TK grew up in a family of medical professionals. She followed in their footsteps and became a nurse, but had passion projects on the side. When she left nursing, her parents had a hard time understanding her new goals and the dreams she deems essential to her happiness. A career coach guides us in how to navigate career choices with skeptical loved ones.
Our expert this week is Jasmine Escalera, a Job Search and Career Strategist who works with women of color. You can visit Jasmine's website here. If you loved this episode, be sure to check out Struggling to Become More than a Dutiful Daughter and He's the First to Go to College.
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Hi, everybody. Thanks for coming back to How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything, and hello new listeners! I’m Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. This week, we hear from TK, a Haitian-American first gen, who after working over a decade as a nurse decided to change careers and pursue her passion for working in audio. Her parents had very different expectations, and for a long time, TK struggled to get them to see and accept her dreams and drive. Let’s get into it.
Keisha TK Dutes:
My name is Keisha TK Dutes, and I am an audio producer. I’m in my upper 30s and I’m Haitian American, and at home we call our parents mum, like mum with a U, and dad, like a long A. Mum and dad. So, my parents are Caribbean, Haitian, and my mom, she went to school for nursing and became a nurse, and she was always exposed to medicine because she worked in her brother’s doctor’s office, so there’s that theme of Caribbean people being in medicine. Always been around my family. Her sister is a doctor, and I kind of… That was the example that I saw, so I said when I was a kid, “I’m gonna be a pediatrician.” But who doesn’t want to be a pediatrician? You’d think that you’re a powerful guy with a white suit looking after kids, that’s like who wouldn’t want that job?
But they kind of stuck me with that idea of some sort of medicine, so I guess I was in high school, and my mom heard of this program called BOCES, so I would go to high school in the afternoon, and I would go to nursing school every day in the morning, so I had a double graduation, and then literally was working since 1999 in nursing while pursuing the other interests, which are radio audio stuff.
I guess at that point, my parents, they thought they steered me correctly. They thought they steered me in the right direction of my career and my job, but I actually took certain jobs because I wanted to have time to do radio and other media things. I would host shows, like host events, public speaking and stuff like that, and I would get so much, like I would get so much energy and fuel from that, that it would make me depressed to go back to regular work, nursing work on Monday. I don’t know if anybody just didn’t notice that I wasn’t happy, that I was basically not very healthy, because when you’re not happy, you get depressed, and when you get depressed, your body is also affected by that. It was hard. It was hard.
I didn’t overshare. I didn’t even, “Oh, what did you do this weekend?” And I could have had the best weekend ever. Nothing. The answer would just be nothing, like after a while you start to push them away, and you start holding folks at arm’s length, because you don’t want that negative energy, and that’s what I was getting, and I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t make it okay in my head that these people, they love me, I know it. Intellectually, I don’t know why I’m not feeling it, because man, if you all could just see how unhappy or how unwell I was, and how much this other thing makes me fucking live. Excuse me, I don’t mean to curse. But it wasn’t a conversation, but it was a lot of small explosions that would lead to, “Well, I don’t understand. We can do it together.” Like my mom wanted us to do the RN program together, to become registered nurses together. That’s when I was really honest about it, like just up front. I was just like, “I don’t want to do this.”
I stopped inviting them to things for a long time. I was building up boundaries. Like first of all, you know what? If you’re gonna say that stuff, or if you’re gonna discourage me, then I’m just not gonna invite you. And that was my first step. Then I kind of disconnected from the family for a little bit, skipped a few holidays, all kinds of stuff. Oh, I went to therapy, and that was revelational. That opened my eyes, man, to myself, and to them, and then with the therapy, I actually was able to bring them back into my life, so I would only do what I can handle. Okay, I can’t handle Christmas, but maybe I can go by the house for New Year’s, for two hours, and if nobody says anything crazy, then I can stay for 30 more minutes, right?
Then I little by little would say, “Would you like to come to an event? You could see me talk on a panel or something.” Then I went and I showed my dad that, and that happened years ago, when I invited him, and my brother is an artist, he’s a singer, and a rapper or whatever. But anyway, he invited my parents to this show, and this is the first time, years later, that I heard from my dad. We get in the car after my brother’s gig and he goes, “Seeing your brother up there, that was amazing. It reminds me of the time that I came to see you talk at this place in Brooklyn. You guys are superstars!” And I was like, “It took like two, three years for me to hear that through my brother.” So, it takes a long time sometimes for it to make sense, like for them to see why you love the thing.
I like to think that I feel successful. I feel that every time someone takes a class with me and they said they learn something I feel successful, but those aren’t the things that you can show your parents sometimes. So, I think it’s hard for first gens to reconcile this feeling, you know? Am I a success? I don’ t know. To my mom, now she’s starting to get it, and my dad is starting to get it, but before it was a long haul.
