Navigating my ambition as a single mother

By Katherine Sargent

When I found out that I was pregnant with my first child, I had been awaiting different news. My daughter was not planned. She was, as they say, a surprise. After a few years spent sitting on my desires, at 26-years-old, I had finally applied to an MFA program to study creative non-fiction. I had researched the program, I had dreamt of myself in a circle of fellow writers, sharing my thoughts and feeding my creativity. I could visualize myself, manuscript in hand, literary agent’s number in my contacts. I’d decided on a direction and that decision alone had an electric power. My real life where I would find my realest me was just beginning. But then, I started to feel nauseous all the time. I peed on sticks (four). I panicked. My dreams.

I felt that I held two growing, living possibilities in my hands. One was a squirming ball of ideas, of stories yet to be written, that would be my future. My creative and emotional growth. A flower that had been blooming in me since I understood what it was to create a world in my own mind. To speak it and be understood. The other was a literal baby—another kind of joy. I was glad to imagine being a mother, but it was a distant idea of happiness, like when you imagine marrying a movie star. Of course you would be happy. Of course you cannot imagine the realities.

I couldn’t choose, so I decided to do both. I walked into my first grad school residency six months pregnant, and it was nothing like what I’d envisioned while filling out my application. I didn’t want to think, I wanted to sleep. I didn’t want to write, I wanted to eat. I couldn’t eat the lunch services; I craved only dry bagels and watermelon slices. I felt old, heavy and awkward amongst my peers. I felt disconnected from my workshops and from the process as well as from myself. I no longer knew who I was as a writer, or where I wanted to go with my stories. So often I thought of giving up, but I feared that, if I postponed getting my master’s and devoted the time to my baby, I’d never return to finish my degree. I didn’t want to be a woman who looked back at 40 or 50 with regret.

I often wondered what school would have been like if I hadn’t been pregnant, if I hadn’t had a mound of other thoughts and responsibilities weighing me down. There were two of me—myself and my baby, myself and my unknown, mother-self. A woman I didn’t know caring for a child I didn’t know. Every unknown possibility. I couldn’t think of anything else. I did what I could. I wrote about my fears. I wrote about pregnancy and motherhood. And then, I had a newborn and I couldn’t believe I was submitting my work on time. I was tired and angry with my fatigue and my child for not sleeping and with her father for not helping. I was delirious with exhaustion and disappointment and stubbornness and determination. My writing suffered. My experience as a first-time mother suffered. I couldn’t be in the moment either way. I tried so hard to sit, breathe, enjoy, but there was always something looming.

When I graduated, two-and-a-half years later, I had two daughters. I walked across the graduation stage in my cap and gown with a mixture of joy and pride and wanting that I could barely contain. I’d missed so much. I’d sat in a closet pumping milk while the other students sat out on the lawn, eating organic salads and trading book reviews. I’d skipped nighttime poetry readings to go home and release my pregnant belly and fall asleep early. The other students shared a camaraderie that I wasn’t a part of. But I had two, beautiful girls in the audience, clapping for me. I could hear my two-year-old in the crowd yelling, “Mama!” and I knew why I’d persevered with both.

Later on, when my daughters were three and four, my marriage ended suddenly and painfully. The weight of my children was immense. The weight of my own future felt too heavy to bear. I grieved my family as it had been and the plans I’d been building for years, as well as the idea of who I could be. I’d wanted to stay home with my girls, mother them, write, build my craft and my resume, and publish my work. I had wanted to teach, but instead I sought the quickest possible job and the quickest paycheck. My own aspirations weren’t as important as buying groceries. I had my daughters 80 percent of the time. Writing was not a part of the equation.

When I moved past the shock and could see clearly enough to realize that my life was still my life and that I had to keep living it, I stripped my plans down to the essentials and I hurdled them one at a time. To start, my goal was to stop feeding my children frozen pizzas every night and crying over the phone with my mother. I moved on from there. Get a job you don’t hate. Put some money in the bank. Start writing again—remember yourself. Check, check, check.

Both times—when I realized that I would be a mother and, later on, that I would be a single mother—on each occasion I felt that the inevitable outcome would be to lose myself and to have to give up my dreams. To exist only for my children and to work only to survive. It was an immediate and deep knowledge. I could already see myself in the past tense.

And yet, after being left on my own and taking the time to adjust to my new reality, I began to see a different possibility—I forced myself to believe in one. I didn’t want to be sad. I didn’t want to give up. Yes, I was a mother and a divorced woman, but I told myself that I didn’t have to settle. I was my only shot at happiness. I was my only chance at success. I was and am the main role model that my children are watching on a daily basis, and they need to see something strong and good. Slowly, I came to accept that many, small (terrible, tiring) steps still lead somewhere. I want to be a writer. I want to work in the community with non-profits that feed my soul. I want to work with children and have fun and utilize my creativity.

If I were chasing my passions only for myself, I would likely have given up at this point. It’s a constant challenge. Childcare is a struggle, so I pull my daughters into the chaos and call it learning. My girls are no strangers to sitting in on meetings with me or rushing off to last minute appointments. They’re next to me when I’m up late, working at night. I so desperately want my daughters to see me succeed and to be proud of me. I want to show my girls that a career can be a source of happiness and to teach them to find that happiness for themselves. This, as a working mother, is my greatest ambition.

Katherine Sargent is a teacher and writer living in Portland, Maine. She is also a single mother to two beautiful adventure buddies.

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This essay is part of a Motherwell original series on Motherhood and Ambition