From one child of immigrants to another

I am a second-generation, Filipina American, heterosexual, cisgender woman. By “second-generation,” this means I am a daughter of immigrants. For nearly my whole life, I wondered if I was doing enough, succeeding enough, and even being enough for my parents.

Your family's story may be similar to mine: my parents married and immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines and had high hopes for what my future would look like for me and my sister. As they took the time to find the latest deals on discounted produce and groceries, they daydreamed about a home where all of us lived, worked, and had every meal together. As they lived paycheck to paycheck while working odd jobs, they envisioned us working in the medical field. As they crossed their fingers that our old Chevy Cavalier would start in the morning, they pictured a future where we would be able to afford the latest model, new tires, and any maintenance our cars needed. As we grew older, they had whispers of hope about having grandchildren running around their home to spoil and love. They worked and dreamed endlessly about a future that was better than their present at the time, a future where there was less struggling and suffering for us. They had hopes and visions about the rhetoric of the American Dream they heard was possible.

Not only were these the memories I saw during my upbringing, but these also created a narrative that I internalized for many years. The unspoken messages were this:

“If I don’t succeed, I’m a failure to my parents.”

“If I don’t meet their expectations, I have failed their dream.”

“If I don’t do what they have wanted for me, I will have wasted everyone’s time.”

“If I don’t make them happy, there must be something wrong with me.”

These were communicated in the little things: the pride they had in me when I came home with high grades on my report card. The emphasis on academics and the constant messages of, “You’ll be a great nurse one day!” It was communicated even in the way they would brag to my aunts, uncles, cousins, or anyone within earshot about my successes while having silent (though sometimes loudly vocal) responses towards my moments of setbacks. It became a cycle of working for their approval because I know they sacrificed so much to uproot their lives in the Philippines and create one with less hardship in the U.S. This cycle also often led to heavy, heavy guilt.

As we all know, dreams and reality don’t often mix. My parents have become empty nesters as my sister and I have left home while settling into our chosen cities and spaces. While my sister entered the medical field as a nurse, I entered the field of mental health as a therapist (and mental health is highly stigmatized in our culture). We don’t have the latest and greatest models of cars, or even the models that our parents prefer. We don’t have children that our parents can call grandchildren running around the home for them to spoil and love. With each timeline my parents hoped for came and passed, we did not meet their expectations. For years, while I fought for a life I envisioned for myself, I harbored the guilt that I was taking away the one they envisioned for me.

Through years of my own therapy, connecting with other children of immigrants, and my work with clients, I have learned to rewrite the messages.

My image of success will look different from that of my parents, and that’s okay.

My parents’ expectations and my expectations do not have to be the same, and that’s okay.

Doing what I want for myself is not a waste of time.

Their disappointment is not my fault, it is simply their reaction.

One of the many balancing acts

The immigrant bargain is a term that you may not have heard of before, but it speaks a lot to the story of myself that I just shared. It is the idea that immigrant parents have sacrificed and suffered in hopes that their children will be able to showcase success to justify it all. Other children of immigrants, putting a label to this experience may speak to you as much as it spoke to me.

To say this was painful was an understatement. I lived with years of guilt as I balanced frustration, and even resentment, toward my parents and found it difficult to acknowledge their sacrifices to get me where I was. It felt like it was hung over me as a method of control rather than a source of empathy and connection. It wasn’t until I went through reflection and healing in therapy that I realized it was possible to hold, feel, and validate all of my reactions and more.

It is possible to honor your parents’ sacrifices and feel frustrated by their expectations.

It is possible to honor your parents’ sacrifices and continue to do what is best for you.

It is possible to honor your parents’ sacrifices and set boundaries about what you are willing to do.

Here are some questions for exploration of this idea that you can use to explore by yourself or with your own therapist:

  • What does success look like for you and where did these images come from?

  • What happened when you didn’t meet your parents’ expectations growing up? How does this dynamic play out in your relationship with them today?

  • What kinds of things do you wish your parents said to you when you didn’t meet their expectations? How can you give that to yourself today?

If you come from a collectivistic culture like mine, some of these questions and actions may feel completely contrary to the way you were raised. This comes with a whole other list of internal conflicts and points that may need some exploration, too. I’m recognizing that pursuing your own dreams, thinking about yourself, and doing what is best for yourself is a very Western, individualistic way of thinking. By no means does this mean that merging the two world values is impossible, and by no means am I saying that you have to lean more toward one side than the other. Just as it is possible to hold the statements I mentioned earlier together, it is possible to merge collectivistic and individualistic values together in ways that make the most sense for you. There is no right and wrong; there is just yours.

From one child of immigrants to another

Even though I am writing this blog, it does not mean I have it all figured out (on the contrary; I am always learning about myself and my cultural values). This is a journey that many children of immigrants can relate to, but mine will look very different from yours. I hope that when you read this, you glean some sort of inspiration to explore and find compassion for yourself.

You are not a failure.

You are not a burden.

You are not a waste.

You are trying your best, doing what is best for yourself, and navigating a unique kind of life that not everyone can understand. You may feel that little worm of guilt every now and then, and that’s okay. Acknowledge it, honor it, understand its origin, and give yourself a moment of self-love and self-care.

I see you.

I’m proud of you.

Cultured Space therapists will be here for you to explore more when you’re ready.