While I was a child of countless tucked-away diaries with scented pastel-colored paper, my father was a man of hands — hands calloused and burly, hands with fine cuts and swollen fingertips. Hands of labor.
My father went out into the bitter cold of our backyard unheated shed after every 10-hour work day for his flooring company. A single hanging lightbulb swung from the ceiling. I often stood in front of our glass kitchen sliding door and watched him. I liked to see what he was doing — sanding down a piece of wood, cutting a copper pipe with his saw, or trying to fix one of his favorite wrenches that was years beyond repair.
“There’s no such thing as rest,” he always said.
My father immigrated to the U.S. from the Azores when he was 18. He didn’t have the language skills or the finished education to land himself a job that would require a suit instead of greased T-shirts and steel-toe boots. He clawed and scraped and bled his way up his own career ladder. Within a few years, he founded his own flooring company. But if he wanted to continue climbing, he believed he had to do the manual labor. That was the American Dream he had bought into and lived by.
“There’s no such thing as rest.” Or delegation, apparently.
I often asked my father why he didn’t take more breaks, let his workers do the jobs so he could stay home and relax.
More often than not, he would laugh at my naivety. But sometimes there was a hint of anger in his voice. How could I, his eldest daughter, not understand that success was a mansion built upon an unstable foundation? At any moment the structure could buckle and the whole house would go under.
In other words, never get too comfortable.
And for many years, I didn’t. I read books constantly, taking as many literature classes in as many genres as I could. Getting a bachelor’s degree wasn’t enough. Everyone had one of those. Getting an advanced degree was part of the Massachusetts licensure requirement in becoming a teacher (which I was more than happy to do), but part of me wanted one more feather in my cap. I became a certified Master of the Arts.
For a time, I ignored father’s advice, I felt that if I could soak up all the knowledge available I'd be able to lay a foundation so solid that my house would never crumble. I’d finally be safe from ruin.
But after over a decade of service in an urban public high school, my ego has regulated. I used to believe in the American Dream, but now I’m not so sure.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2021, foreign-born workers were more likely than native-born workers to be employed in blue-collar service occupations and less likely than native-born workers to be employed in white-collar jobs such as management and related occupations in sales and office corporations.
White-collar jobs provide workers with a status symbol that blue-collar jobs don’t. If a person labors primarily with their brains instead of their hands, they are seen as exceptional. Worthy.
My parents wanted better for me. “Better” meant having a career where my back wouldn’t ache, where my feet wouldn’t blister, where my hands would stay clean. Where my body would show no marks of labor. They wanted me to be exceptional, worthy.
But exceptionality does not equate to immunity. Now that I’m in my 30s and have a house and family of my own, I know that my white-collar job provides me no more security than that of a blue-collar one. Perhaps even less so now that the biggest job wage boom is blue-collar post-pandemic.
Regardless of these facts, however, white-collar jobs perch themselves on a pedestal that blue-collar jobs never will. The other day when I was explaining the patriarchal themes of a novel I was teaching, my mother said, “I don’t know where you get this from.”
In the past, I’d make crude comments about my innate intelligence. But now I know it was only because of my parents’ that I had the privilege of such lofty ambitions. It was their physical labor that allowed those dreams to surface in the first place. Without their financial backing, emotional support, or even their cheering on the sideline, I would not have the accolades to my name I do today.
This causes a lot of guilt. My father has since passed, but when I see my mother pack her trunk with bottles of Clorox and Windex to travel to her late night cleaning job, I’m reminded that my success comes from standing on my parents’ shoulders. I may have felt like I was pulling myself up by my own bootstraps, but the phrase is a farce. I cannot climb any higher on the ladder without looking down on the bottom rungs.
Is that a parent’s job? To lift their child up so high they become unreachable?
I don’t know.
As a new mother, I’m starting to ponder such questions. My heart bursts with incredible pride when my one-year-old son claps his hands on command or mumbles “mama.” Late at night, after he’s been put to bed, my husband and I voice our dreams for him.
“Do you see how he’s picking everything up with his left hand?” my husband says. “That’s the golden ticket for baseball. He’s going to make so much money as a pitcher.”
My husband is a living depiction of how so much of our dreams for our children are shrouded by the unlived dreams we had for ourselves.
My feet are firmer on the ground these days.
My father battered his knees installing carpet and my mother cracks the skin on her hands bleaching toilets. My husband’s mental health wanes staring at computer screens 10 hours a day and my soul splinters listening to the traumas of my teenage students. No matter what career path my son ends up embarking upon, I know that, blue-collar or white-collar, work will be work.