Three Major Parenting Lessons I Learned as the Child of Immigrants
Growing up, I knew my parents made a lot of sacrifices to move our family from India to America and continued to do so in the years to come. But I had no idea just how many important lessons they were teaching me along the way.
I had worn a white lace dress with flared tulle. Unless the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills flew commercial back then, I'm fairly certain I was the most overdressed person on that Air India flight to New Jersey back on May 9, 1992. It's an odd level of detail to remember, even 29 years later, but you see, it wasn't just any old flight. It was the first time my mom, siblings, and I had ever set foot on a plane—to go anywhere—let alone to fly internationally. It was the flight that was going to reunite us with my dad, after two long years.
My dad was 40 years old when he left the life he had built in his birthplace, India, with nothing but two suitcases, a pocket full of dreams, and the proverbial $8. My mom at 37—the same age I am today—suddenly became a "single parent," raising me and my two older brothers. The level of courage my parents demonstrated seemed astonishing but never apparent to me until I started my own family, five years ago. My parents unknowingly taught me lessons that are helping me become the best parent I can be.
Lesson 1: Putting Things Into Perspective
Their uncanny ability to roll with the punches—the type of grit that is perhaps unique to immigrants—is just one of the many lessons I subconsciously learned from my parents. This trait was particularly beneficial when I found out I was pregnant with my first child. The news coincided with the start of my husband's year-long fellowship in Boston which also flung us into a long-distance relationship. This meant that most doctor's appointments, random late-night cravings, and foot massages were for me to handle alone. The times I missed my husband the most though was when I wanted him to co-experience certain moments. Some were fleeting, like the times I felt the baby kicking nonstop, and some everlasting, like the night she cried all night.
It was in those very moments that I began to empathize with my mom. In a house full of three loud kids, was it my dad's voice that she yearned to hear the most? What my mom experienced during those two years was far more challenging than what I was going through. I got to see my husband every other weekend. My mom had to wait two years. I could call my husband or FaceTime as often as I wanted. My parents had to budget their long-distance calls. I only had one infant to care for with child care available. My mom had three children with no help. My parents' sacrifices gave me the gift of perspective.
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Lesson 2: Stepping Up to the Challenge
One thing my mom did not give me was her culinary gene. She's the type that can't stay out of the kitchen, and I'm the type that can't stand the kitchen. I find the whole process of prepping, cooking, cleaning to be so laborious. She considers it a labor of love. Perhaps it was this passion that enabled her to cook an entire four-course ethnic meal each morning, before reaching work at 9 a.m., once we started a new life in America. I never realized how my mom had been #mealplanning long before it became a trending hashtag on Sundays.
Having a daughter who's the antithesis of a picky eater suddenly made me more adventurous in the kitchen. I now look forward to making her different dishes and seeing her devour them, meal after meal. It made me wonder if all these years, what kept my mom going in the kitchen was that feeding our bellies was in turn feeding her soul.
Lesson 3: The Art of Hustling
What truly helped keep food on the table though was the work my parents did outside the kitchen. Between my mom working odd jobs at the deli, babysitting, and the like, and my dad working as an accountant, they had eventually saved up enough to buy a bodega. So, what if they didn't know a single thing about running a small business? America was the land of opportunity, after all—where money talks louder than your heavily accented English. Watching them work 13-hour shifts, seven days a week, for six years straight, taught me more than perhaps what any business school could offer. They were self-taught entrepreneurs who were motivated not by money, but their assets: their three children.
Similarly, it was my daughter and my niece—who were born exactly a week apart in 2017—that inspired me and my brother to take a leap of faith into entrepreneurship and start Modi Toys. Their birth made us identify a gap in the market for toys and books representative of our South Asian culture and Hindu faith. It didn't matter that neither of us had a clue about starting an ecommerce toy business. We had inherited our parents' entrepreneurial spirit, so we knew we would figure it out as we go. While many parents may caution their children to keep their stable six-figure corporate jobs, ours were excited to see us become our own bosses. And I finally understood why they supported our decision: when you have children to support without a safety net, you hustle because failure simply isn't an option.
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Looking back, I wonder if my parents had left behind more than just their house and belongings in India. They left their fears and ego because they knew there was no room for that here. It took me a long time to understand that with that one-way ticket to America, what they truly gave me was courage to face whatever may come my way. Yes, even meal planning.