When I was pregnant with my first child something hit me, and it wasn’t just that I’d probably never get my pre-baby body back (and that’s okay) or that I was about to create human food with my boobs (still amazes me).
It hit me that as soon as the baby was born, it would no longer be about me. Not about my wants. Not about my needs. But especially, not about my dreams.
I’ve always called myself a dreamer. When I was a little girl I’d tell my grandparents that when I grew up I was going to live on a ranch with hundreds of horses, at least a dozen dogs, a few cats, and a pet parrot. All in a major city where ice cream parlors were open 24/7, and I could have any type of food delivered whenever I wanted. (One-third and a half of that dream has come true. Yelp will bring me Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles right now if I really want them to).
By the time I was finally pregnant, which felt like a dream considering the hoops I jumped through to get there, my dreams had evolved a bit. I wanted to split my time between California and Hawaii, to own ocean side property in both places (though I still would love to have a ranch). I wanted a big, beautiful life full of children and good friends and interesting experiences, and to write books — all the books.
The dream of wanting to be an author who made money writing and selling books was very much alive in me before my baby girl was conceived, and it was very much alive after because having her made me more focused, more determined, and in many ways, more creative. But now I did feel like my dreams weren’t as important as her existence. Someday, her dreams should and would overshadow mine. Wasn’t that how it was supposed to be? Just as I suspected, her well-being was the driver of my dream ship, and my goals would have to stay in the backseat until she was safely out of medical school. Or so I thought.
When I got into Pitch Wars, the biggest writing contest around, I was ecstatic. Maybe the five years it took me to write my first novel was finally going to pay off. I was sure I was closer to getting paid to write books. If I was getting paid, then I’d be helping provide for my family which meant writing wouldn’t feel frivolous anymore. It wouldn’t be just a dream. And then I could justify the financial expense of hiring a babysitter so I could write more. And could then justify the emotional expense, and resulting guilt, of ignoring my children to focus on writing even more books.
Months of editing went by. Kids were still loved, despite my focus elsewhere for several hours a day. Milestones still reached, despite a little extra time on YouTube. Life unfolded like the piles of laundry my newly walking son throws about from the clean-clothes basket.
And then at the end of the contest, agents actually wanted to read my book!
And then after months of waiting, agents rejected my book — lots and lots of agents.
There wasn’t enough romance in the beginning. The main character might offend readers. It was funny and the writing good, but agent so-and-so just didn’t love it enough to try to sell it. Women’s fiction readers might not like a character whose main goal in life is to marry for money. And on and on. I was close. But I wasn’t close enough.
There were olive branches of hope sent my way, like when an agent I love and admire told me I was “obviously very talented” and should “write another book.” Write. Another. Book. But not getting an offer of representation, especially with two young children to love on, a house to clean, and no money to show for the hours I spent dreaming made me question all over again my goal of being a novelist. Writing books — good books — takes lots of time.
And writing time meant missing out on playing with my daughter.
Reading to my son.
More screen time for both.
Writing time meant a little more mac and cheese, a little less from scratch.
Without representation, writing would continue to feel like an indulgence, not a career. Back to just a dream again, like beachfront property in Lanikai or that horse ranch.
And so for the last few months, I’ve written a whole lot less — even if I did stop sulking months ago that Pitch Wars didn’t end in an agent for me. Speaking of which, the biggest thing I took from the Pitch Wars experience, aside from an awesome mentor and new friends, was that most of the time it’s not your first book that snags you a deal. In fact, many of my fellow mentees wrote several very-rejected books before finally securing book deals. But something else was keeping me from making progress on my new project. Every time I sat down to write, I was consumed by guilt.
I told myself, “Why are you doing this if there’s no guarantee you’ll get paid?” and “Even your second book might not result in a deal.” But the worst of them all was this line of internal dialogue: “You’re being a bad mom by choosing to focus on writing instead of your kids. Instead of taking them to XYZ class. Instead of making their Wednesday a Pinterest board of magical muffin madness.”
So I backed off for a while. And not only was I unhappy, I was also more anxious, more frayed. I wasn’t as present. I felt unsettled. Like I was about to go on a long trip and had forgotten something. Like I had misplaced my phone or my sunglasses without the hope of ever finding them again. Being a stay-at-home mom was a huge gift and blessing— why didn’t it feel like enough?
When we were on our family vacation, I asked a friend with older children what he thought the most important ingredient was in the recipe for healthy, happy, and successful kids.
It wasn’t the schools they went to, he said. Not the neighborhood they lived in. Not how much money they had. It wasn’t the level of education parents achieved or the kind of house they bought or didn’t buy. The most important thing, he said, was the example the parents set — how the parents lived. I knew this. Of course, I knew this. But hearing him say it flipped one big light switch inside me.
By not writing, I was telling my children it’s okay to give up on their dreams. I was telling them that you should walk away if the payout isn’t immediate.
By not taking time away from them to work on my next book, I was missing out on the opportunity to show my children what hard work and sacrifice and perseverance are all about.
By not making myself and my creative needs important, I was setting the example that self-care doesn’t matter. (This also went for exercising and taking a shower now and then too.)
By not taking time to do what I loved, I was saying that passion doesn’t count.
I returned from that trip with a fire reignited in my heart. If I want my daughter to reach for the stars, I have to reach for them with her. If I want my son to be brave enough to go down the biggest slide, I have to be brave too. Brave enough to get hurt a little. To fail. To face rejection after rejection — the same kind we’ll all face in small and big quantities for our entire lives. I have to write not just for my dreams, but also for theirs.
My children’s needs will always come before my own. I’ll always feed them first. See to it that they’re safe before I am. I was right to smart at the sting of that realization when it hit me. Balancing their care and my own isn’t an easy feat. But by pursuing my own goals, I’m literally drawing a map for them. A guide of what to do to obtain the unique things they’ll someday want in life. Even if those things are big and scary and difficult to achieve, like making a living as an author.