Brilliance: Generations in the Making

My ancestors and I helped champion my daughters’ triumphs.

By Dulce Zamora

This could easily be a brag post about my daughters’ accomplishments, but it’s much more than that. Lurking in the shadows of triumph are skeletons that threaten to haunt our future success and happiness.

First, let’s start with the good news. Nearly a year ago, my 13-year-old daughter, Sienna, wrote an essay about hope during the pandemic and submitted it to an international competition. Out of more than 1,600 submissions from 63 countries, she earned a spot as one of 166 semifinalists. She named her essay “A Light in the Darkness.”

This February, she won 3rd place at her school’s National History Day contest, which made her an alternate for the Southeast Asia Finals. Her research paper detailed the consequences of miscommunications during the 1918 pandemic. She made connections to current events. The judges praised her strong writing.

Most recently, she won 1st place in a Middle School Scribes contest in the fantasy category. Her story showcased the playful innocence of two childhood friends who belonged to an evil species. Sienna says she uses her fiction writing to process the feelings of loss, sadness, and anger wrought on by the pandemic.

What I love most about Sienna is not so much her individual achievements, but her persistence and unabashed drive to pursue her passion. I mean, she has already written 80,000+ words of a novel and has no plans of slowing down. Recently, she shared with me four writing projects she planned to tackle in the next month.

In addition, she has spent nearly every free time after school sketching, painting, and sculpting. She presented her portfolio before a panel and got accepted into an advanced art program in high school. She had already gotten into the school’s accelerated science class.

My 11-year-old daughter, Jasmine, is just as prolific with her projects. She has written 50,000+ words of a novel, and is involved in a couple of writing projects with her sister and friends. Not only that, she wrote the script for her robotics team’s presentation last month. In the next few weeks, she’ll compete as part of her school’s team in the National Math Olympiad and in the National Reader’s Cup.

Jasmine invests a lot of energy on her art as well. Last month, she created a delicate ceramic basket in class. The teacher instructed students to make something out of clay coils. Most kids stacked the rolls on top of each other or wound them close together to form a safe, stable structure. Jasmine, on the other hand, created a suspended weave, a risky move given that the fragile construction had to survive intense heat in the kiln. What a relief the experiment worked out!

The girls’ achievements definitely make me a proud mama. They are amazing! Nonetheless, just like Jasmine’s fragile handicraft, I worry that the very elements contributing to their strengths are the same ones that could weaken their future prospects.

Let me explain by sharing some family history.

Dreams, Interrupted

When my father was a kid in the Philippines, he showed up in class with bare feet caked in dirt each day. His family couldn’t afford to buy necessities like food, clothes, and shoes. To keep up with school fees, he hawked produce from gardeners and farmers on the streets.

My father believed that education was the ticket to a better life. He studied hard, earning an engineering scholarship to attend a prestigious university in Manila, a couple of hours’ drive from his province. However, the award only covered tuition. He spent a year working several odd jobs so he could afford to buy food and to rent floor space at a boarding house. (He slept on a straw mat.) He spent most of his time and energy making ends meet, leaving little for his studies. He lost the scholarship. So, he went back to his hometown, worked as a dishwasher, and saved enough to take accounting classes at a local college. In the years after he graduated, he worked different jobs: as an auditor, an accounting professor, a business owner, and an assistant manager of a new bank. By the time he was 30 years old, he was the manager of a national bank, leading the opening of new branches around the country.

My father believed that education was the ticket to a better life.

My mother had wanted to study Fine Arts in Manila. Her family also lacked funds to support her dream. Plus, people in her community pointed out that artists, musicians, and writers starved and could not afford education for their kids. They said only people like doctors, lawyers, and accountants could realistically send their children to good schools. She desired to raise a family one day, so she studied education, a course of study that was practical enough, and was available at the local college. After graduation, she became an elementary school teacher. She worked for a few years, but gave it up shortly after marrying and having children. She took care of the kids and managed the store our family owned.

When we immigrated to the U.S., Dad found it difficult to find a job. Employers disregarded his foreign credentials and said he lacked work experience. He took on a position as an entry-level auditor while attending classes toward an MBA in the evenings. Eventually, he became the CFO of various non-profit organizations. Mom worked as a county clerk to help with the household bills. Her utmost priority was to support her husband and to ensure her children’s future. She continued to do this until her retirement.

