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I was in preschool when I first decided that motherhood was not for me. My teacher had offered me a baby doll and a stroller during “when I grow up” playtime and I’d screamed “I don’t want to be a mommy!” so loud that my actual mommy had been called.
I was steadfast, though. I set my sights on an academic life and assured everyone around me that parenting was simply not for me. Eventually, my friends started growing their families — they cooed over tiny baby clothes, swapping stories about sleepless nights and the terrible twos. But when the conversation turned to planning my own family, I made it very clear that in my vision of the future, I would convert whatever room in my dream home was designated as “the nursery” into a library.
Then, three days before my 29th birthday — and eight weeks into the first semester of my doctoral program — I had lunch with my best friend. She proposed a toast to us for building lives that provided us the freedom to enjoy leisurely lunches of wine and crème brûlée. I smiled and yawned, lamenting that the workload of my first semester of grad school left me too tired all the time to even enjoy the wine. “You look pale,” she added. “Do you need to take a pregnancy test?” I laughed. Then, I left the restaurant and stopped by a drugstore on the way home. I was pregnant.
If a planned pregnancy was never part of my life plan, then an unplanned one was incomprehensible. But I considered the facts: my husband (the baby’s father) and I were in a stable, happy relationship and we had a modest income from his 9-5 job and my teaching stipend. I had plenty of support from our family and friends. I felt financially and emotionally equipped to terminate my pregnancy if I had wanted to. But ultimately, faced with the final decision, some part of me felt oddly ready — even excited — for motherhood.
So, after much internal deliberation, I chose to have the baby. Despite everything I’d ever believed about my capacity to love and be loved by a child, I began to design this experience with the same focus and intensity I gave my career. I would be patient, kind, loyal, and selfless. I would be the perfect model of a working mom.
Of course, no one is ever the perfect model for any ideal, and I learned quickly that motherhood was stressful as hell. And when it came to being the kind of mom I wanted to be, I needed to find ways of managing that stress. So, I took up running as a sport when my son was a few months old, borrowing a jogging stroller from a friend so he could come with me. For my dissertation research, I started to get very interested in personal stories about self-care and fitness. Learning to love exercise was something I didn’t think was possible for me, but motherhood forced me to let go of the idea that I knew what was possible in my life at all. I embraced new “wellness” practices like yoga, weightlifting, and cooking. When I took a full-time job at a local university, my husband and I could afford childcare on our combined incomes — a huge privilege in our lives — which meant I had the time and the space to go to the gym and journal in coffee shops to relieve stress.
Since my husband worked a traditional office job and I had a more flexible teaching schedule, we agreed that I would take on the majority share of childcare responsibilities for our toddler — an arrangement I was more than content with. I’d always been ambitious and controlling. I wanted to be the “super mom,” while maintaining my academic career. So, I kept all of my metaphorical plates spinning in the air by blurring the lines of work-life balance, like bringing my son to the gym with me, and responding to emails while walking on the treadmill. I considered myself a stay-at-home-but-also-work-full-time mom. It took a lot of trial and error (mostly error, if we’re being honest), and it wasn’t until my son was out of the toddler stage and well into school-age that I felt as close to the “ideal working mother” as I could get.
The career I started to build as a professor was picking up steam as my first book was scheduled to be published in May 2020. I started training for a marathon. And still, I built my days around maximizing time with my son, adjusting my work hours to take him to school every morning and going for runs over my lunch hour. The balance between motherhood and career was always tricky, but what mattered to me was that, at the end of most days, I was proud of myself.
Suddenly, I lost almost everything about my career that mattered the most to me. Speaking engagements were cancelled. The book launch fizzled. I lost my full-time job and took on two part-time jobs to help make ends meet. While my husband continued to work remotely, his schedule had grown stricter, meaning he was still unable to pitch in with childcare during the day. We lapsed into the routines we’d built before I’d begun working full-time: Even if paid childcare had been a safe option, we lacked the extra cash, so I was on solo parenting duty again.
Like many parents, I did my best to stick to a routine that replicated a 1st grade classroom exactly. I bribed my son with cartoons to get through Zoom calls so I could maintain some semblance of professionalism. I struggled every day to act in a way that reflected my ideals of a patient, kind, and selfless mother. And every day, I failed.
We were stuck together every day fighting our way through lessons on how to read a clock. I resented being cast in a role I realized I never wanted— stay-at-home-but-also-work-full-time-and-also-teach-second-grade-math-under-house-arrest-mom. I hated my life and I wanted out.
But there was nowhere to go. The gym was closed. The coffee shops were closed. Even my campus was closed. I felt so hopeless that the verbs of motherhood changed for me. I yelled. I cried. I snapped. My son noticed a change in me, becoming more withdrawn and saying things like, “You just don’t want me around anymore.” I grieved the loss of the close, loving relationship that I had cultivated so carefully with him over the previous few years. I didn’t know if we would ever recover from this.
Then, one weekend afternoon, I proclaimed loudly in the presence of my husband and my son, “I’m leaving.” I grabbed my car keys and started driving in the direction of the vast Midwestern prairie near our house where, I reasoned, no one could hear me scream. I didn’t know what I would do there, when I found an open field with a sign that said, “trail access,” I got out of the car almost in a trance and started walking.
Over the next few weeks, I went hiking as often as I could, looking forward to long weekend hikes when I wouldn’t need to teach my son his first grade lesson plans. I learned a lot about plant identification and weather patterns and what kinds of animals call the prairie home. I even started calling sidewalks “urban trails” to motivate myself to take a few laps around the neighborhood park when I didn’t have time to visit a state park during the week.
At home, I started tracing back the lessons I learned on the trail to help me cope with the isolation and desperation I felt under quarantine. I was feeling more calm and ready to handle the demands of remote learning and working from home after long afternoons spent walking, and one afternoon when my son asked if he could come with me, I was ready to say “yes.”
During the week, my son and I started hiking together on well-worn trails and taking walks around the park. I began to look forward to our afternoon trips and the conversations you can only really have with a seven-year-old about the names of the neighborhood bunnies and squirrels. “That’s Ralph and his friend Hank” he’d wave in the direction of our neighbor’s yard. ”What’s up, Hank?” I’d laugh with a lightness that I thought had caved in under the weight of 2020. For the first time in a long time, I had the feeling that we’d be okay.
To celebrate the end of summer, my son and I went on a camping trip just the two of us. We set up our tent together, started a campfire, and hiked our longest trail yet. Sitting in the glow of the fire after hot dogs and s’mores, I told him I was sorry for not acting like the kind of mom I wanted to be lately, but that I liked being an outdoorsy-hiking-camping-mom and I hoped we could do this every year. “Good,” he said. “When you go on a hike, all the stress goes away. It’s like it never happened.” I felt my lip quiver, ready to burst into tears.
If the world-on-fire feeling of 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that there’s a fine line between choice and adaptation. Like a poorly marked trail, it’s sometimes hard to know which direction you ought to be moving in. But at least I can say, with pride, that I’ve grown up to be the best mom I can be — tantrums and wrong turns and all.