Sep 21, 2014

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A Chapter In My Life: Keeping It Together In The Midst of Change

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At the age of 27, I got divorced and became a single mom to an 11-month old baby girl.

This occurred three months before starting an intensive internship year in Clinical Psychology, part of my training for a doctoral degree.  It all happened suddenly, although by no means unexpectedly (except to family and friends…).  After five years of marriage, I gained two new labels — divorced and single mother.

I didn’t mind the labels.  They really meant nothing to me; I knew I was above them.  But I did think about my mother, and how she might feel ashamed that her daughter had gotten divorced. I believe she saw divorce as a failure — I saw divorce as an option and as a choice to a happier life.

But divorce, no matter the circumstances, can be quite unraveling.  That is, if you have nothing to fight for.  Raising my daughter alone while still training became the biggest fight of my life. This was no time to collapse, break down or get weak on the knees. I was determined to rise above, to successfully complete my PhD, while raising an outstanding and happy child.

Was it hard?  Hell, yeah!  Did I feel alone?  Sad, at times depressed?  Absolutely.  But I had dreams to achieve — that was my focus.  The idea that I would disprove the stereotypes associated with single-motherhood became a strong motivator.

So I took the next five years by storm.  Every morning, at 6:45 AM, I pushed my daughter’s stroller a half-mile down a steep hill towards her day care center, and delivered her at 7AM to the arms of two caregivers who had another seven kids to care for. I would then run down the stairs to catch a bus to North Central Bronx Hospital.  By 7:30AM I was sitting in clinical rounds at the Psychiatric Emergency Room, where no one knew my story.  Every morning, we reviewed the new patients waiting to be evaluated — a woman who had drank Clorox to end her life; an adolescent manifesting his first psychotic, schizophrenic break; an agitated old man with dementia.

There were moments when it felt surreal to be there.  Here I was, evaluating people who were deeply emotionally-distressed, many of them clinically depressed because life had not happened as they had envisioned.  I completely understood their pain and confusion.  There was a part of me that felt that way too, but I had a job to do.  I had to remain as intact, composed and focused as possible.  And I did.

From 7AM to 7PM, I was on the go, I was productive, sharp and efficient.  Any reminders of what was going on in my personal life, I folded it away nice and neatly, put it inside a drawer in a corner of my soul, and closed it tightly.  I would get to it later, I told myself.  Not now.  This was not a time for pity parties… PhD, Professional Merit, Financial Empowerment, Independence, Control, Proving Everyone Wrongrecurring thoughts that kept me going.

Music became my healer.  At home, as soon as my daughter began to walk, we would dance together in our large living room.  She would look up at me and I would down at her, and laugh and move and simply love our time together.  She had these beautiful big eyes full of life and energy — an energy I deeply needed at that time.  We had an awesome time together, just her and me.

My sister and her husband, my mother and my young brother became instrumental during this transition.  They helped with babysitting on the weekends, when I had graduate work to do.  They were there 100% for support, company and laughter.  I lost count of the number of times my sister and her husband helped me move, paint, and do errands.  Most importantly, they were a phone call away in the middle of the night, whenever life felt like it was more than I could bare, and I needed someone to talk to with tears in my eyes.

But I kept going strong.  When my daughter was three years old, I submitted an application to Fieldston Lower School, a well-respected independent private school in New York City.  I have always valued excellence in education, and Fieldston Lower School was more than I could have ever imagined for my child.  Not only was she accepted to the school, but she also received almost a full scholarship.  Receiving her letter of acceptance was a turning point during that phase in my life.  I was filled with excitement for her, and I felt superbly proud of myself as a mother.

Our years at Fieldston were unforgettable.  This place became my daughter’s second home.  A safe, child-centered place where children felt loved and special.  Fieldston became a defining part of my daughter’s life and character.  And that, was enough to fill my heart with tremendous joy.

The next few years were only about my daughter and completing my dissertation.  After dinner, I would work on my manuscript with my daughter by my side.  She on her small chair and table, drawing or painting, and me on my desk full of papers.  She drew for long periods of time, content and quiet, as if she knew well that mami had something important to do. [Today, she's an artist and photographer.]

I spent many New Year’s Eve’s on my desk, writing this dissertation, while my family called and insisted I come join them to celebrate.  But I was on a mission.  I knew there would be plenty of holidays to celebrate, and moments to hang out and relax in the future.  I just had to finish this thing I had started, and I had to do it well.

For five years I dated no one.  There would also be plenty of time to date, once I finished my PhD — I told myself.  But deep down inside, I doubted there would be someone waiting for me in the future.  Despite all the wise words of the feminist authors I had come to embrace in college, I couldn’t believe I had fleeting thoughts of being damaged goods because I was a divorced woman with a child.  How old fashion is that…?!   At times, I was amused by these two opposing inner voices…damaged goods? Give me a break!

In 1998, three years after my divorce, I found myself in a large university room, in front of a group of professors.  My mentor sitting right across from me, smiling.  This was the day I had waited for so long…my doctoral dissertation defense meeting. This would be the last day of the journey that had started 6 years ago.  By the end of this meeting I would have a degree that no one could ever take away from me.