TK, I feel you. I declared at age five that I was going to be a lawyer. Graduated college with a government degree, worked for a law firm, got into law school, and then moved to Japan to teach English when I decided being a lawyer was not for me. To say that my mother did not get it is to call Godzilla a gecko. For many of us first gens, it can be a real challenge to talk to our parents about our careers, especially when our choices seem at odds with their notions of prosperity, security, and the American dream they sacrificed so much to achieve. But I’m sure there must be better ways to bring our parents on board, right? You know what I did. I called in an expert.
My name is Dr. Jasmine Escalara. I am a very, very proud Puerto Rican woman from Brooklyn, New York. I am currently a career coach and job search strategist for women of color, and I am incredibly excited to help women of color really develop the skills that they need to simply take over the career world, so I’m very much focused on really passion, and purpose, and instilling that within your career.
So, you heard TK’s story. What do you hear when you listen?
Oh, wow. So, so much of it really resonated with me from a client perspective, and also from a personal perspective. I am very driven by passion and purpose, and the number one thing that I tell my clients is you have to go to work loving what you do every single day, and that can be really difficult for people of color, especially for individuals who are the children of immigrants. I think that their own personal struggle really can sometimes be reflected or even directed at their children, and it isn’t coming from a place of anywhere but love, but it can be very difficult when you want to lead in a career filled with passion. It can become difficult to sort of explain that to your parents and that’s something that really resonated with me. My parents are incredibly supportive of everything that I do, but I have to say that they didn’t really get my idea of entrepreneurship and career coaching until I finally told them like, “Yeah, people pay me to do this.” Then they were like, “Oh, you make money. Okay. I get it now.”
So, that, I definitely resonated with her story.
So, let’s talk a little bit about that. Where do you think that practicality… I mean, I don’t want to call it materialism, because I don’t think it’s materialistic. I think it’s really practical. Where do you think that pragmatism and practicality comes in and why is it that it’s causing a disconnect in between the generations?
Escalara: Well, I think you said it absolutely right. It is about being practical. I mean, I think our parents, they want us to be able to have an income. They don’t want us to struggle in the same ways that they did. So, I think a lot of that comes from this feeling that our parents wanted to provide us a life that’s better than their own, and they even say that a lot, and sometimes they can say it in a way that makes us feel guilty, especially if we’re looking to start a career that’s more passion filled, that’s more purposeful, and that’s more connected to ourselves. So, it can really come off as sounding judgmental in a way, when it’s coming from a place of, just as you said, being practical. They want us to have a good life. They want us to be able to enjoy it. And there’s that fear that you may potentially struggle if you choose something that they think is non-traditional.
Okay, so how can we, as the people who are choosing these sort of non-traditional pathways to success based on passions, how can we lay the foundation or the groundwork slowly, so that our parents can come to understand why it’s important to us, and then to gain that security, right? To assuage their fears.
Escalara: So, you know, I think it really starts early on, that if you’re the type of individual who knows that you don’t want to follow in the footsteps of the rest of your family, you want to try to do something different, it starts as early as really educating your family around what those career choices look like, and what you could potentially do with those career paths. I also think it’s really important that we as individuals try to disassociate ourselves from the emotional impact that sometimes these words that our parents use or these phrases that our parents use can have. And almost to try an exercise of understanding where they’re coming from, and this is something that I like to do with my clients who are in these positions, of doing an exercise of what is it that your parents typically say around your career choices, or around what you want to do in terms of your career?
So, once you really disassociate from the emotional impact these statements or these words can have on you, and you really start to go from a factual perspective of, “I think this is what they’re trying to say, or I think this is what it means.” You can almost really understand where your parents are coming from and where those fear-based reactions are coming from.
TK has a very different relationship to the concept of work than her parents do, right? Like to them, work is really important, they work very hard, but it is a means to a financial end.
Whereas for her, it seems to be about fulfillment in as much as it is about security. So, how do we talk to our parents about that?
Escalara: Yeah. I think it’s so interesting, because I felt that. When she talked about, I think she said something about just not being happy, and so I can understand how sometimes parents, again, going back to that practical component of you go to work, you make money, you get a good retirement, you retire, and then you’re done. That’s sort of how they see the natural progression. But I think for individuals who want to really lead with passion, who kind of want to go into an area that they feel most connected to, it’s about showing enthusiasm. So, my parents, for instance, they may not understand all of my life choices, but when I approach them with enthusiasm and I talk to them about how fulfilled it feels to coach someone around an issue or a problem, or when I tell them, “Oh my God, I’m so excited, because one of the clients that I coached just landed her dream job.” They want to celebrate those wins with you, right? They want to be able to see you happy.
So, if you really incorporate them in the enthusiastic moments, and the moments at which you feel your most fulfilled, it really could help you sort of move that barrier towards them not necessarily understanding why you’re in this space.
