“I had given up some youth for knowledge but my gain was much greater than my loss.”
This quote by Maya Angelou perfectly describes my motherhood journey. For me, being a mom has meant the deep loss of a life I never knew and the ongoing rediscovery of myself. If ever there was a path that required one to travel through darkness, shame, redemption and beauty, that path is mine.
The day my son was born nearly fifteen years ago was a day of both life and death. In the moment my son’s youth began, my own youth would die.
Looking back, I am grateful for the naivete of youth because at sixteen years old, I had no insight into how difficult and overwhelming the world outside of that hospital room was about to become. Knowing now what one should feel when they find out they are pregnant, I can only feel deep sadness for the little girl who felt the world’s greatest shame, fear and defeat upon finding out she was going to grow a life in her. One day I was the smart, pretty, fierce girl with the huge personality, and the next, I was an insecure, seemingly unwanted girl who needed to hide from the entire world. It is impossible to describe the confusion and fear of waking up in a world that seemed to no longer embrace me. I hadn’t even developed enough maturity to embrace myself.
For fifteen years my personality as a mom, a wife, a leader and a friend have all stemmed from the survival techniques that I developed as a teenage mother. I had to find balance in the incredible joys that come with loving a child and the incredible lows of rejection from a world that saw my joy as a mistake. People never ran up to my stroller in awe over my gorgeous baby. Instead, they often openly expressed their puzzlement followed by their disappointment when they realized that the bouncing baby they saw was indeed the product of teenage sex. I was on the receiving end of a society’s judgement and regret for a tragic soul lost to the sins of her ignorance.
My life’s greatest joy was mine alone to celebrate.
This was a loneliness that pierced my spirit and reshaped my perceptions of what beauty can be found in humanity. The heart-swelling love that a mother feels as she marvels over her child was a love I was not meant to feel at this age and therefore I felt I had to hide it away. There were no mom’s nights out or long talks with my mom friends about the struggles of teething, toddlers and tantrums. There was only my boy, my shameful pride for him and my desire to protect him from feeling unwanted like I did. I instinctively hid my desire to belong and the pain of rejection from the entire world as if, at a couple months old, my baby would see my sadness and believe he was the cause. I buried my shame and embarrassment and publicly embraced a skin so thick only my little man could penetrate it.
The strength of the walls I built to protect him from the cripplingly darkness I felt also served to keep the darkness within me. My sole focus became giving him a life the world had predetermined I was not capable of giving him. This also became my burden. The drive and stubbornness that had existed in me since birth was magnified by the force of my love for my son and distrust of the world around me. I drove towards success in every way. I married young, giving him the father figure I felt he long lost when my high school boyfriend went on being a teenager shortly after the birth. I finished high school and college with a laser focus and started working in finance. Within weeks of starting my career I was immediately logging sixty hours a week in the office and coming home to cook the perfect meals and build the perfect science projects at midnight… all so that my boy would never be judged for having a teen mom the way his teen mom was judged for having him.
I became so good at being the mom who would fight the world for her child that I kept fighting the world long after the world had stopped fighting me.
I believed I could only find belonging and love in being my son’s warrior, I left little space for me to find it in anything or anyone else. I had learned to wear the pride for my boy and all that we had discovered together like a jacket to cover the coldness of all that had been lost on that same journey. Long after the world had forgiven my sins, I had yet to forgive myself. Long after the disappointing stares of strangers faded, the disappointment I felt for the regret that surrounded my greatest gift remained. I had tried to outrun the loneliness of celebrating my motherhood in the dark and found myself outrunning the ability to celebrate myself at all.
I allowed myself to believe that the relentless chase of success was my duty to my child. Achievement and perfection became the drug that provided the relief from the unresolved shame I had carried in my spirit. I had learned to overcompensate for the world’s regret for me by creating a life no person would be regretful of.
The only problem was that there was never enough success or achievements to cover the insecurities of knowing that, for me, being a mom was never cause for celebration. There could be no finish line in my race towards acceptance; I had come to believe that for me, being a mom who loves her child was not enough then and still didn’t feel like enough now. I had to collect so many reasons to make him proud of me. Knowing deep down inside how scared and angry I was at becoming his mother had made me feel undeserving of being a mom at all. I had allowed my doubts to grow in the darkness until my own mind was deeply rooted in my belief I would never truly be the mom he deserved. I had never wanted my boy to think the world wasn’t ready for him, but really, I never wanted my boy to know that I wasn’t ready for him either. I could not risk him entertaining thoughts that my many moments of doubt, anger and fear over his birth were the sum of the feelings I had about being his mom. For all these years I have locked those truths about my journey away.
Even as I write this, I fight to admit that the beautiful blessing of motherhood in my life is also the darkness and insecurity that I work to outrun through achievement. I believe myself capable of almost anything, but I fight to acknowledge that my baby boy is all that I ever dreamed of – as a result of me and not in spite of me. I have never truly accepted that I was capable of raising him to be the beautiful person he has become. I struggle to forgive myself for bringing him into a world I hadn’t learned to navigate and am still learning to trust to this very day.
I have journeyed this life with him as my guiding star, so I credit my son with all that I am today.
As I have learned to forgive a world that rejected me, I have slowed the pace of my run and taken in more of the scenery but I have not yet found my motherhood finish line. I have accepted that the path of motherhood will always include fears of failure and the complete and udder despair of inadequacy. As I embrace life and love in different ways I have become more accepting that I will have to learn to stand still one day.
Although I fear what I might find in that place when I am not running, deep down I hope I will find the little girl who discovered her strength in the loss of her innocence. I hope when I find her, I can tell her that I love and forgive her. Most importantly I plan to tell her that the beautiful darkness of her journey through motherhood is hers to own with pride. I will tell her she was good enough the day she decided to be the best mom she knew how to be; that there is no shame in celebrating all that she has gained even if she also mourns all that she may have lost.
Danielle Shoots is the Vice President of Business Operations, Comcast West Division. She’s also the mother of two incredible humans, Micai and Layla, wife and best friend to the incredibly supportive Eddy Shoots, a proud Colorado native, community advocate, political activist, philanthropist and passionate Denverite.
Saralyn Ward is an award-winning writer, wellness advocate, and mountain mama. She is the founder of The Mama Sagas, writes for several publications and hosts a regular parenting TV segment on Colorado's Everyday Show. When she's not huddled over edits, you're likely to find Saralyn climbing peaks or skiing down them, and reminding herself that the two little girls that call her mom are not the boss of her.