Lorenza Centi

When defying your immigrant parents' career expectations is hard but necessary

Like many children of immigrants, I reached a crossroads in my 20s: I had to fulfill my parents’ career expectations or my own. My dad had coaxed me into majoring in molecular and cell biology in college, which I was okay at, but didn’t love. When I’d muse about writing for a living, he’d encourage me to pursue medicine, which promised more financial stability, and write as a hobby. To prove to him and my mom that their sacrifices weren’t for naught, I tucked my wants away and followed the trajectory he’d charted, until I couldn’t bear to anymore.

Creator culture is awash in messaging that urges us to follow our passions — but for second-generation Americans, it’s not so simple. I eventually reconciled honoring my parents’ sacrifices with honoring my passion for writing, but only after years of introspection, not to mention the privilege of having parents who ultimately supported my career path. Based on my own experience, and insight from Oakland-based therapist Alison Nobrega, here’s a guide to why immigrant parents’ career expectations hold so much weight and how to navigate resisting them.

The dilemma many of us face stems from the disparity between our parents’ visions of success and our own. Many immigrant parents had a survival mindset when it came to their careers because they had to, Nobrega explains. “I think it’s this idea of the American Dream ... There’s only one way to be financially secure and successful, and that’s to have a stable job, stable income. There’s no room for risk. There just wasn’t.” My dad fell into repairing TVs when he immigrated to the U.S. because a nearby trade school was offering a class on how to do so, not because he harbored dreams of an electronics career. Such dreams were a luxury. He came alone, without a safety net — he needed to earn money ASAP, so he chose what was doable, practical.

It’s important to remember that it’s not our parents’ fault that they define success in narrower terms than we do. “It’s what they knew and what they had to do in order to provide for their family,” Nobrega says. As a result, our parents might believe that fields that typically provide financial security, such as medicine, business, or law, lead to success. While they’re not necessarily wrong, we might have the awareness they didn’t have that we can take other routes to success — and we may also have access to these routes that they didn’t have. Many millennials gravitate to entrepreneur and creator lifestyles that allow us to monetize our passions, and believe in the importance of work-life balance, which our parents might not understand.

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This gulf between our visions of success can create guilt and shame among children of immigrants, Nobrega tells me. We might think that if we don’t pursue a career that offers financial security and control in a way our parents understand, then we’re not meeting their expectations, or we’re disappointing them. She says that it goes back to asking ourselves: Do we want to change this cycle? Do we want to provide evidence that we can live different lifestyles from our parents, and that their sacrifices can still mean something? Can we honor our identities as children of immigrants and still assume professional identities different from what our parents expect?

If we do what our parents want solely out of a fear of disappointing them, “we’re not really being true to ourselves,” she says. “It will just lead to even more shame, more resentment, more guilt,” as well as lower self-esteem. Repeating generational cycles that began in our families because they didn’t have the knowledge, tools, resources, language, or access can breed dysfunction.

Here’s how to navigate pursuing a career path that doesn’t square with your immigrant parents’ expectations:

Work through your emotions

You can still honor your identity as a child of immigrants without having the job your parents wish you had, Nobrega says. To begin moving toward radical acceptance of both this identity and your professional identity — without judging yourself or trying to control your family’s opinions — explore what being a child of immigrants means to you.

Ask yourself: How do you want to honor this identity and maintain its presence in your life? What family values are important to you, and how do they show up in your day-to-day? How can you demonstrate to your family that their origin story, culture, and values are important to you, even if you aren’t entering the field of study they expected? How can you show appreciation to them beyond supporting them financially? For instance, while I try to spot my parents when I can, I also call them every weekend because I know they value quality time with me.

It’s not our parents’ fault that they define success in narrower terms than we do.

Nobrega also suggests coping statements or affirmations like, “My worth is not dependent on what my parents think of me” or “I honor my family’s mindset and their origin stories around money, professional identity, and what it means to provide for their family — and I know I can make my own choices.” If you notice yourself making “should” statements, explore where they come from. The important thing is to process your emotions, rather than avoid or suppress them.

Honor what’s best for you and your mental health

“Not every child of immigrant story is going to be the same,” Nobrega tells me. While second-gens might be able to relate to one another, “I think you also have to remember that your origin story is yours alone, and you have to do what’s best for you,” and try not to fall into the trap of comparing your immigrant family’s situation to that of other immigrant families.

Honor what’s best for you, based on how your parents communicate, as well as how they receive feedback and whether they’re even open to it, Nobrega adds. Maybe you decide that sharing your career choice with your family will harm you more than keeping the peace, and that’s totally fine. In that case, it might be easier for you to not fully open up until, say, you’ve made enough money and can prove to them that yes, you can build a life doing what you enjoy.

Or maybe you want to follow your passion while also supporting your parents financially, in which case you might start a creative hustle outside of your 9 to 5 that would allow you to do both. “You can take a smaller risk that can lead to professional satisfaction.”

Use “I” statements

If you do decide to have a conversation with your parents about your career, frame it in terms of your own worth and happiness, Nobrega says. Walk them through how it’s possible to honor them and your professional identity, and be prepared to illustrate with specifics: “I respect x, y, z about our family and x, y, z about our culture, and I’m going to honor my choice of pursuing this professional opportunity for my own well-being and my future.” Provide evidence that your career choice will still allow you to have financial independence and create a life that you want.

I can’t speak for all immigrant parents, but my dad dissuaded me from a writing career because he didn’t know what a stable one could look like; he worried I’d end up struggling like he and my mom did. Showing confidence in my skill and enrolling in journalism school (a privilege I’m thankful for) partly as a way to make professional connections, helped soothe their fears.

Express gratitude

If you choose to share your career choice with your parents, honor the sacrifices they made for you by thanking them, Nobrega suggests. Let them know their sacrifices have allowed you to lead the life you want. Chances are, they want you to do better than they could — tell them that this is you, doing better. You have access to this different way of living because of them.

You might disappoint your parents, and that’s okay

“Acknowledge that it’s really disappointing, and it’s really hurtful to not have your parents’ approval,” Nobrega says. Again, rather than avoiding the shame, rejection, and other distressing emotions that might surface, try to process them. Rely on coping statements like “I’ll work through this,” and remind yourself of how you’ve worked through these feelings in the past. Speaking with a mental health professional, if you have the means, can help. Nobrega recommends workbooks and other resources based in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a form of therapy that’s especially helpful for difficult emotions. Remind yourself that if you hadn’t honored your truth, you’d be perpetuating cycles that could harm the next generation.

Regardless of the outcome of your conversation with your parents, honor the choice you made and the courage it took for you to approach them in the first place, Nobrega says. You’re modeling to them what it looks like to be true to yourself and use your voice — and it’s because of their sacrifice that you could advocate for yourself in this way at all.