I noticed that TK employed one of my classic strategies when it comes to dealing with my mom, which is to bring in another sibling, and then eventually that led to her dad and her mom coming to an event, so that they could witness for themselves her really thriving in the space that she had made for herself. What do you think about that strategy?
Escalara: I freaking love it, because it’s employing an ally that is a unique connector to you and to your family members. So, having that ally on your side is so incredibly important, and again, like your parents love you, they love your siblings, they love your family, they want to see the whole family unit happy. That’s what they are really looking for. So, employing an ally that is a direct connector to your family members can be a really amazing way of showing them, “Look at all the great things that I’m doing.” And also having someone else in their ear, as well, saying, “Wow, I went to this awesome, dope event, and she was killing it!” So, it could be a wonderful way for you to have that connection and to have that ally, to have someone that’s on your side and someone that’s helping you drive this forward.
I’m gonna bring in a little bit of classic parental comeback. If you ever complain about anything that you have fought hard to gain, your parent’s gonna hit you with, “I told you.” Right?
It’s true. But a lot of us tend to not divulge the trying, challenging, negative things that might happen in the course of us achieving fulfillment and success, which are inevitable. So, where do you land on that?
Escalara: I think when you’re first starting to build this foundation of gaining that sort of acceptance from your family, you may feel the need to sort of withhold the challenges, and I think that that’s okay. Once you get their buy-in and their acceptance, you can incorporate them more into every single aspect of your career and your passion. But I do preface that with you have to have someone that you’re talking to about those challenges. It doesn’t have to be your family member. You’re trying to gain their acceptance. And I can understand that about your family member coming at you like, “See? I told you!” I get that. But definitely have people that you are talking to about your challenges, a core group of individuals, or even a mentor, or a sponsor that you can talk those through. It doesn’t have to be a family member, especially in the beginning when you’re trying to establish the buy-in, but you do have to have that kind of foundation.
All right. What are your absolute dos and do nots in these types of situations?
Escalara: I think my biggest do, for sure, is step out of your feelings around this. It can be so freaking hard to do that, like when you have a family member, a parent, and you really want them to accept the things that you do, which is we are all looking for that, right? But, so it can be really difficult when they aren’t giving that to you, so I think you have to disconnect from your emotions around it and go about it in trying to understand, in trying to be inquisitive. That’s really where you want to come at it from. And I think my do not is don’t engage in combat. If there is ever a moment where you feel a conversation is not going in the direction you want it to go, it’s going in a space that is not serving you, disengage. I think it’s a lot better for you and your mental health to take a step back if that ever happens.
All right, final question. Anything that you’d like to emphasize? Anything else?
Escalara: I think it’s important to note that your career is about you. And I think as first-gen individuals, as people of color, we sometimes forget that, that our careers are really about us. So, if you don’t want to go the traditional route, if you want to do something different, your career is about you. Your success is about you. You get to define it the way that you want to. And even if it is your parents that don’t understand it or may not accept it right now, you’re the only person that has to understand it. You’re the only person that has to love it. You’re the only person that has to accept it. Because frankly, you’re the only person that has to live it.
So, it’s important to define success the way that you want to define it and live that shit every single day.
Bravo! Thank you!
Escalara: That was so fun. I loved it. Thank you so much.
All right, let’s recap what we learned from Jasmine. Share early and share often. Bring your parents into your aspirations as you create your ideal career path. Not for approval, but because it might take them a little while to understand the options your field has to offer you. Keep feelings in check. Commit to setting aside the emotional impact of their words. Instead, stay curious and try to understand what fears are preventing them from accepting your choices. Show your enthusiasm. Your parents want to celebrate your wins with you. Bringing them into your moments of triumph and joy will help them see you thriving and happy. Recruit an ally. Another loved one, like a sibling, can model what being supportive looks like, and can talk enthusiastically about your work to your parents. Create an alternative support system. If your family is not behind your career choice, surround yourself with mentors, advisors, and colleagues who believe in you and understand what you’re trying to accomplish.
If the conversation is going nowhere, it’s okay to step aside. State your position plainly and resume later on when you’re ready. And remember, your career is about you. You’re going to live it, so you get to define success for yourself.
Thank you so much for listening. Really and truly, thank you. How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything is an original production of Lantigua Williams & Co. Virginia Lora produced this episode. Kojin Tashiro mixed it. Micaela Rodríguez is our founding producer and social media editor. Cedric Wilson is our lead producer. On Twitter and Instagram, please connect with us @TalktoMamiPapi, and remember to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. Bye, everybody. Same place next week.
Lantigua-Williams, Juleyka, host. “She Loves Her Work, Her Parents Don’t Get It.”
How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] About Anything,
Lantigua Williams & Co., August 3, 2020. TalkToMamiPapi.com.