Maria Ulayyet: The forgotten hero of the immigrant mother

Thursday, April 4, 2019 - 4:17pm

As Women’s History Month came to an end, I spent some time reflecting on the positive female influences that have shaped me into the woman I am today. Mentors, friends and teachers came to mind. But most importantly, the woman who has had the largest role in my development as a woman is none other than my mother.

The person I am today – the girl who became an outspoken woman, graduated high school at the top of her class, played sports and excelled at her extracurriculars and made it to a prestigious university – would not have been possible without the presence and influence of my powerful immigrant mother.

From waking up with me at 5:30 a.m. every morning to driving me 20 minutes to my bus stop so I could go to a better high school to bringing plates of fruit to my room every night while I was studying, my mother has been right by my side through it all. She has been committed to putting her children before everything and putting her education and her career on hold for us.

While reflecting on my mother’s selflessness that has allowed me to succeed, I have come to realize that this idea of sacrifice is a common theme among Arab Americans and those from other immigrant communities. Even though every mother puts her children first, the drive of the immigrant mother is unique. They recognize the struggles and the restrictions of their homelands and channel their passion for change through their children.

My parents left Syria to give us the life they couldn’t have for themselves: a life where if you work hard enough, you can achieve something for yourself. A life where speaking out won’t put your life at risk. They recognized this sacrifice and decided to pour their hearts and souls into their children living the lives they wished they could have had.

A recent study found the “immigrant paradox” – the idea that the children of immigrants are more successful than both their parents and than those with American-born parents from similar backgrounds — to be true. The study also concluded that the immigrant status of parents did have an “indirect effect” on the success of their children. Because of the need to break barriers and achieve the highest accomplishments possible, immigrant parents tend to set high expectations for their children’s achievements. With many immigrant mothers more likely to be stay-at-home moms, the reality is that this type of achievement-focused mentality starts in the home under the influence of the mother. 

Part of the reason that first-generation Americans tend to have a greater sense of drive instilled within them is the exposure to more than one culture and mentality. The cultural diversity that first-generation Americans share allows them to take cultural tools from both sides of their identities to be the best possible version of themselves. To many immigrants like my parents, hard work and dedication mean that you will always find success. My parents were never scared to hit rock bottom because they knew life could always get better. The optimism and dedication that my mother instilled in me translated to working harder to move forward, something characteristic to many children of immigrants. Coming home from a bad day at school or after not doing well on a test, I knew I would have my mother there for me to lift my spirits and reinvigorate my devotion to success.

Many immigrant women, including my mother, come from a background where their likelihood to succeed, specifically as women, was even further restrained. When children of immigrants tell the stories of their parents coming to America and trailblazing a new life, it is often a tale of the courageous father with the mother on the sideline. The story is seldom told of the woman at home inspiring her children – from comforting them when they didn’t fit in with the other kids at school to staying up all night helping them with their science fair projects. While my mother putting me and my dreams before her own comes from a deep love for her children, she also simply couldn’t achieve her own goals because of the lack of opportunity she faced.

The American dream has special significance to the immigrant mother. The American dream, generally, is the ideal that all Americans can have equal opportunities for success. To her, the American dream is seeing her daughters do whatever she wishes she could have done at their age. The American dream is seeing her sons break generational traditions of toxic masculinity. The American dream is starting to raise families that make them proud.

And to my immigrant mother, I have not forgotten you and I have not forgotten all that you have done for me.

Maria Ulayyet can be reached at mulayyet@umich.edu.