You Were Ambitious

I was ready to write an essay on motherhood and ambition, but then my three-year-old wouldn’t let me leave at drop-off while his older sister waited in the car. He wouldn’t hurry up the stairs to his preschool or through the door to his classroom. We place his stuffed troll in his cubby and hang his green monster lunch bag on a hook. He walks even more slowly across the floor of the yellow room to the door that leads to the playground outside. “Could you hurry up?” I huff at him, and he grins at me. I’m annoyed at his slowness, but I’m also angry at my annoyance. His small legs only propel him forward so fast. He doesn’t hurry. His friends were already swinging on the swings and climbing up the equipment while he walks in slow motion and clings to my hand.

I hug him goodbye and discreetly glance at my watch. Now, I am running late. His eight-year-old sister has to be at camp in 20 minutes, and we will be hard-pressed to make it. One hug goodbye isn’t enough. He wants another and then another. Then, he wants a kiss, and then, he gives me a kiss on my arm as I try to look at my watch again.

“One last hug,” I say, “and then go play.”

He gives me a fierce hug around my knees and runs off to play. I couldn’t help but smile as I jog through the preschool and out to my aging SUV. I love him with an amount of emotion that still frightens, but I also have to limited time to write. I love him; I need him to let me leave.

I was ready to write an essay on motherhood and ambition, but I still have to get the eight-year-old to her half-day theatre camp. She’s nestled in the backseat with her nose in a Bad Kitty book that she’s already read a dozen times. She barely notices when I hop in the driver’s seat. I spot her rolled-up script in the front seat and hand it to her. She grabs it without tearing her eyes away from the book.

“We’re going to be late,” I sigh and drum my fingers on the steering wheel. As I navigate out of our neighborhood, I punch the button to turn the radio to NPR and wonder what I might say about ambition and motherhood.

I used to be ambitious. At least, that’s what people routinely told me. Teachers, friends, bosses, advisers, and mentors all commented on my ambition. I knew what I kind of career I wanted, to be a professor, and I had a plan on how to accomplish that goal. I was relentless. I jumped through any hoop that I had to. I set up the goalposts just to knock them down. I learned to outwork the competition.

“She’s ambitious,” they said, and it wasn’t always a compliment.

My ambition only took me so far. After I finished my doctorate in religious studies and started applying for academic jobs in 2008, I discovered that search committees cared less about my ambition and credentials and more about my husband and infant daughter. Search committees assumed that marriage and motherhood made me a less serious and less competent candidate.

My ambition no longer registered; motherhood overshadowed it.

Employers imagined that motherhood and ambition didn’t fit neatly together. To be a mother was to not be ambitious. To be ambitious was to not be the devoted mother everyone expected me to be. I couldn’t convince them otherwise. After five years on the academic job market and with a second baby on the way, my ambition dissipated and left cynicism in its place. I gave up on striving and decided to take a break to focus on my family and the different life I wanted to build. Ambition lead to pipe dream that I had given up on, hadn’t I?

The cars on the road in front me are slowing down. NPR hosts yet another discussion on what President Trump had said in yet another interview, and my daughter chuckles under her breath at Bad Kitty’s antics. “No, no, no,” I mutter as I look at the sea of red brake lights in front of me. The traffic becomes even more congested. The road transforms into a parking lot. I watch the minutes tick by on the clock on my dashboard.

Cars inch forward slowly as I will them to hurry up. My mind wanders yet again to how I should open the essay that I should be writing instead of sitting in traffic. Figuring out how to open an essay is the one of the most important parts of essay writing for me. I can’t write an essay until I figure out that first sentence. “You are ambitious,” I say aloud, testing out the sounds of the words. Maybe that works, but probably not. I glance again at the clock and worry about how late we would be.

“What the frick is going on this morning?,” I groan. Looking away from her book, the eight-year-old pipes up, “Did you say something?”

“Nothing important. The traffic is bad. I think it might be a car accident.”

“Oh,” she responds with a bored tone and picks her book up again.

You are ambitious, I think.

You were ambitious, I correct. You were ambitious before children, before shifting careers, before, before, before…

Before now. Before today.

Ambitious was something I used to be. I had ambition. I was ambitious. All in the past tense.

Finally, the traffic starts to clear. Finally, I can drive at a normal speed. Finally, I can drop this kid off, so I can work on the essay that I can’t stop thinking about. Finally, I can ponder what happened to the ambition that used to define me, but now seems lost. I turn into the driveway of the Young Actor’s Theatre and park. A gangly teenage boy opens the car door, and my daughter hops out with a quick wave. I take a deep breath and drive to a nearby coffee shop, where I write for four hours and then return to pick her up. My schedule revolves around hers this week. Half days instead of full days. Theatre camp because she loves it and because I love her.

But, it is not just this week, is it? My schedule works around theirs every week. This is mostly my choice. I have an editing job and a patchwork of writing gigs that I fit into each day usually between 8am and 3pm, so I can spend time with my kids.

As I plunk down at my favorite table by the big windows of the coffee shop, I realize that I don’t feel ambitious. What does ambition even feel like? I’m not sure I know anymore. I know how I feel right now as I take my first sip of coffee. I feel tired and worn down. I feel like there’s not enough coffee in the world to convince me to write today. I look at the clock on my laptop and wonder how much of my precious writing time I’ve already wasted with worry.

Just getting two kids to preschool and camp today feels like an accomplishment. When did doing what I must start to feel like an accomplishment? I’m afraid to answer that question. Is that what my ambition looks like today? Wrangling children to and from home every day? Writing even when I don’t feel like it? Editing a magazine because I need a job that pays me on-time every month? Is ambitious something I even try to be anymore?

I don’t know.

I know that I write. I know that I edit. I know that I chip away at yet another book. I know that I mother two spectacular children whom I love so much that it takes my breath away.

Do I have ambition? Or just the sheer determination to do something alongside mothering?

Maybe. Maybe, I don’t know what ambition means for me anymore. Maybe, I don’t need to know. Maybe, ambition is continuing to write alongside mothering. Maybe, ambition is writing another book. Maybe, ambition is finishing assignments. Maybe, ambition is my refusal to quit writing when it feels impossible. Maybe, ambition is writing this essay on ambition and motherhood, in the hours away from my children.

Maybe, that’s what ambition is, now. Maybe, that’s all I can ask for. Maybe, that’s all I need.

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