My Eleven Year Journey
I originally began writing this post to explain the difficult journey I traveled to accept my role as a mother, but in attempting to write, and stumbling around the page knowing it wasn't working for the last three days, I have realized something important. I never struggled in being a mother. I always intended on being one eventually. The actual journey has been in accepting that my adult life would have no profession to help define it. The grieving process has been long. My experiences explain why it is both disheartening and infuriating to hear the viewpoint still expressed that I discussed in my first post (link at bottom of page), that women are naturally born caregivers and their highest ambition is to use their skills and abilities for the demands of motherhood. That is not my story.
When I jubilantly shout my cry of freedom in my previous post (link at bottom of page) exclaiming that I am proud my husband and children are my top priority, there is an exhausting eleven year journey behind those words. I have finally reached the peak! I am sure this mountain range is like many I have climbed; there will be numerous descents before each new summit. I claim where I am in this moment though, joyously celebrating these priorities with all the voice I can muster. It has been a journey.
Eleven years ago this month, I found out that I had become a mother. To say I was unprepared is most certainly an understatement. The discovery was devastating.
I enjoy "life planning", absolutely love it. It fills me with energy and joy as the words flow through my fingers onto the page. My best life planning is done with a journal and a pencil or a fantastic fine-lined Sharpie pen. (Thank you Walter for feeding my habit.) I love life planning! Everything seems so possible, such a variety of routes life could take and all of them thrillingly filled with unknown possibilities, accomplishments and people who will come into my life, some to pass through and some to stay. Ideas are energizing, and to see them laid out in an orderly fashion on a journal page with the methods towards reaching them planned step by step is even better.
My life was "supposed" to go as such: I was going to become a physical therapist by earning my Doctorate of Physical Therapy, followed by specializing as an SCS (Sports Clinical Specialist) so I could focus mostly on treating athletes. I was intrigued by the career's ability to combine my enthusiasm for sports while also reaching the doctorate level of academia. I imagined the grueling shaping process the combined seven years of undergraduate and graduate college would put me through with delight, looking forward to the challenge personally, but also the caliber of individuals it would make me colleagues with. They would be compassionate, driven, intelligent, inspiring professionals always seeking to learn the latest treatment and keep their skills current to best serve their patients, the main reason any of us pursued this career in the first place. We would be directly helping people daily, face to face, hearing their pain, getting to know them as individuals and having the knowledge built over years of study to cure them. There couldn't be a better career path for me than that.
But now I was pregnant. I was twenty-one, unmarried, a week into my second semester of sophomore year and the two tests I had just taken both confirmed the same result. It was shattering.
After beginning as a Doctor of Physical Therapy and specializing to work with athletes, I would fully dedicate myself to the career for at least five years, building my expertise before stepping back to work part time around age thirty to have the three-four children I always imagined I would have. I pictured the salary level I would have reached by then allowing me the ability to pay for daycare while working half days; the ideal combination of continuing my professional engagement while also interacting fully with the little lives I would create with my husband. I imagined once they were all in school that I would return more fully to the work force, varying my schedule according to theirs.
It's not that I never wanted to become a mother, but the timing in my life was heart breaking. Agonizing grief and utter depression were all that joined me along with the tiny fluttering heart I now carried.
I am forever indebted to the woman who opened her heart to accept the possibility of adopting my child. In trying to weigh all my options and determine the best path to take I could feel myself not genuinely allowing the adoption scenario to play itself out because it felt too hypothetical. My mind wouldn't allow me to travel far down another closed road. I felt like I was jabbing another knife into an open wound and twisting it around when I decided to keep my baby after being fully given the choice by a mother who knew the loss of a wanted child, and now had discussed with her husband and had willingly opened her heart to mine, but excruciating though it was, I had determined through that opportunity that keeping my baby was the right choice. (You are reading this I know. I will never be able to thank you enough for allowing me this fully informed choice. But thank you, to you both, again and forever.)
I never considered abortion. Regardless of the choice I was going to make about marriage, career and parenting, I was already changed forever. I had become a mother and I would always know it.
My internal anguish was profound as I attempted making life decisions that would shape the course of my life moving forward. My usual joy in life planning was extinguished. I struggled to care about my classes. All I really wanted was to sleep. I never checked 'yes' on the health care providers' lists to screen for depression. I knew why I was feeling this way. My hormones were not imbalanced and medication, while right for some, would not address the causes of my despair. I didn't see a way forward.
The only thing I was sure of was that I needed to finish my degree. Every aspect of the life I had been trying to build towards was being challenged. Internally, I was crumbling. Knowing that I was still going to graduate gave me the lifeline I clung to in order to navigate what had now become my life.
