I want to write a picture book. Swim under the belly of a whale. I want to build a home, rewrite the script of parenting, open a bookshop with the dust of old pages. I want to deposit a paycheque that guarantees my children an education. I want shelter, adventure, happiness.
They say if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough. But why do we belittle little dreams?
I’ve been thinking a lot about success lately, trying to distinguish between those who have it and don’t–and what exactly it is I should be looking for. We live in a world with heightened expectations: if you’re an entrepreneur, you should be turning a massive profit; if you’re a writer, you better have a bestseller; if you’re a woman you need a husband, a promotion, and a child.
Whether or not we admit it, the pressure of these expectations weigh on us to varying degrees. I confess they weigh on me quite heavily.
But unlike for many, that pressure never came from my family. Daddy gave out freedom in place of expectation. It used to irk me, because I wanted him to tell me what to do.
What do I invest in South Asian Parent? Should I do a PhD? What should my 5-year-plan look like?
Daddy never answered. Instead he bought me a desk for my first office (my bedroom), emailed me links to PhD programs, and gave me his journal to scribble out my plan.
If I insisted, he would only offer this: “Ask yourself. Think calmly. Think why. Have a little faith; sometimes even the wrong decisions lead to the right places. Don’t compromise on happiness.”
What I wanted to hear:
“Yes, do your PhD. Become a clinical psychologist. When you have a solid base to fall back on, follow your passion.”
I was inclined to safety; Daddy was not. The pursuit of his dreams was limited by circumstance and finance, and he did not want to transfer that to his children. But parents do often perpetuate that burden, and children grow into adults who feel they have failed if they don’t live up to the reputation a family business built, or the accomplishment an Ivy League education should ensure.
If our dreams are narrower than our parents’–if we live in a smaller house, work in a less prestigious institution, or can’t stay at home with our children the way our moms did with us–they are subtractions from our success.
In a previous time, no one pointed a finger at working minimum wage to ensure a place to sleep at night. But for us–the fortunate generation who have been handed a home, an education, and incredible opportunity–we will be judged for what we’ve done with it.
It was Daddy’s foresight that prevented him from telling his daughters what to do.
He knew our struggle would be different. The fight of our time is our choices, and Daddy knew we would have to defend them–across jobs, friends, family, society, and eventually ourselves.
My parents provided my sister and I a solid financial and emotional foundation, but never allowed us the safety of predetermined expectations.
Perhaps Daddy was quicker to come to terms with his mortality, but the same applies to every parent. You will not be around forever to tell your children what to do.
Particularly as daughters, it has been more difficult since Daddy left to stand up for our choices–the ones we independently decided to make from an infinite number of possibilities.
“Why aren’t you married yet? Shouldn’t you have a more secure career? Why didn’t you quit your job to take care of your child?”
Had Daddy not taught his girls to hear their own voices louder than anyone else’s, including his, we might not have been able to fight for ourselves at all.
He knew I’d wake up to a day I’d have to define success without his help. And even if he were here he’d still say, “Ask yourself.”
With open eyes, the future looks frightening. But with lids closed, with the instinct I was taught to heed, I see a million successes around me: A petition that reforms law. A lasting marriage. An honest divorce. Building something from nothing. Respecting failure. Coco Chanel. Steve Jobs. My mother.
Whatever the definition, it’s not the size of our dreams that determines our success. And for now that makes the weight feel a little less heavy.