On July 4, 1776, a group of men signed a document that said we all have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s a nice thought, but the men who wrote it were also slave owners. Still, over time this country has developed an abstract idea called the American Dream, and that idea varies from person to person. Generally, it has to do with having equal opportunities for a better life, but with current events in the U.S. being what they are, what does the American Dream mean to first-generation mothers?
I'm a first-generation mother, a U.S. citizen by birth, a daughter of immigrants, and a member of numerous marginalized classes. I grew up lower-middle class, and my father worked so hard for his family that I didn’t get to spend much time with him growing up. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, and extremely overprotective given she was a stranger in a strange land. My parents eventually became citizens, and by the time I got to high school they were finally able to afford their first home.
I always thought the American Dream meant I would go to college, get a great job right out of school, buy a house, and have the kind of life some of my more privileged friends had growing up. Life is much more challenging, though. I always expected I would get to raise my son in a world with less hatred and less fear and less violence than the world my parents grew up in and fled. Instead, immigrant children have been forcefully separated from their parents, hate crimes are on the rise, and our children are being shot and killed in their schools.
Now, and to me, the American Dreams seems more like a well-propagated campaign to convince the marginalized to pull themselves by the bootstraps rather than fight for their rights. I think the only American Dream I can believe in is the one held by activists and others trying to make this world a better place, not just for themselves but for everyone else, too.
I can only speak for myself, though, so I spoke with a number of other mothers about their thoughts on the American Dream. Here's what they had to say:
“There is no ‘American Dream’ so long as kids are being torn from their families and placed in cages like animals. There is no ‘American Dream’ if we can’t welcome people in need with open minds and hearts instead of, ‘mine, mine, mine.’ There just is no American Dream anymore. Immigrants know this. The opportunities are still better here, though. That’s why such risks are taken.”
“It means that every time I succeed, those successes belong to my parents, too. For example, my university graduation was as much a win for me as it was for my parents. They sacrificed for me and for my future in a way I could never repay them, so my way of making it up to them is through succeeding. It’s what fills their heart with joy.”
“I am first generation on both sides. On my mom's side, she is the only one of nine that's migrated to another country; same thing on my Dad's side, only he has five siblings. I am grateful, but I am also fearful. There are few opportunities where I come from. I would not have been given the freedoms that are offered here. My childhood was difficult, but now I am able to provide my children with a life without limitations. I came here legally when I was 5 and this is all I know. As a naturalized citizen, I continue to fear being unaccepted by society or having that taken away from me. There is no basis for that to happen, but the past and current state of the country makes me feel like I will never truly belong in the only country I know.”
“I'm a first-gen mom, and a while ago I listened to a Code Switch podcast where they talked about how important it was to have a cultural and family narrative for your kids. It gives them a resource for cultivating resilience and peace. All this recent strife has made me even prouder of my parents and kind of highlighted the struggles that they were up against that are out in the open, now. I want my kids to know that they, too, are tough and strong and can build themselves up out of nothing.”
“The American Dream is having a good job that lets you pay your bills and debts, and save money for your children's education as well as your own retirement. A big part of the American dream is not having to live paycheck to paycheck.”
“I consider the American Dream to be to complete a degree and own a home. Neither of my parents were able to complete their education. I was raised on the concept of working hard (and saving) to reach these goals and that I am lucky to have so many resources available. I'm sure this concept is different for so many. And even now, this dream seems close to impossible with the rise of health care costs (almost $1,000 a month here because I am legally married... so how am I supposed to pay off this mortgage before I'm 50?!)”
“Having the opportunity to work hard and earn a decent living. Also, living in a place where you are generally safe from war, crime, and persecution of beliefs.”
“Being able to have a roof over our head and be the first to complete an undergraduate and graduate degree. To have the opportunity to voice our opinion, and quite frankly when you’re the child of an immigrant your perspective on life is much different. You have a better appreciation, so much so that even the simplest things in life give us the most happiness.”