The mothers I had the most experience with had dedicated their every moment to the role. My mother herself had "as many children as the Lord wanted to give her", which meant she spent from age twenty-four to forty-six either pregnant or nursing or both while also homemaking and homeschooling all nine of us. As a young woman, her greatest desire was to fill the role of house wife and mother, and she was able to fulfill her dream. (More on this in future posts.) The family friends we had growing up were families who understood our lifestyle, thus generally also homeschooling parents with mothers who stayed at home while the fathers worked, often extensive hours, to support the households they had created. Taking on the role of mother was fraught with responsibility. I had seen it first hand.
The career women I had been most influenced by were married or with life partners but none of them had children. Their support staff, assistants, part time colleagues and male counterparts did, but not them. The clear picture painted for me was very much that motherhood meant dedication to the role at a level that occluded career success. Motherhood was "the highest pursuit" and children required their mother's time and attention.
I was not ready.
I was President of the Pre-Physical Therapy Society at my college when I found out I was expecting a child. Since I was due early September, I went to the faculty advisor to resign and hand over the role to our Vice President for the following semester. I would not be returning to college in the fall.
I was mentoring a young girl through the community Big Brothers Big Sisters program who I had been matched with eleven months before. I had originally planned on continuing the relationship beyond the required one year commitment but I contacted the agency and let them know I would like to discontinue after the one year mark that February. I can't remember if I mentioned to them that her mentor was now expecting her own child. But I knew it wasn't what I was intended to model for my "Little Sister."
Motherhood was isolating.
I was now a married mother living fifteen minutes outside of the rural college town I had been attending university in, working two days a week at a chain buffet and staying home with my daughter the rest of the week. I made 'To Do' lists about laundry and dishes and pediatrician appointments and reading and exercising and simply needing to get out of bed sometime before noon. (With four now, that sounds like such a delicious luxury!) The fall semester had started and with it busy schedules for all of my friends. They were kind, interested in my baby and compassionate for my situation, but regardless of their continued efforts, I was no longer fully part of that world.
I returned to school the following spring, a very different person. In between classes I was pumping and missing my four month old who I drove an hour away every week for a couple days to pack in my classes while she was cared for by family. I watched my sister thrive over the summer when she stayed with us for an internship at my school with the strength and conditioning staff. I dropped her off and waved goodbye when she headed out with the staff to visit another school and expand her network. I couldn't go; I couldn't afford to skip my shift at the buffet where I worked supporting us.
My daughter was, and is, precocious, intelligent and engaging. It was not her fault that I wasn't prepared to welcome her into the world the way I had hoped and she didn't seem to notice. She blossomed into the goofy, adorable little girl she was intended to be.
My personal life fell apart over the next two years as I finished my degree. I graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Kinesiology-Exercise Science with a Pre-Physical Therapy Concentration at the age of twenty-four. I walked home from the ceremony to celebrate with my family to the repeated chorus of, "Good job mommy! Good job mommy!" from my twenty-month old.
I had made the decision not to apply to any graduate programs. Physical therapy school would mean hours I couldn't spend with my daughter, $150,000 in debt I couldn't afford to take on and increasing likelihood that my already faltering marriage would disintegrate. I was struggling to survive each day and school being done was a weight lifted off my shoulders. I researched beginning a career in fitness at the personal trainer level, earning my certification as a Health Fitness Specialist through the American College of Sports Medicine.
Life was starting to have interest again. I visited Charleston, South Carolina the first week of August and fell in love with the city just as I hoped I would. I began researching gyms in the area, submitting resumes and returning twice for in-person interviews and exploration of the area.
My career had begun. I was a personal trainer at a commercial gym, working to build my client base up to full time. I dropped my daughter off at daycare at 6am when they opened and picked her up before 4pm because she was only allowed to stay for 10 hours each day. My boss was verbally open about his disappointment that I couldn't come in for the hours between 5pm and 8pm, when the "real" business was and more potential clients filled the rooms. My daughter and I roamed the parks, playgrounds, beaches and pathways of the Lowcountry with delight. It was warm, sunny, inviting and breathtakingly gorgeous.
I quickly quit the commercial gym whose management had turned out to be horrible and took on four different jobs. It was not an effective use of my time. None of them were leading towards a career I hoped to have and only one of them was even in fitness. Many of our clients knew their routines by heart; they paid to have a conversation partner and someone who expected them to show up to exercise. Most had been with the studio for more than a decade and planned to continue on in the same way they always had.
We moved in with my parents a year later to save money and allow Walter to return to school in Virginia where we had family around to help. Grandparents, aunts and siblings around made emergencies or work conflicts simple to cover.
