Every year at the beginning of May, my social media timeline politely reminds me of the four days it took to birth my son. It is both mildly amusing and slightly traumatic to see the progression of photos from cheerfully optimistic to desperately stressed out. Every year around this time, I feel the need to retell the whole story at least once. (I will try not to do this at, say, his 16th birthday party or wedding reception, I promise.)
In case I haven’t made it abundantly clear, parenting is hard AF. By all external measures, our child was an “easy” baby: happy, chill, and fairly flexible. But the first year of his life was anything but easy. Breastfeeding sucked, waking up every two hours sucked, and losing any semblance of external structure and motivation because I wasn’t teaching anymore sucked. I experienced postpartum depression and a relapse of my eating disorder from all the stress and sleep deprivation. I know I’m not the only one who found the infant stage grueling. If you think about it, there is really nothing easy about raising another human being.
But amid all the challenges and exhaustion and FOUR DAYS OF LABOR, I have never seriously believed that my child owes me anything. I am his guardian and supporter, but he is not an extension of me, an insurance policy, or some sort of do-over for my own life. If anything, I fervently hope he will not need to face many of the struggles I have. I work hard on my issues so he won’t have to live with that baggage, not because l expect to be repaid with his achievements.
My husband and I used to joke that if our then-hypothetical children wanted to live at home while pursuing an obscure art major, we’d kick them out. But now that we actually have a kid, and are living in a particularly ugly period of human history, I’ve changed my tune.
If our kid wants to make the world a little more beautiful through art, service, or just living a life of fulfillment and kindness, nothing could make me happier. He needs to do so responsibly, with an eye to long-term as well as short-term satisfaction. But I’d rather he live out the values our family has chosen–love, kindness, honesty–than follow any particular course of action for his life. I care less about what he will do than the kind of person he will be. (And as I experiment with parenting myself the way I needed to be parented, I tell myself this frequently too!)
I often hear from Asian Americans that they feel they owe their parents something. This belief usually comes to the fore when we talk about academic and career choices. “My parents worked so hard and sacrificed so much to leave their home and give me a better life. How can I throw that away by choosing [fill in less lucrative/stable/prestigious major or job here]?”
There are no easy answers. My parents never actively pressured me toward one path or another. So I’m not gonna sit here and tell you to just chuck your parents’ opinions. I know it’s not that simple. I think we owe our immigrant parents respect and empathy. Many of them endured great difficulties, most likely without the support they truly needed. But we are not obligated to relive and perpetuate those challenges on ourselves or our own children.
For the most part, we do not live with the same level of scarcity as our parents did. We have access to cultural, and often financial, capital that they did not. So we can afford to leave behind some of the limiting beliefs and behaviors caused by scarcity. For example, I have learned that sometimes it’s okay to pay for convenience and comfort, like shelling out a couple bucks for a parking garage instead of circling the block for twenty minutes with my screaming toddler in the backseat waiting for a free space.
On a bigger scale, we can also afford to consider things like job satisfaction and work-life balance because we aren’t just trying to survive in a hostile and foreign environment. To be sure, that privilege was earned for us by our parents. We must be grateful. Maybe you (and/or your parents) believe that creating art or working in public service or even just taking a gap year to breathe for a minute would be squandering our privilege and their sacrifice. But wouldn’t it be a greater waste of their labor if we kept slaving and suffering rather than accepting some of the ease they worked so hard to win for us?
I won’t pretend this is an easy conversation to have with immigrant parents. They may never fully come around because their fear of not having enough is so strong. But remember, most parents fundamentally just want their children to be safe. And for immigrants, financial, relational, and even physical safety is often hard to come by. So they naturally worry more about your safety and security than Becky in the nice house with an easy last name would.
If your parents nag you about not having health insurance or job security as a creative professional or entrepreneur, they’re not (intentionally) trying to be negative or unsupportive. They are just trying to make sure you are provided for. And, from a self-preservation perspective, they want to feel confident they won’t need to provide for you financially in their old age when they are on fixed and/or reduced income. Which I think is actually quite fair in most situations. (Raising children is work, okay?)
And the reality is, they’re not wrong. Savings, health insurance, and retirement funds are important. I think if you acknowledge the validity of their concerns and show that you have a plan for managing the risks, the”Hey Mom, I’m starting a band/blog/business,” conversation could go a lot more smoothly.
Perhaps at the end of the day, it all comes down to boundaries. (Which many Asian American families struggle with, I knoooooow.) As a parent, I can’t project my goals and expectations for myself onto my kid. But my child, even now, is responsible for making his own choices, accepting the consequences of those choices, and making those choices work for him. The only thing we owe each other is love. (And boundariessssss.)
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