Gogh

Not even the innovative Dutch post-Impressionist painter and artist extraordinaire Vincent van Gogh was able to measure up to the lofty demands and unattainable expectations of his parents. He may have put to shame nearly all of his contemporaries and revolutionised the impressionist genre of art. However, try as he might, the maverick in Western art was unable to fulfil the hopes and dreams of his parents, who had him as a replacement for their stillborn child.

Van Gogh desperately sought the admiration of his father and mother, but failed at obtaining either. With this in mind, how can we mere mortals, who are not regarded as masters of our trades or geniuses in our professions, ever hope to meet the aspirations of our progenitors?  Alas, it seems that, perhaps, we cannot.

Unfortunately, studies show that the majority of youth and young adults do not feel that they are living up to their parents’ expectations. In fact, a recent survey found that 64 percent of all Australians between the ages of 18 and 22 felt that they were at least “moderately disappointing” to their family members.  The same study revealed that slightly over half – 51.5 percent – of people aged 23 to 30 felt the exact same way. The numbers do tend to decrease with age; however, the number was still 32 percent for people over the age of 50! This means that roughly a third of all people go their entire adult lives without ever feeling that they have lived up to their parents’ expectations and desires.

To gain a richer understanding of the prevalence, impact, and extent of people who feel they are not meeting the outrageously high bar set for them by their parents, I decided to take to the streets and solicit the opinions of everyday folks.  I first stumble upon Clara, a young, vibrant 21-year-old female in her third year pursuing a Bachelor of Biomedical Science. Clara studies at the University of Sydney and carries a 3.8 GPA. When I asked her about her relationship with her parents, she described it as “good, most of the time;” however, Clara did note that she is certainly not living up to their expectations. “It doesn’t matter what I do,” she explains, “I will never be good enough.”  Specifically, Clara admitted that her parents are unhappy with her lifestyle choices. “I live with my partner and my parents are old-fashioned…they do not like it,” Clara states, a clearly annoyed look on her face. She adds that her parents are constantly complaining about her spending habits and extracurricular activities. “I go to the bar like once a week and you would think I was an alcoholic to hear them explain my pastimes to our family members,” Clara jokes. Underneath her cavalier tone, however, I did detect a sentiment of resentment and upset.

The next person on my quest to understand the dynamics between children and their parents was Joe – a 25-year-old artist working as a freelancer.  Immediately, my mind was taken to van Gogh and his failed attempts to appease his overly zealous and out-of-touch with reality parents. Joe is not as laid back and casual about his parents and their attitude towards his lifestyle choices as Clara.  “They are ridiculous,” he angrily states. “They think that the only reputable profession is that of a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.” Joe reveals that his parents have been very critical of his choice of profession and commonly make snide comments any chance they can.  Often, they will boast about Joe’s younger brother – a graduate of the prestigious MIT who now works as an engineer for Google – and then comment on how different Joe is from him. Joe states that he just grits his teeth and turns away when they start their nonsense. “It used to bother me – a lot – a whole lot,” he admits.  Nowadays, Joe is just happy living his life and pursuing his dreams. He does what makes him happy and does not think about his parents’ sentiments. Shrugging his shoulders, he says, “I just do not care anymore.”

One must wonder if van Gogh felt the same way as Joe did about his parents.  It seems probable that, like Joe, apathy set in and prompted the Dutch genius to stop trying to keep up with the demands that he knew he could never meet. These sentiments are made manifest in his paintings and take on a tangible form in his artwork. It is no surprise that his father’s death served to liberate him – at least temporarily – from the bonds of constant rejection. After his father passed away, van Gogh was finally free to unleash his creativity in a wholly unique and unbridled manner. Van Gogh’s paintings after his father’s demise testify to the liberation he must have felt; the freedom he must have embraced.  They are bolder and more daring; they are less conventional, epitomising the quintessential avant-garde artist he was at heart. Van Gogh was, at last, able to step outside of a predefined notion of what he should be and allow himself to be who he was. It was at this point in his career that he painted his greatest masterpieces, and his mark on Dutch art was etched in stone.

The interviews I conducted, coupled with the life of van Gogh, testify to the fact that parents, either purposefully or unintentionally, hold such high expectations for their children that youth are often unable to just enjoy their lives and pursue their own life paths.  Is it, therefore, any wonder that so many young people end up taking their own lives, just like van Gogh? At 37 years of age, van Gogh shot himself and died, a day and a half later. We as a society should carefully consider the fate of van Gogh and recognise that, while holding children responsible for their actions and setting some degree of expectations for them can be helpful, micromanaging their lives and demanding unattainable output is detrimental to their mental wellbeing, self-confidence, and self-worth.  Parents, please take the time to think about how your actions and words impact your children, and try to take a deep breath, step back, and refrain from living vicariously through your offspring. You lived your life, made mistakes, achieved goals, had your heart broken, and even failed – now, it is time to let your kids do the same.