Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On becoming a working mom

Of Dreams and Reality

As a little girl I dreamed big dreams.  I dreamed of being a lawyer and a child psychologist.  I dreamed of travelling the world as a sign language interpreter.  I dreamed of going away to college and studying abroad.  At the end of all of these adventures, I would meet a man and fall in love.  We would marry, and I would have beautiful children to raise in a beautiful home.  I dreamed such beautiful dreams that I never made a plan to turn them into a reality.  I was so busy dreaming and living a “fun” teenager existence to worry about such trivial matters.

When I was eighteen, I awoke from my beautiful dream with a harsh reality.  I was going to be a mother.  I had a high school diploma, one semester of college under my belt, an ex-boyfriend who adored me and wanted to marry me, and a basket of dreams.

I reached into that dream basket and pulled out the dream labeled “motherhood.”  I set the rest of the dreams up on a high shelf, not knowing if I would ever return to claim them, but not able to leave them within sight for fear my heart would break.

I spent the next few years young, poor, married, and raising my daughter.  When my husband told me that we might go bankrupt, I sent my eighteen month old to a sitter and got a job as a secretary.   He went over the road driving a truck, and I lived in a trailer with a hole in the floor and opossums living underneath us, but every month I paid down those bills.  I bought milk with pennies in a Ziploc bag, but I always fed my child, and every month I paid down those bills.  A year later, my son was born and we moved into a small house with real floors and real walls.  I quit work to be a stay-at-home mom, and I finally felt like I was living the life a good Mormon woman should live.  I stayed home with my children for a year.  We lived a step up from poverty, but I stayed at that little house with those babies and we built forts and we colored pictures and we created games and make-believe worlds where my children rode horses and discovered new lands.  It was a type of paradise, but always there was a nagging feeling in my mind. 

Always, there was this feeling that I was not me.  One day, I looked in the mirror and saw what I had become.  I wore baggy pants, tshirts, and clogs every day.  I wore glasses, no make up, my hair in a ponytail.  I read voraciously, but I did not learn anything new.  I was a housewife, a mother, a Primary teacher, and a good Mormon woman.  All of these are beautiful things, but I knew that this was not what I was meant to be.  I looked at myself, and I realized that this is what I was telling my daughter she should be.  I was 21 years old, I had been married for three years and had two children.  I was poor, bored, uneducated, unhappily married, ignorant to the world, and all I had that brought me any joy was my children. 

I thought of what I wanted my daughter to be.  I thought of my mother’s words of wisdom, “you are living the life you choose.”  I knew in that moment that I did not want this life for my daughter.  I did not want to be this person.  I did not want to live this life.  I grabbed my dream basket off of the shelf, and I made a bold choice.  I applied for college that day.  I applied for financial aid.  I made a choice to become the person I wanted to be- the person I wanted my children to look up to.

I am grateful that I lived by a university that offered the program I wanted to take and cheap family housing.  I am grateful that I was able to receive enough financial aid to pay for my tuition, my education expenses, my children’s day care, and my fuel so that my husband would allow me to go to school. 

It was easy for me to decide what I wanted to be.  I didn’t have to worry about choosing a career that children would fit into one day.  I had to worry about choosing a career that would fit my life, where I spent most of the week as a single parent.  I had always loved English and I had always been a teacher at heart, so I decided to become an English teacher because it is the “perfect mom job.” 

Going to school as a mother has huge disadvantages.  There were no fun parties, no study groups, no late night library excursions, no clubs, no sororities, or any other activities pertaining to “normal” college life.  I never got to study abroad, and when the trips were announced, my heart would always sink.  I never went to a single football game or choir performance- my children were too young to sit through that. 

Contrary to popular belief, going to school as a mother does have advantages.  I excelled in all of my classes. Every professor I ever had knew me by name.  I sat in the front of all of my classes, asked questions, and listened to every word the professors said.  I went back to class four days after my son was born, and received a standing ovation from the professor and the other students.  I was different, and everyone could tell.   I worked hard.  I took so many hours that I had to receive special permission from the Dean.  I worked straight through the summer, and I never stopped.   I achieved consistently high grades and graduated summa cum laude.  Why?  Every moment I spent in school was time away from my children.  It was my money (that I will be paying back forever), but more than that, it was my sweat and my tears, and the tears of my children when I was away.  It was the hours I spent on the porch in the summer watching my children play while I read “The Tempest” or “Macbeth” and the neighbors looked at me strangely as I held one end of a jump rope as I continued to read.  It was the nights my children fell asleep on the couch watching a show because I was writing a paper. 

In the end, I graduated from college with my husband and all three of my children in the audience.  I had the announcer include my maiden name when he called me. “Emily Grace Miller Chidester,” he said, and my heart nearly burst.  It was my dream to graduate as “me,” and I did.  My daughter and my sons heard my name as I walked across the stage and received my diploma.  It was as if I had been given back myself, and it was liberating. 

I became a teacher two weeks later, and I have been teaching ever since.  I not only became a teacher, but I became the mother that I want my children to have.  I became a woman who does not accept the reality I am given.  I became a woman who holds onto her dreams and never loses sight of them.

This is the reality that I leave for my children.  We do not have dreams; we have plans.

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