I sat inside my blue green Ford Festiva pumping milk out of my rock-hard breasts. The front of my apron had already soaked through with breast milk during the first four hours of my shift, but it didn’t matter too much because I was a dishwasher and the front of my apron was soaked with soap water anyways. What was a little breast milk? If I had had any foresight, I would have brought a fresh apron to change into after break. If I had been older or more assertive, I would have demanded to pump my breasts in the office—didn’t I know I had rights?—instead I sat in the car, coat unzipped, shirt up, hand furiously working at the yellow Medela hand pump. It hurt so fucking bad.
I got pregnant with my child at twenty. I was working part-time—as a nanny, so I thought I could handle kids—and attending the community college where I will be teaching at this fall, but I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, or who I was. My son’s dad had dreams of living in the woods in California and I thought that sounded good enough, it wouldn’t really be any different with a kid in tow. Plus, I had tried a few types of birth control that made me feel crazy and had gone through with one expensive-ass abortion already.
I don’t ever need to justify why I had a baby at twenty, but sometimes I do it anyway. I believe reproductive choice means that we shouldn’t have to walk around justifying our reproductive decisions: to have a child young or later, to have no children or five, to bottle feed or nurse for three years, and on and on. I have the choice to make, I make it, end of story. Unless I choose to confide in you, it’s none of your business.
Some women come to motherhood painfully aware of the self they’ve lost by becoming a mother. I didn’t know myself before motherhood. I knew my child self well enough—bookish, boyish—and had tried to avoid my teenage self through fitting-in, drinking and sex, or maybe the sex connected me to my teenage self? My adult self would have to be met with a child in tow.
When I think about ambition, I think about the woman whose children I cared for while I was pregnant. She was a neurologist who had two small children and would go on to have a third. She wore pants with creases down the front and asked me to please wipe out the tub after I bathed her kids. I remember eating a lot of her food while the kids were napping, watching MTV, and of course rummaging through her bathroom cupboard. I noticed when she stopped taking her birth control. She took Ortho Tri-Cyclen, which had made me crazy, but she held everything together just fine.
When I tell my child free friend that I am writing an essay about motherhood and ambition, she bursts out laughing. Maybe it was the hesitation in my voice—motherhood; ambition. Maybe I don’t feel qualified to write on either. Maybe I too don’t believe the two words fit. It’s not that I don’t think you have anything to write on that. So what was so funny? I pride myself on being a serious writer, not a sentimental one. Acknowledging my status as a mother seems to place me firmly in the sentimental camp. Maybe that is why my friend laughed at my ambition.
I have tried very hard to distance myself from being a single mother. I tend not to tell people I even have a child unless I am asked, or they are talking about their children. I think I don’t tell people because I don’t want to follow the script, don’t want to be needy or frazzled, even when I am, don’t want to just be waiting on someone to rescue me. Once I dated someone who used my child as an excuse to call in to work or skip class. I have daddy duty, you know, they said, even though I never asked them to watch my child. I never used my child as an excuse, even when my child was sick, I rarely explained why I couldn’t come in.
During my last year of grad school—how’s that for ambition, or foolishness—my school paid for me to attend a writer’s conference in D.C. My first trip without my son and maybe I felt free or maybe I felt lonely, didn’t quite know how to interact with the other young people staying in my hostel. You’re so serious, they said. I remember walking past buildings between my hostel and the conference hotel, seeing the words, “For every lovely on the dole, mandatory birth control” spray-painted on the brick.
It’s hard to talk to any mother about mothering without talking about guilt. I wanted that choice to work or stay home. Would I have stayed home? Who knows. I told myself at the time that I would have happily stayed home for two or three years. But if I had done that, maybe I would have been miserable. I have met frantic stay-at-home moms. My own mother stayed home for nine years with my sisters and me, while my father went to work as a public school teacher.
I always thought of my mother as a person who would have been much happier had she not been a mother. I have heard other people describe their mothers in similar ways—she wasn’t cut out to be a mother. The problem though doesn’t seem to be our mothers, or our mothering selves, but motherhood. Few people, if any, seem to be cut out for the impossibility of motherhood.
