The worst mistake I have ever made was when I believed complete strangers when they told me I had ruined my life. One look at my swollen belly and their opinions would fling from their mouths with no abandon. Impressionable, scared, and understandably immature, the eighteen year old synapses in my brain accepted their slurs as reality. I believed them when they would tell me I had ruined my life. Some would go so far as to suggest I had prematurely ruined my unborn baby’s life as well.
All of this would be hurled at me as I checked out their groceries. These customers didn’t stop to think about the person behind the counter. They had no idea the girl they were belittling was a straight A student. They had no clue this was my first job and I gave up taking the AP exams to buy diapers. Just like my doctors, they saw a pregnant teen and assumed the worst.
Unfortunately, for many years, I believed them. I began to question my motives- was I thinking about my baby or just myself? Was I really fit for motherhood? Instead of drugs and alcohol I was consumed by literature and creating poetry. Strangers found it hard to believe me when I suggested I didn’t fit the trope they desperately wanted me to fall into. And when a lie is told to you enough, you begin to think it is the truth.
It didn’t help that my first job wouldn’t allow even two weeks for maternity leave. Looking back, I know they were breaking the law but I didn’t understand. They didn’t explain to me how I could use a doctor’s note to excuse a much needed absence recovering from birth and bonding with my child. Nevertheless, the only choice that could be made was to quit. So I did.
This spiraled me into a financial tornado I feared I couldn’t climb out of. Childcare cost too much, but any job I could find paid me pennies over the cut-off for government assistance. The assumptions were beginning to sound right. My child and I were facing a life of destitution and it was all my fault. The weight of expectations to fail were getting heavier by the day.
Unwilling to give up, college was still in my foresights. It was on my list of priorities, until it wasn’t. Juggling a full time job in retail, a baby, and the pressure of toxic and oftentimes dangerous situations with my baby’s “other” family proved to be exhausting and unsustainable. I failed college algebra four times. I wasn’t allowed back for several years. My dead end job became my only hope.
Once again, it was becoming clear to me that those strangers were correct. I believed that I had to choose a career or motherhood. Women apparently still aren’t allowed to have both. In this modern day world, I found myself in the same place as millions of other women- was I a mother or a career woman? And if I was a mother, it was somehow seen as a life ruined simply because I was unwed.
Over the next few years, I found my groove. The layers of expected failure began to drip off of me. Slowly, I peeled each unrealistic expectation of the overtly successful women on social mediaI compared myself to. I found that I did not have to appease every quip and insult hurled at me. The only person I wanted to make proud was my son. And let me tell you, it was easy. A three year old’s perception of success is whether or not you can make mac n cheese. I became a master of mac n cheese.
As the ideals of society began to slip away, it no longer bothered me when people would gawk at my young motherhood. It no longer bothered me when it was suggested I would amount to nothing because of my lack of education and my many years stuck in retail. All that mattered to me was what my son thought.
According to my son, I was successful. He felt loved. He felt safe. He felt confident in me. He didn’t understand the pressures of society. This child had no concept of faraway vacations, social media influencers, or even over the top experiences he was missing out on.
Each layer that drifted off of me allowed a new layer of success to wrap itself around my life. Letting go of my fear of being hurt, I found a partner who not only loved me but loved my then three year old son. Together, we began waddling through each hurtle life threw at us. This allowed me to let go of my inhibitions and doubts of ever “finding myself”. Each time I found a new way to be proud of my life, be proud of my successes, I found it was easier to climb out of the hole society was convinced I had dug myself in. Yet, I still struggled to clamber myself out of my retail job. Each year that passed made it that much more difficult and it was hard to believe I could amount to anything I wanted to be.
And then the pandemic happened. My children could no longer go to school and like many workers labeled “essential” it became clear that we were actually the pawns. We were seen as the ones who were disposable and yet, if we had stopped working, we would have shut down our entire country. My academic probation was up and it was time to go back to school.
It meant many sleepless nights. I would submit work between getting my kids set up for their days and my grueling work schedule. But my sights were set and there was no going back. Exhausting myself, I earned my bachelors in two and a half years. Not only that, but I graduated summa cum laude. The day I had the privilege to walk across the stage and accept my diploma in front of my kids was one of the best days of my life.
That night, I selfishly asked my son if he was proud of me. I apologized for not completing my degree sooner and promised him I was on the path of a new and better life. That was when he looked me dead in the eye and said “Mom, I have always been proud of you.”
It was then suddenly clear, if we just looked at our children, we would see how wildly successful we are. We would see the world from their point of view and would be able to walk away from the massive double standards we have allowed to hang over us. Having children wasn’t the end for me. It was the beginning of finding strength, love, and most importantly, acceptance.