My siblings and I benefited from our parents’ efforts. They paid for our university tuition, and were very happy when we earned our college degrees. Yet, the journey wasn’t without incident. I had desired to attend a university in the East Coast and dreamed of living as an author in New York City. My parents urged me to be more realistic about my choices. Back then, I thought they simply lacked faith in me. I wasn’t yet privy to the details of their past struggles. Determined, I worked toward my goal, eventually securing a national news producer/writer job that paid for my move to the Big Apple. While there, I became an author, and married a New Yorker whose work took us to Singapore for eight years. After that job ended, we lived in California for three years, only to return to Singapore, where my husband had another job opportunity.

Her utmost priority was to support her husband’s career and to ensure her children’s future.

I gave birth to Sienna and Jasmine during our first stint in the Southeast Asian nation. After I became a mother, I took an unexpected long break from my writing career. Parenthood and life as a trailing expat spouse was a lot more work than anticipated. I saw that my children needed me. They had a lot of health challenges. They also needed my presence at home to anchor them through all of our major moves.

The girls are now older, stronger, and a little more self sufficient. They don’t miss as many school days, and they’re more settled in their environment. I recently started writing again, but reviving my career has been slow. I discovered it takes time to reconnect with colleagues, to get updated on industry changes and new technology, to get my words out there, and to balance parenting, career, and other responsibilities. The last time I worked professionally, I only had to manage myself.

Navigating the Darkness

How do women promote professional success in their children if they themselves are struggling to maintain it? My mother didn’t get a chance to pursue her passion, but she did embody the value of being practical and altruistic. Her work — supporting my father’s pursuits, earning enough to cover the bills, and managing the house and kids — helped secure our family’s future. I benefitted from that. When I took a break from writing, I unintentionally followed her example of sacrificing personal needs to care for loved ones. The time that I spent with my daughters at home was both heartening and valuable. However, in the future, I wonder how my actions will influence them should they decide to have their own families. Will they also decide to sacrifice their careers?

While I always encourage my daughters to think of others, I also believe in modeling self-care, which involves honoring what is important to us. Taking care of ourselves is essential not only for our own mental and physical health, but for our family’s as well. It’s really hard to convince kids to eat their vegetables if we don’t consume them ourselves.

Yes, there are many women who manage a career and family at the same time. I myself am trying to do that now. It is a juggling act that often has me pondering whether I’m doing a good enough job at both endeavors. But I persist because both are important to me, and, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s crucial for me to model success for my children.

My father believed in hard work and perseverance. He inspired us to not only dream big, but to work hard toward our goal and to persist despite the obstacles. However, many times along my journey, I’ve questioned what good it is to dream big if social and cultural expectations attitudes limit what we can do.

I excelled at school just like my girls do. I was even voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by my peers. However, at our class reunion a few years ago, I didn’t feel so successful. In our society, there’s not as much gravitas to saying ‘I’m a stay-at-home mom’ as opposed to saying ‘I’m a … doctor, teacher, salesperson, etc.” Perhaps I could’ve said ‘I’m an at-home mother,’ normalized it, and not cared if people saw it as less than a job. I didn’t speak up then, but I will now.

When I say I’m a writer, another set of complications appear. My parents had preferred a more practical path for me. Another relative even told me about job openings after I published my first books. Just like my mom’s community had dissuaded her from pursuing the arts, some in my circle didn’t appreciate it as well.

I could hardly blame them. The fear of not having enough money and opportunity is real. It has had life-changing consequences for so many family and friends. The concern is so much a part of our lives that it feels imbedded into our DNA.

The fear of not having enough money and opportunity is real.

It’s important for me to honor my community’s struggles. Yet, it’s also crucial that I move beyond them so we can reap the rewards from our collective sacrifice, practicality, hard work, and perseverance.

I’ve learned to value my work as a mom and as a writer. I’ve also learned to unload a lot of cultural and societal baggage. I hope my work in doing this will also help my daughters move forward, just as my parents had given me a head start beyond their limitations. Perhaps in writing this piece I can expose the obstructions – to take the issues out of the shadows and into the light where they can be seen.

Whatever my daughters end up doing, I hope they will carry less of the baggage shouldered by their forebears and me. Their achievements will be my achievements, and my parents’, and my grandparents’, and so on. The same can be said on my husband’s side. He and his family have contributed to the girls’ successes.

My daughters are adding new chapters to our family story, but also to the history of women, traditionally disadvantaged communities, and migrants (immigrants and expats). When Sienna and Jasmine are able to carry their own weight, they can help lift up others in their communities. Hopefully, one day, their brilliance will illuminate the darkness, lighting the way for generations to more fully realize their power.

© 2021 Windswept Wildflower

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