“This program is my focus. I don’t have kids or family nearby. I don’t think any of us do.” I pushed my breast pump further under my chair with my foot as I let those words sink in.
I was at the part of the doctoral interview where current students answered our questions. I had driven two hours for this interview, and it would be the longest I had ever been away from my baby.
All of a sudden that breast pump felt like a symbol of my ties elsewhere. To my life that, according to this person, wasn’t something others in my program were trying to balance with their current pursuits. Meanwhile, I would need to pump before the next set of interviews. I seriously considered just going home.
Finding My Path
We got pregnant with our first child during my practicum year while I was working toward my masters degree in marriage and family therapy. Six months postpartum, I was invited to that interview. After I got my acceptance letter, I played an emotional game of ping-pong for weeks. I was painfully torn. Becoming a mother had changed me—my priorities and my identity were forever transformed. I wondered, “Could my new identity as a mother coexist with my career?”
Ultimately, I joined the program and pursued my doctoral degree. On that first early morning before my commute to school, I risked waking my sleeping baby as I tip-toed into her room to kiss her forehead. Before I could even pull out of the driveway, anxiety crawled in and buckled up in the passenger seat. “What if you miss things? What if this pursuit affects her? What if you can’t commit? What if you disappoint others? What if this choice is selfish? What if your marriage suffers? What if we fail?”
Anxiety often whispers worries such as these into my ear when I’m about to take a big step. As humans, we’re wired for fear. It’s there to keep us safe. Fear’s cousin, anxiety, pops up to worry about all the potential threats, and often comes along for the ride whenever I’m about to do anything important.
In fact, anxiety’s presence often signals to me that whatever I’m about to do is important—although at times it mistakes my meaningful risks as dangerous ones. As I sat in traffic, ruminating with worries, my anxiety was trying to convince me to scoot over, let it drive, turn around. If the billboards along the road somehow spelled out the societal expectations of what it means to be a “good mom,” my anxiety would point to them and say, “See?”
Discovering a New Way
Those years as a new mom and doctoral student were hard. Motherhood broke me open, but with all my pieces on the floor, I slowly began to pick them back up. Some pieces looked different. I was different. Cautiously, for fear of breaking anymore, I put the pieces back together.
Some pieces were familiar. There was a part of me, still, that had aspirations for my career. Prior to becoming a parent, a lot of my self-worth and identity were wrapped up in my academic accolades and a definition of productivity that didn’t leave much room for anything else. So, this piece no longer fit, and I needed to evolve. Intentionally and imperfectly, I carved out space for these pieces and put them back into my new life as a parent.
Interestingly, I believe those years of navigating early motherhood and academia set the stage for the entrepreneurial spirit that was stirring in my heart. As an academic it felt almost understood that what I would do next was pursue a tenure-track teaching position.
As someone who values stability and security, I initially set my internal GPS in that direction. I still recall my first tenure-track faculty interview. When the interview was finished and I drove away from campus, anxiety popped up. It brought with it the usual worries of “did I do a good job?” But there was also a whisper of “this won’t make you happy.”
Embracing My Entrepreneurial Spirit
Entrepreneurship felt like the windy, slightly treacherous, off-beaten path. Nothing about starting or running a business was covered in all those years of graduate school. I valued stability and security, but as a mother I had also come to value flexibility and freedom.
That desire for flexibility and freedom doesn’t inherently make private practice the right fit for everyone, but somewhere in my gut I knew it was for me. Embracing my entrepreneurial spirit would support me in aligning with the life I wanted to build for myself and my family.
Cautiously, I took that off-beaten path. I accepted an adjunct teaching position which offered some stability as I began to craft my practice. Being the boss with no one telling me what to do or how to do it was both liberating and terrifying. I was terrified to fail and have it all on my shoulders, but my worries didn’t hold a candle to the liberating experience of only putting things on my schedule that I chose.
Throughout the years there have been plenty of crossroads and decisions to make. Can I be an out-of-pocket provider and still be accessible? How do I raise my rates? Should I be on social media? Should I offer telehealth? Is this burn-out? Am I taking all the right steps to protect my business?
In its efforts to hold me back and keep me safe, anxiety threw plenty of roadblocks in my path too. You can’t be a helper and a good business owner. There’s too much personal liability here. Sprinkle in some scarcity mindset, imposter syndrome, a fear of visibility and a rejection, and no steady roadmap—and it can feel like a small miracle that I kept moving forward at all sometimes.
Using My Voice
Ultimately, I learned to give myself permission. Women haven’t always been permitted to carve their own path—to work, to receive a higher education, to have a voice. I’m half Hispanic, but my white-passing privilege has afforded me opportunities that my BIPOC colleagues haven’t been granted. At that doctoral interview, I didn’t hear any stories of how women had managed to have a family and achieve their degrees. But a majority of the students who spoke on that panel looked like me, and that says something.
I share my experiences now because I desperately wanted to hear stories from other mothers with similar pursuits then. I aim to fight against the gender discourses that pushed me to stay small and stay put—and I know our paths forward don’t all start on level ground.
Maybe there’s a whisper of desire to be your own boss stirring in your heart. Maybe you’re looking for your next academic pursuit, or a business idea, or your next big adventure. No matter what’s next for you, there’s no doubt it’ll be hard. And our minds have a magnificent way of trying to protect us from anything that seems even slightly scary.
But there’s good news. Even when it seems like you’re in uncharted territory, you’re probably not. There are people who have walked similar paths before you and can offer support and guidance. And even if it is unmarked territory? How exciting that you could be the first one to draw the map.