Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

I celebrated a birthday in September and, in true internet-age fashion, did a Google search on women born in my birth year, 1980. Turns out I share it with Christina Aguilera, Gisele Bundchen, Kim Kardashian and Venus Williams. All four are powerhouse women at the top of their games in highly public fields. They’ve built multimillion-dollar personal brands with incredible work ethic and uncommon drive. Three are also moms.

I could look at these peers and see a lot standing between their accomplishments and mine. But that would miss the point. Birthdays give us a perfect occasion to ponder the gap between where we are and where we’ve always longed to be.

I never aspired to be a pop icon, supermodel, reality star or elite tennis player. But I always thought I would be a nationally recognized author. Problem was: I didn’t always work like one.

I suspect that the ladies above grasped early on something that I was slower to recognize. That once you figure out your niche — something you’ve got some talent for and interest in—you’ve got to imagine yourself performing at your peak and find the motivation to pursue the vision relentlessly. Every day.

Gisele remarked in British Vogue: “I tell my five sisters, who don’t work at it very hard at all, whatever you put in, you get out. I’m not afraid of working hard at anything, whatever it is. I just always want to be the best that I can.”

My big dreams remain, but as a mother, I’ve got to be considerably more creative in their pursuit. Getting from point A to point B with a two-year-old in tow requires a bit more strength and flexibility than when I was flying solo. Now I have to work at the dream and at finding time, space and energy to pursue it. Fortunately, motherhood builds just that kind of muscle with its nonstop demands and the ultimate motivation—a little being who’s watching your every move.


Zora (the cutie pictured above) was “due” on my birthday two years ago, but in an early exertion of her independent spirit she decided to hold out for her own special moment—eleven days later. So September affords me two great opportunities for introspection—my birthday and hers. In an article about Z’s first birthday last year, I reflected in print:

“I wished for our daughter’s continued happiness and health as she grows older and life gains complexity. I wished her great friends and loving family for all her days. I wished her a big dream for herself and the motivation to pursue it to the hilt.

Later I realized I should be wishing the same for myself, for my husband, and for all moms and dads. The best parenting is done by example after all.

Modeling the kind of contentment that we all want for our children isn’t easy as adults. We’ve got bills to pay, mouths to feed, communities to serve, and the untold stress that comes with these and other grown-up responsibilities. But if we work at happiness the same way (or better than) we work at our jobs, we undoubtedly give our kids a better shot at it. At the very least, we give them a well-worn path and loving guide.”

Excerpted Richmond Family Magazine, November 2012 Issue

Ah, the arrogance! At one year in, I thought I knew something about parenting. Zora wasn’t even walking or talking at that point, so my mom skills had barely been tested. Still, looking back on the list of five pointers my article went on to enumerate, I think I was on to something. Essentially, if I get my happiness act together, and make time for me—and my dreams—the odds are good that Zora will follow suit. Kids model our behavior, not our lectures, after all.

A year on, here’s where things stand in my personal pursuit of happiness.

What I Wrote Then

Do one thing at a time. “Burdening yourself with the unrealistic expectation of doing it all is the surest path to burnout and coming up short where it really counts.”

How I’m Doing Now

Great. I’ve grown increasingly comfortable navigating my life with blinders on. When I’m working on something, nine times out of ten I give it my full attention and don’t undercut quality by trying to deal with emails, texts, calls or other things simultaneously. Sometimes it annoys other people that I refuse to make their priorities my priorities, but I’ve decided not to care.


Just say “no.” “Unless the opportunity is so compelling that you can’t contain your enthusiasm, you should turn it down.”


Good. I’ve become much more selective about the boards, committees and initiatives that I join. There are many great causes, but they can’t all be my causes. I’m going for quality participation, not quantity. This stance has led to some awkward discussions with folks requesting my time, but so be it.


Say “yes” and mean it. “When something makes its way onto your extremely exclusive to-do list, do it with zest, oomph, gusto.”


Good. This blog is an example of that. I’ve been thinking about blogging for ages, but now I’m actually doing it—every day. I’ll let you be the judge of how much oomph it has. I haven’t mustered the same level of high enthusiasm for some other things I said “yes” to, but I’m working on it. Failing that, I can reverse course and just say “no.”


Keep first things first—every day. “One of the biggest challenges I face on a daily basis is holding my true priorities in mind as I attempt to be responsive to the demands of others.”


Just okay. In August, I established a non-negotiable weekday routine. I said I would eat breakfast, work out and develop my blog every morning, because my health and my writing are important to me and they are also the things that are most likely to be neglected on a given day. I kept the morning routine religiously through October, but then lost momentum.  Consistency over time has always been a challenge.


Give thanks. “Take a regular inventory of all the good you’ve experienced, the inspiring events you’ve witnessed, the friends you’ve made, the great memories you never want to forget.”


Just okay. This blog is one way that I’m slowing down and reflecting on the people and things I’m grateful for. Still, I can do more in person to make the people around me feel appreciated.

Overall, I am more professionally driven and focused now that I’m a mother than I ever was previously. These days I feel an overwhelming impulse to set a good example for my daughter. I want to show her in a thousand small ways every day that she is strong and smart and capable. And, counterintuitive as it may sound, I’m convinced that pursuing my own personal and professional goals is the way to do it. Again, leading by example.

In JET magazine, Venus credited her younger sister Serena with fueling her success. “I don’t feel like I could have this career without Serena. She inspired me to be better. She’s the younger sister but I remember seeing her and thinking, ‘I don’t have that much heart.’ The Grinch had no heart, but when he saw Christmas, his heart grew. That’s what it was like for me. So without her, I couldn’t have been this motivated and I may have been closer to average.”

Zora’s my motivation. I hope I can be hers too.