I’ve spent most of my life wanting to be the best—even when it left me overwhelmed, stressed, and depressed. On the rare occasion I didn’t reach my goals, I held the weight of personal failure. The result was burnout, an overwhelming pressure for perfection, and an obsession with achievement culture. I kept going anyway. And then I had children.
Post-motherhood, everything changed. The focus and determination I’d spent two decades developing seemed inaccessible. The skills that served me as a single college student didn’t support me through the expectations of marriage and motherhood. I felt the compounded pressure of a system that was hard enough when you’re Black or brown and felt near impossible when paired with mothering. Raising kids revealed the new layers of the system and the lie that hard work solved all.
Stephanie Ghoston Paul, a boundaries coach and culture transformation facilitator, notes the do it all stay-at-home super mom and the overextended and unfulfilled super mom binary. Neither captures the reality: parenting is inherently ambitious, and it’s even more challenging in a system with pay inequity, unaffordable childcare, limited parenting leave, and rising living costs. I had to learn my value wasn’t in my achievement, how much I sacrificed, or how much I could check off a list. I refused to abandon my dreams but realized I’d have to think differently. Motherhood didn’t kill my ambition, but it’s reframed how I approach goal-setting and view myself as I pursue those goals.
Paul outlines supportive suggestions to reorient our relationship to ambition and motherhood to make our goals work.
Keep Your Dreams and Add Community
I used to believe motherhood was a graveyard of dreams due to immense pressure to abandon my own or or “wait until the kids are older” to pursue them. Paul says that mothers are told to leave their ambitions on the back burner and references Les Brown’s quote, “The graveyard is the richest place on earth.” But she rejects the belief we should abandon our goals.
Instead, she suggests we challenge misconceptions around ambition and motherhood and learn we don’t have to do it alone. “Black women see our success as a win for everyone, but we think we’re expected to struggle alone on the journey,” says Paul. “A lot of us see our success as communal even though we’re on this solo ambitious journey. So we gotta go it alone,” she says. “But once we get there, it’s a victory for everybody. What if we included more people [from] the beginning instead of just at the end?”
I had to unlearn the expectation a good mother does it all and accept that it is OK to ask loved ones for support as I work toward my dreams. Paul highlights the importance of “horizontal support” or peers who understand your experience and offer a safe space to vent. I found that creating a virtual community where Black mothers and others could safely express the multi-directional pressure to place their children’s needs over their own brought the community I needed to keep going in challenging moments.
Reflect on Your “Why”
After some self-reflection, I learned many of my goals were based on pressure to prove that I was still valuable in a world that sought to invalidate me at every stage. I’m not alone. Paul says many of her clients have ambitions and goals that are not theirs. “I’m not against people being influenced or supported by other forces like spirituality or ancestors—but we have to get clear and critical of whose definition of ambition we are using.”
Books like Stop Waiting for Perfect: Step Out of Your Comfort Zone and Into Your Power by L’Oreal Thompson Payton and Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto by Tricia Hersey helped me explore what I wanted versus what I thought I had to prove.
Realizing others’ ideas of success influenced me didn’t mean I needed to abandon my goals. Still, it encouraged me to pursue them in nourishing ways. Paul says there’s only one wrong way to do ambition—on someone else’s terms. “If you are living your life, doing parenthood or career according to somebody else’s standards, you will never be fulfilled; you are chasing something that cannot be safely satiated.”
Give Yourself Grace
There’s a long list of things I wanted to do before my children were born. The achievement-based perspective I was raised with suggested if I didn’t achieve the goal, I failed. I’ve learned there is much more to goal setting than narrow “success/fail” perspectives. What matters most is processes that align with my vision for life. Raising my kids has shown me delays could be a chance to pivot.
Paul says it reminds us that parenting is hard, and it’s OK to reorganize our goals on this side of parenting instead of trying to carry old plans into new contexts. “It’s not until you get into the experience of the thing that you have more information about the context in which you’re working.”
She says the pressure we feel can be repurposed as an opportunity to explore and possibly redefine what ambition and success look like based on our life plans. “Again, knowing that might change, that might shift based on how you feel, your family needs, and your values.”
Rest and Keep Dreaming
I believe my dreams are the stepping stones for my children’s futures. I’ve accepted I won’t achieve them, or be able to enjoy them, without rest and self-compassion. Further, I won’t encourage them to chase a goal that leaves them overwhelmed and depressed.
“In my work as a living ancestor, as I think about not taking anything with me, I think about what dreams are made of and what we need dreams for,” Paul says, noting the importance of rest and imagination for change. She says all progress, growth, revolution, and resistance are rooted in hope and imagination.
She believes it’s dangerous not to transmit those hopes, dreams, and memories and lay the seeds for the future. “Somebody dreamt, acted, believed, worked, tried, and experimented so this present could happen, and we have to do that for the future too,” she says. “We shouldn’t let go of or get disconnected from or get out of alignment with our dreams because we’re facing a new phase or identity in our lives.”