On my 20th birthday, I looked at my mother and grandmother, and my mind started racing. At my age, they were both married and giving birth to their first child. In contrast, I was entering my senior year of college, didn’t even want to date anyone seriously, and had never changed a diaper in my life. I was busy making my dreams come true.
I came to the realization that my mother and my grandmother must have had dreams too. What happened?
Like a cold shower, I instantly came to understand that their sacrifices gave me what I now had: the opportunity to do what I was currently doing; to choose to pursue dreams other than marriage and kids. This left me wondering: What were the dreams that they didn’t pursue? And so I asked them.
“Abogada. Me encanta ese lío. [An attorney. I love all that mess],” my grandmother responded to my question without hesitation and with a spark of instant energy, which led her to explain further how she believes women are fearless and powerful for such roles.
My abuelita was born in 1947 in a small town near Mexico City. It’s so small that she doesn’t even bother giving me the name of it. Being the second of 16 children, my abuelita had a big role in contributing at home from a very young age. She doesn’t tell me this herself, but my mother mentions that abuelita was sent to work when she was just 7 years old. “She had a very tough childhood,” my mom says.
The existence of so many struggles and responsibilities at home meant that things like going to college were never really an option for my abuelita. To this day, she talks often about how much she loved going to school, and even brags a little about the many academic awards she received. However, it all ended in middle school when she had to drop out and take on even more responsibilities at home. It wasn’t really a choice; it’s just how things were.
At 17, my grandma met my grandfather, an ambitious 21-year-old lead singer in a rock band. After dating for two months, they got married. Three years later, at the age of 20, my grandmother gave birth to my mother, the first of seven children (only five of which lived to adulthood). With four daughters and a son, and a husband who was always working, my grandma had to focus on giving all her time and energy to her family. She never considered going back to school. It was simply never an option.
Years later, when my mother was already married, and her siblings were in high school, my grandmother got divorced.
Running a small restaurant that served meals to the blue-collar working population in Tulancingo, Hidalgo, my grandmother would work every single day to help cover her kids’ college tuitions. Two of them became lawyers. Two of them became accountants. All received food and school money from my tireless grandmother. All of them, except one, my grandmother’s oldest child. My mother.
My mom grew up in a different time, when my grandparents were still together. Simply put, back then my grandfather was still calling the shots, and he didn’t believe that my mother needed college.
“I wanted to be a psychologist, but no one believed psychology was even a thing back then,” says my mother, who then pursued a career in biochemistry.
Lacking the support of my grandfather, my mom ran away from home after high school. Like grandma, she was also an incredible student. Her uncle, my grandfather’s brother, helped get her into college. But it was an academic career cut promptly short: my grandfather went and brought my mother back home. Devastated, my mother ended up having to sacrifice her dreams of a higher education to help raise her siblings.
At 18, my mother married her sweetheart. By age 20, she was giving birth to me.
When I was 8, my mother was given the opportunity to use the little experience she had in biochemistry, obtained during her stint in college, to work at a reputable cheese factory. She worked in the lab and seemed incredibly happy. She was committed to her job and to the possibility of her career finally taking off. But before long, finances at home hit the fan, and mom had to quit the job at the lab to come back and help work in the family restaurant. With nothing like a financial safety net in place for our family at large, any moments where the women could make attempts at fulfilling professional pursuits were tenuous and often short-lived in the face of pressing immediate needs for the family.
My mother made a lot of sacrifices for me and my brother, and I regret not understanding her heartbreak in the middle of my whining and demanding. I wish I had known. I wish someone had told me, and at least helped me understand that she, also, had dreams. The self-involvement inherent to childhood blinded me to that when I was young, and in my young adulthood, I became starkly aware of it.
Looking back, the times my mother’s confidence and strength was said without a word, was when she was taking care of herself. I respected that. She seems taller and stronger. But her constant need to save our family’s drowning boat didn’t leave her much time to do the things she loved to do. I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to even think to ask her about her dreams and passions; that it took me so long to realize that she must have them.
With three jobs, mom put me and my brother through college, bought a house, became a legal U.S. resident, and is now not putting up with shit from anyone at her school cafeteria job. It’s not a happy ending. She tries everyday to find what makes her feel alive. She still has that hunger to feel like she has reached her dream. Not my dad’s dream, nor my brother’s, nor mine — her dream.
I look back and I can’t help to think, is this tradition of abdicating professional goals for the sake of domestic responsibilities what lies next for me? Is that what happens when you give into marriage and motherhood? My abuelita and mother have sacrificed so much in their lifetime. Undeniably, they both have had the guts to kick adversity in the face, and the energy to take on any challenge, but the needs of their family, kids, and husband took a front-row seat throughout the years. We’re told we can “have it all” but in my family history, seeing so many formidable women forced into choosing family over career, the prospect of having it all feels like maybe a fairy tale.
The thought petrifies me. I have worked so hard to be where I am. I, of course, have goals of my own. My mother and my grandmother have given up so much for me to be here. It’s not just a matter of fighting for my own sake to retain space for my own dreams to come to fruition and not have them derailed by the demands that are always placed disproportionately on the mothers in families; it would feel like a betrayal to their sacrifice for me to give up and let that happen to me too.
I also refuse to let my needs and dreams take a backseat because I refuse to let this be a cycle in our family. I have a daughter now, and she is watching me.
My job is to write a story she can reference back to and realize that what she wants from her life is as important as the needs of the people she loves. It isn’t enough to merely tell her platitudes like “loving others means loving yourself enough to fill up your cup before pouring into others” — I have to actually demonstrate it for her.
The chain of sacrificing one’s self, and one’s dreams stops with me. Enough. It’s an important job and part of my legacy. Is it feasible? I believe it is. If my abuelita and my mother could repeatedly endure the heartache of sidelining their happiness for the sake of our family — for the sake of me having the opportunities I do — then I can sure as hell do my part by breaking the cycle.