I was enjoying being a mother. Eliana was delightful and thriving. I began work full time in an office job, tired of coaching fitness at the level I had prepared myself for. A set schedule, 40 hours a week and health benefits sounded comfortable. I was content knowing Eliana was with my husband, her aunts or her grandma depending on which day of the week.
We added our son into the mix and moved out on our own again when he was eight months old. He and our daughter attended daycare full time while I worked full time and my husband worked a couple nights a week and pursued his degree.
By this time, I was back in fitness again. The office I worked for was in the midst of expanding and I was able to transition with them, sliding over into multiple roles as scheduler, therapist aide, gym development and sales as well as fitness instructor and personal trainer once again. It was exciting.
I was thrilled by the open-ended feel and independence of the role I filled helping to begin a new branch of services for an established business. This new job required my brain! It needed my flashes of insight, generation of new ideas, passion, caring and cooperation with my new-found work friend. We were a dynamic duo, playing off each other to become even better. We took on the business as our own, making 1, 5, even 10 year plans for what it could become and how we would get it there. I was mentally engaged. It felt like I was exactly where I needed to be.
But then it didn't.
I started dreaming of South Carolina again. I missed the beaches and the lifestyle I could build there. I started listening to my client who was struggling with being a stay at home mom, questioning if she would prefer a career and heard my own longings in her words, but for the opposite this time. I was tired of dropping my chubby little munchkin at his daycare, delighted every Friday as I left work to walk down the daycare's halls to his room, anticipating his grin when he saw me and toddled my way. I thought about the other children I wanted to have, realizing I didn't want another in the same environment I had him. I despise pumping, strongly. I didn't want to begin that process again. I started counting down the months, weeks, days until Walter's graduation. We agreed that he would begin his job search back in Charleston. We had always planned to return once we could.
We moved and he began his first professional career job as a Cyber Security Analyst while I became a full time mother. I roamed the parks and paths of Charleston and Mount Pleasant with two little cuties in tow this time, telling my husband and others how thankful I was for the opportunity.
But tellingly, screenshots like this also started to be saved on my phone, scattered amidst the photos:
There is an integral part of my personality, essential to my sense of self, that is left unfulfilled by motherhood being my all-encompassing role. Since first beginning as a full time mother, I have pursued a multitude of job, school, volunteer and entrepreneurial scenarios, for varying reasons. Some were simply to increase our family income, some because the opportunity sounded appealing, some because I decided it was time to pursue my professional dreams again. My husband and my children are now my top priority, as I stated in my previous post, but I have often struggled to own the "stay at home mother" title.
People in our American society frequently ask the question, "So, what do you do?" as a way of getting to know one another. I falter when answering it. "I, well, I...I'm a stay at home mother of four." I dread the look in peoples' eyes. The delight in other stay at home mom's countenances as they claim me as one of their own, feeling comfort in knowing that I share their values. The glazed over expression in career couples eyes who willingly chose not to have children and together are pursuing professional success. The wall that goes up in career mothers' eyes, feeling judged by my choice, exclaiming how they could never do it, they struggle just making it through winter break with their kids! I can't explain who I was going to be, without sounding like I regret having my children. And I don't regret them at all. I swallow the fountain of words that wants to come pouring out to give all the context my answer requires. No one asking that question is meaning to ask for my life story.
But I identify more closely with the working mothers than I do the stay at home ones, even while purposefully choosing to stay at home now. Is that ridiculous? I didn't earn my place there. By completing my bachelor's degree and not going for my doctorate, I cannot become a physical therapist. I did not earn my place in their ranks. I am not a professional health care provider. My mind fought me for years and told me that is where I should be. I grieved the loss of that woman I intended to become. She never existed.
I shouted my freedom in my last post when I said, I Am Where I Want To Be! The freedom is not from some stifling corporate culture. The freedom is not from some overbearing boss at a draining 9 to 5. The freedom is from my own expectations of myself.
I do not wish this journey on anyone. It has been long, emotion-filled and grueling. But I am finally free.
I am allowed to make a new path now, one filled with passion, exploration and community. I can still make myself into an adult worth knowing, worth admiring, worth my place in all levels of society. I am a mother, but that title does not define me. I am not a professional, but that lack does not define me. I am making my own way, slowly, daily and depending on God to lead the way.
I will be okay and more than okay. This life is a treasure and I plan to make the most of it!
We made it back!! =D
P.S. (Please read my other posts here: https://www.charlestonfamilytravel.com/post/women-are-better-caregivers and here: https://www.charlestonfamilytravel.com/post/i-am-where-i-want-to-be I hope you enjoy and discover something worth considering!)