I don’t know about you, but growing up, I was told that I could be anything I wanted to be. I was taught to be driven—and that the way to happiness was through a successful and vibrant career.
And so I did just that.
I went to college, and majored in the thing I was best at: creative writing. I got my B.A. in English, and then immediately went on to get my M.F.A. in creative writing, with a concentration in poetry writing. I quickly started publishing my work in literary magazines, and secured an adjunct teaching position at the university where I’d received my degrees. Within a year or two, I had published my first book of poems, and was going on a book tour to promote it. Things were going so well, I decided I’d have a baby.
I will admit that going in, I kind of had no idea what I was in for. I was only working part-time at the university, and knew I’d take some time off when the baby came, but beyond that, I didn’t really have any plans. Still, I expected that I absolutely would continue my writing and teaching career soon enough, with hopes that one day I’d secure a full-time teaching position at a university.
Well, that's not exactly how things turned out.
After a semester of staying home with my baby, I started to research childcare options in my area for my return to work. It turned out I didn’t really make enough money to cover that, and I would actually lose money by paying a babysitter.
Plus, in my heart of hearts, I wanted to continue staying home with my baby, at least a few years longer. And I realized, too, during my maternity leave, that teaching just wasn’t something I wanted to do. I loved writing, but teaching college students how to do it? Not my thing.
And so began a few years of panic, aimlessness, and wondering who in the world I was now that I was no longer defined by the career goals I’d set up for myself before kids. How was I supposed to feel that I could be anyone I wanted to be, if I didn’t know what I wanted to be anymore?
I know now that my story is not unique. Parenthood—especially for mothers, who so often end up being the ones to take time off—can really throw you for a loop, especially when it comes to your career. We women spend so much of our lives preparing for some ephemeral success out there, which is awesome in so many ways, but what if things don’t exactly go as planned?
And most of all, we need to remember that life is long, and that the motherhood/career path is bumpy, complex, and different for each person.
What if you want to take a few years off to be a mom? Or you find that your work/life balance needs a total do-over once you have kids? What if having kids makes you want to redefine your career goals because motherhood changes your passions and aspirations?
We need a new model for what it means to be accomplished—especially for parents. We need to be told that success isn’t always a straight path. We need to teach women (and men too!) that it’s OK to take some time off when your kids are little, or perhaps do a different kind of work then, to have different expectations. And we need to have systems in place in this country that support those kinds of choices financially.
And most of all, we need to remember that life is long, and that the motherhood/career path is bumpy, complex, and different for each person. We need to reassure women that motherhood can take your career to new and exciting places, and actually make you even more competent and creative than you were before.
I know that for me, after a few years of wallowing in uncertainty, I’ve ended up feeling more creative and driven than ever. Over time, I found ways to continue my career while staying home with my kids. I’m now a paid freelance writer who moonlights as a poet and lactation consultant on the side.
What I’ve found is that motherhood has taught me to be the ultimate multi-tasker. There is really no procrastinating, like there was before kids. Now, when I have that rare child-free hour to get things done, I just do it, and I do it with gusto. And I’ve found that having kids has shifted my writing focus toward social causes, making the world a better place and, of course, inspiring and empowering other mothers.
As for my career, I have this feeling that the best is yet to come. I remind myself of the women who didn’t accomplish their most amazing stuff until they were well out of their childbearing years. Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t publish the “Little House” books till she was 65, for example. And Estelle Getty, of the Golden Girls, was a relatively unknown actress until she landed her signature role at the age of 62.
I remind myself that life is long, careers morph and change, and you just need to have a little faith that it will all work out in the end.