In the back of this room sat my sister, holding my 4-year old daughter in her arms, next to her husband.  They were my special and only guests.  My anchor.  I tried not to look that way…I needed to be focused.

As is customary of dissertation defense meetings, I was asked several questions by this group of professors.  The topic of my dissertation seemed to be of interest to them.  I had done a study focusing on the impact of cross-cultural migration on mental health, using a Dominican immigrant sample.  The professors were curious, they asked more questions, and made some comments.  Overall, they seemed happy.  So far so good.  I looked at my mentor and she smiled.  I sat there, completely present in the moment.  A turning point in my life like no other…

I was asked to leave the room so the committee could discuss whether or not the dissertation had the merit to be fully accepted.  I waited outside of the room.  Quiet, again.  Then, the door opened and my mentor signaled me to come in.  I sat back again on the chair to meet the eyes of those in front of me.  “Congratulations Dr. Perez!”

I finally looked back to my sister.  She had the proudest face a sister could ever have.  And I smiled back, dying to express more.

Final Thoughts…

Those years were and will always be the most defining era of my life.  I learned to face fear, emotional pain and challenge.  I held on to my convictions and kept firm on what was important to me.  I came out of that experience feeling triumphant and strong.  I learned that there is nothing I can’t survive or rise above.

I also learned that life has its own agenda.  Those years transformed me into an incredibly confident woman.  Confidence is sexy.  And it was that sexiness that attracted my wonderful husband, Alain, when we met a couple of years later.

The rest is good history…

My sister and my brother at my doctoral graduation

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Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Dr. Perez-Litwin is the Founder & CEO of ELLA Leadership Institute, a multi-platform professional development organization designed to advance the careers and leadership of women. She's the creative force behind the LATINAS THINK BIG™ national tour, sponsored and live-streamed by Google.

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Comments

  1. Angelica, no se que decir. Me dejaste speechless. Amazing! Qué orgullo! Your article was incredibly touching and very powerful.

    Te felicito de todo corazón. Thanks for allowing us to get a more intimate glimpse of who your are.

    • Angélica Pérez-Litwin angelica says:

      Roxana! Tu siempres me haces tan feliz cuando me visitas por aqui, con tus lindas palabras. No fue facil escribir eso, pero ya hace tiempo que queria escribirlo. Me siento confesada…

  2. Gracias! Unas palabras muy motivadoras! Una gran inspiracion. Todo es posible.

    • Angélica Pérez-Litwin angelica says:

      Asi es, Ericka. Con mucho esfuerzo y enfoque, lo imposible es posible. Gracias por tu comentario y tu visita!

  3. Wow! This is such a touching story. My heart is overwhelmed right now…so much to take in. Your story is inspiring and such a testament to the struggles that so many women go though. What an amazing and supportive family you have! You are truly blessed! Absolutely beautiful! I’m so glad that you shared this! So glad you made it! CONGRATULATIONS!!!

    • Angélica Pérez-Litwin angelica says:

      Thank you, Chantilly! Lots of hard work and, yes, an incredibly supportive family. I am blessed to have them.

      I appreciate your visit and your kind words :)

  4. Mamma Mia! eres mi orgullo. Thank you so much for sharing your story and inspiring all of us to be stronger. You are simply amazing. Love your appreciation of your family. And your dissertation topic sounds fascinating. Bring me a copy next time we see each other.

    • Ana, we all have these stories of challenge and triumph — which is what makes us who we are today. I have always been blessed to have not only my family’s support, but the friendship of women like you, to inspire me and strengthen me…

      I’ll see where I put that damn dissertation :) (By the way, it won an award at Harvard University…)

  5. Beautiful, Angelica. I cannot express the admiration that I have for you. This story has only made it greater. You are such a beautiful inspiration to me.

    Un abrazo fuerte…

  6. Me dejaste sin palabras también. So proud of you. This is such an inspiring story of strength, Angelica. Those conflicting voices you mentioned – you put it into words well – I think most women experience that. I also loved the contrast of you as a student, observing those suffering emotionally and mentally while you yourself identified with them, yet were able to overcome the struggles you faced. Thanks for opening your heart to us and sharing it.

    I also checked out your daughter’s art. So much talent! You must be super orgullosa.

    • Tracy…this shows the power of stories. I had no idea this story would capture people’s emotions the way it has. I’m glad I put it out there…
      And thanks for your kind words about my daughter’s artwork. She is a wonderful person…

  7. Thank you for sharing that wonderfully motivating story. Sisters are wonderful. My sister is my best friend and it’s nice to see the unconditional support you received from yours.

    Your perseverance in achieving you’re educational goals is very inspiring. Congratulations.

  8. Angelica, thank you for “confessing”. This post is so powerful and put some many things in perspective. I knew the story would have a happy ending but getting there is truly inspiring! A great lesson to learn. Gracias de todo corazón por compartir con nosotras.

