I was sitting in my therapy session talking about my career success. I was feeling good as I reflected over the last 12 years of my life.I had accomplished in 12 years what could take many 20 or 30.
Like many new mothers, though, I quickly realized that now I was responsible for another person’s life. A tremendous burden overcame me. It was my first Oh Sh*t moment as a mother.
Two and half years later, it happened again. I was so excited before my daughter came into my life. I had two years of practice and knew what to expect, so the anxiety was minimal. That is, until she came on that Sunday morning around 10:00. It was like deja vu. As I held her in my arms, her eyes were wide open and she stared into my soul—just as her brother did two and half years before—looking for the answers to life. Another Oh Sh*t.
When I was a teenager, I learned the power of setting goals and a vision. The process has served me well. When I used it to set my mind on leadership, I became Class President in high school. So when I became a mother, I tried the same strategy that had yielded great results, even from the start.
I set a vision as a mother. “What kind of mother will I be?” I wrote in my journal.
I will be the kind of mother who will always love my son. I will be his first teacher. He will learn the fundamentals of life from me. He will know what love is because he has experienced it with me.
In 2002, when I had my daughter, I added to my vision.
My children will know what success in life looks like because I will be their example. I will teach them the responsibility of serving others. I will demonstrate what commitment and sacrifice look like. They will know what a relationship with God looks like by my own example.
So there it was. I knew I would be a great mother. After all, I had set a vision. I had no doubt I could live up to it.
Who knew that getting a new job would change everything! I had been working since I was 14 years old. I knew how to work and have a life outside of it—I was well practiced. So when a new opportunity came along to join a company that was growing and making a name for itself in the wireless industry, I was excited.
I was going to be working for a woman I had been enamored of during my interview. She was an accomplished professional, a wife, and a mother. Confidence and intelligence oozed from her lips when she spoke. It was electrifying. I knew I would learn a lot from her—not only as a professional, but also about how to be a wife and a mother. The first day we met, she wore a St. John black suit with gold zippers. Her make-up was flawless, and her red lipstick said I’m Fierce. What’s more, she was an African American woman, like me.
By that time, my kids were both in elementary school. Recreational activities were already “a thing.” Dance, football, karate, church activities… then add parent-teacher conferences, school programs and field trips. No worries—I had my vision as a mother to keep me focused on what I was going to accomplish.
But my vision failed to prepare me for the emotional journey that lay in the shadows where that vision and the reality of balancing motherhood and career intersected.
Every morning, I would get my kids ready for school and we would eat breakfast together. But I often worked into the evening, and the reality that my third grader and kindergartener would not see my face again until the next day constantly pulled on my heart. I wonder if hearing me say “I love you” at least 100 times each morning ever made my kids think I was crazy.
When I dropped them at school, I would spend extra time hugging and kissing them before they ran off. It was my way of ensuring that they knew I loved them more than anything in this world. It also served as fuel for my heart to make it through another day. From the start, my new role came with a tremendous amount of new responsibilities. We started our day at 9:00, and usually didn’t wrap up until around 8:00—bedtime for my kids.
I would leave the office feeling accomplished. I met the goals I had set for the day. I interacted with amazing people, and I felt great about my team’s progress. I would spend much of the drive home mentally planning what I could do tomorrow to have an even better day. And I was committed to always being that count on me teammate.
But then, I would pull into my driveway. The stillness and dark windows of the house reminded me that my family was asleep. It would hit me like a ton of bricks, and my high from the day would be overcome by sadness.
The lights off when I got home felt like a message that I was disconnected from the power of my family.
What did I miss during dinner conversation? Did my kids have a great day too? What challenge did they face that I didn’t know about? Did they climb into bed without answers? Did they remember to say their prayers? Without me there to tell them, did they go to sleep knowing they are the most important people in my life? It was torture.
Some evenings, I would sit in my car and cry to release the pressure. The greatest moments would be if one of the kids couldn’t get to sleep immediately, and instead of walking into a still house I was greeted with a small voice: “Momma, is that you?” I would drop everything and rush to their room, worried they would fall asleep in the thirty seconds it took to get there.
Being the mother of two wonderful kids has been my greatest joy. I know my motivation for driving toward ultimate success was to lead by example. I was determined to show them the way. There were two people watching—even if no one else was. That reality was and still is my north star. As their mother, I believe it is one of the best gifts I can offer. But that never seemed to make the feeling of mother’s guilt that often plagued me during that time subside.
The even greater gift, I knew, was to give my love and support—to nurture my kids through good times and bad, and coach them through those moments that form who they will become in the world. But to do this, I came to realize, I had to be available and present. And there’s the dilemma, one I didn’t anticipate when I wrote my vision. How could I give my kids the gift of love and support while also nurturing a thriving career?
One day, I decided to ask my boss for advice on how to manage my mother’s guilt. She had just sent her son off to college. I didn’t want her to see my questioning as weakness, so when I walked into her office that afternoon I didn’t come right out and say, “I feel like an awful mother. And it is eating me up inside.” Instead, I asked, “When you were raising your son, how did you ensure he was taken care of while you were working?”
The look she gave me sent a rumbling in my stomach. She stared at me with a face as unemotional as a mother disappointed with her child. But then, she smiled and told me to sit down. “What is it that you really want to ask me?” she said. “What’s wrong?” That question felt like freedom! I realized I could be vulnerable about how I was feeling. So I told her I felt like I was choosing my career over my family.
We talked for hours. What I appreciated most was how patient she was as I took her on my emotional roller coaster ride. I told her how I feared that one day my kids would reveal to me how I let them down for not being there enough. In the next breath, I would affirm that I was making the right decision because I wanted to show them that hard work pays off. I could not believe how much I cried, sitting there with her that evening. Eventually, I got to the heart of it. “How do you manage all the pressure of being a mother and having a career?”
She never answered my question. But she did help me talk through what would work for me and my family. Her first piece of advice has stayed with me all these years. “Relax, Kenya,” she said. “You are getting yourself all worked up over what you think will happen.” She suggested that I make a list of people who could help out with my kids. And she said to pick one day a week and go eat lunch with them at school.
At the end, I gave her the tightest hug. “Thank you,” I said. I left feeling 50 pounds lighter. Our conversation and the plan we made had helped release the pressure of my mother’s guilt.
I now appreciate that my boss didn’t just tell me what she did to manage it all. See, that’s the thing about motherhood—there is no one way to do it.
You have find what works for you and your family. It’s a game of trial and error. I am glad that I didn’t give in to the guilt and choose one role at the expense of the other. Instead, I created a plan that allowed me to successfully balance being a mother and a professional.
Today, I am the proud mother of a 19-year-old college student and a 16-year-old high school student. And I have come to learn that motherhood makes the best parts of you shine even more brightly. Without a doubt, my own career success has shown me that my children can accomplish anything in life. They can run successful companies. They can serve on boards of directors, or even as Chief Executive Officer of a Fortune 500 company. And now, ironically, I’m the one female colleagues who are mothers sometimes come to when they feel the struggle I once did.
Can I say that I got it all perfect? No. What I can say is that my kids not only survived, they thrived. And so have I.