I felt undeserving of every success—getting called back for low wage jobs, graduating from college, even acceptance to grad school. I was making terrible choices and I should have just become a nurse, but I had a misdemeanor on my record—from my wild days shoplifting as an eighteen year old—and the hospital in my town wouldn’t hire anyone with a criminal record. I applied to be a patient sitter. No call-back. I still can’t get a job at a bank.
I also felt undeserving of any help. I had made the choice to have a child young, so it was my job to pull myself up out of the poverty that I had created for myself. I wasn’t born into brutal generational poverty. I had my white privilege, my command of standard American English, both written and spoken. I felt out of place waiting in food lines, but I did it, brought my own bags or boxes, loaded them up with expired baked goods and surplus produce, took the things home and cooked them.
Would I ever, I wondered, make enough money to purchase health insurance and my own groceries? Was it from lack of ambition that I stayed poor? Was it my relentless ambition that kept me working, attending school and raising my son?
Jobs I’ve held, in the best order I can figure: corn detasseler, tutor, nanny, dishwasher/prep cook, factory building cleaner, childcare worker, organic farm hand, teaching assistant, motel housekeeper, personal care assistant, restaurant wait staff, flower delivery truck driver, writing center consultant, and soon an adjunct professor. I have also sold my plasma.
I hear some people complain about adjunct teaching, and I hear their arguments: low pay compared to full-time faculty considering the workload is often just as heavy or heavier, little job security, etc. Working as an adjunct pays more than I have ever made. Am I good enough to teach outside of grad school?
I don’t know if I am very ambitious or lacking in ambition. Usually I decide on the latter—I would rather stay poor than give up on my writing dreams. I have another child free friend who tells me that I am an exception, that few women who have babies young finish a four-year degree and even fewer finish a master’s degree. I couldn’t find the research to back that statement up, but my friend certainly thinks I’m ambitious.
Sometimes I think my life would be easier if I just got married to someone who wanted to support me. I would certainly appear more respectable in society’s eyes. Some days I feel like it doesn’t matter what else I do, if I stay a single mother, I am disrespected. This is patriarchy plain and simple. I reject the idea that my status as a person increases with marriage, or even with a relationship. And if getting married would improve my financial standing, I reject all desire to be middle class. If I can’t afford groceries or health insurance as a single woman who works, is educated and raises her family, then fuck our system.
The older I get the less comfortable I am contorting myself into being a good partner. My needs and the needs of my partners are too often in conflict, and I will no longer give up what I need for what my partner needs. I give up what I need for my child and my work enough. I can no longer be in relationships that do not prioritize my own goals and agency. The older I get, the more I am resigned to being single, the less I see myself desiring one partner for the rest of my life. I am thirty years old.
I drive my son, his half-brother (his father’s child) and his two step-brothers (his father was briefly married to their mother) to a small public beach. The four boys, ages eleven, nine, eight, and five, run along the shore, collecting snail shells while I sit in the shade. They paddle out into the lake on boogie boards and what I feel most watching them is pride and love. Sometimes I am terrified for the future, but my child gives me hope.
Halfway through our beach day, the boys circle around my lawn chair and I pass out snacks. Farther down the beach a man arrives on his bike. He has a loud conversation with no one in particular. He is upset about changes to the park. He sets up his towel on the sand and shouts, There is nothing good about this century.
The children run back into the water, arcs of water catch the sunlight and refract the light. Their child bodies move with such precision and determination, joy even. These children and millions like them are what is good about this century.
I worked for six years at a daycare that provided part-time childcare to income eligible families. Parents used the center to attend school and work, to go to doctor’s appointments, to complete job searches, to find housing, to nap, to go on dates, or attend counseling sessions, to work on homework, or projects around the house, or just to take a break. Most of these parents worked and many were single parents. Many were immigrants. I looked at so many of these parents as role models. I noticed how they spoke to their children, how hard they worked, how many setbacks they had faced.
One mother who I particularly admired had five children all under the age of six, she worked third shift and used the time her children were in daycare to catch up on sleep. Sometimes it was too hard for her to get her children into the center because she didn’t have a car, and she would cancel. I cannot imagine riding the bus with five children. Her children were kind and helpful, even the three-year old’s defiance seemed evidence of consistent and loving parenting. I could tell that her children were spoken to a lot from my interactions with them. They were smart, resilient kids.
We desire to be respected for our work and our choices.