    • Yoly, yes, it felt like a confession. I have no idea why, because it’s always been a part of my life that I don’t hide. I actually feel very proud of it. Glad to see so many people have enjoyed reading it!

  9. Dioliver says:

    I loved the times that I would care for India while you were working on your dissertation. It was fun just to hang out too. I’ll always remember how confident you looked while you were defending your dissertation. You’ve come a lonnnnng way…and I have as well thanks to your help. Love you Tita!

    • Hey brother, thank YOU for dropping by. Did you see your picture at the end of the post? You look so cute!

      Yes, Dioliver, you babysat a lot and played a lot with India. And that was absolutely and tremendously helpful to me and to India. You’re the best uncle ever!

      Love you so much,
      Angelica

  10. I knew there was a reason why I liked you the first day I met you :)

    As a single Mami, I can understand every word you say. We strive, we push, we truimph for what we know is rightfully ours because we know we are NOT defined by cultural constraints. I applaud you Angelica!

    Abrazos!

    • Hi Migdalia,
      As I have told you many times before, you are an admirable woman and mother. And yes, nothing can define us better than our realities. I applaud you, too, for being exceptional!

  11. Angelica, thank you for sharing..I can relate to so much of what you say..although I may not have the PHD(wepa & congrats to you for your perserverence!), I think life has giving me the PHD of patience, surrendering and fortitude. I have been a divorced/single mom for 14 years with a 7 year relationship (did I say loca relationship?:0) in between those 14 yrs. I am sure we share a lot of stories! I will be sharing some soon…now that my son turned 18, I am ready to share my voice in a new way, it will be a new kind of birth:)..You’ve given me the courage to do it as you have expressed so vulnerably here.xoxo

    • Blanca, yes, please do share whenever you are ready. Stories can be so powerful for others to read and listen to. I look forward to reading yours! And if you ever want to share it here on New Latina, please let me know!

  12. Angelica, this is such an inspiring story. Si antes te admiraba y te apreciaba mucho ahora mucho más! Qué orgullo tener amigas como tú!

  13. What a beautiful story. I ‘m sure you have inspired many women just like you with your story. As a married woman, I can only imagine the hard work single moms must go thru but you have conquered your fears and dove feet first and succeeded. Way to go!

    • Lisa, thank you so much for your comment! Yes, being a single mom is a ton of work, but it can be an excellent opportunity for personal growth.
      Un abrazo,

      Angelica

  14. Beautiful!

  15. I´ve been anxious all day to get a quiet moment to read your post, digest it and comment. I´m glad I waited because it deserved my full attention.
    You opened up your soul to us. You showed us what you are made of. We could already see it, but now you know we see it.
    I have admired you since day one and fall back to you as an example of a poised, focused, goal-oriented guerrera that is the real deal.
    No dejo de admirarte y estar orgullosa de que seamos amigas y cómplices!

    • Angélica Pérez-Litwin angelica says:

      Ay, Ana, you made my day amiga querida. I will admit I never thought anyone would be impressed by this experience. It’s just what women all over the world do, from the small villages in Africa, to the big cities in Mexico. We have a strength that sometimes surprises us. But it is there. It is so there. We just need to connect to it, and keep our head high when the tough gets rough. I see you, too, doing it all, while bringing together a whole community of women in social media. That, is powerful. I’m so happy to have you as my friend…

  16. Wow, Angelica. Just Wow. I could feel your determination and your passion, and the weight of it all. I cried. I cheered.
    Thank you for sharing your story and inspiring so many women.

    • Angélica Pérez-Litwin angelica says:

      My dear Carrie, you got it so right — lots of determination, but so much to carry and deal with at the same time. And while there were plenty of low moments, I never for a second thought I wouldn’t make it. It was an incredible journey. So glad I shared this with all of you. Gracias, Carrie…

  17. Judith Duval says:

    Angelica – this was great!!!! I loved it…I want to read your dissertation!

    • Angélica Pérez-Litwin angelica says:

      Judith, thank you! I’m going to look in my closet or in the garage and see if I find the dissertation :).

  18. Angelica, i’ve admired you since the day we met last year but i had no idea what obstacles you overcame to become the amazing Angelica i’ve gotten to know and respect. Me quedé sin palabras. Ni te imaginas cómo me emocionó tu ” confesión”. I’m so lucky to know you. Thanks for your honesty, your drive, your friendship and for being an inspiration to us. Te admiro más que nunca. Un abrazo enorme, Doctora!

    • Angélica Pérez-Litwin angelica says:

      Jeannette, gracias por tus palabras de admiración y apoyo, de veras. Tu sabes que la admiración es totalmente mutua. Eres un ejemplo perfecto de la mujer que lo hace todo, y lo hace bien. Me hace muy feliz de seamos amigas! Espero verte pronto en una de nuestras conferencias para darte un gran abrazo!

  19. Margarita says:

    Hola Angelica.
    It has been many years since we last saw each other on graduation day from Norman Thomas. I applaud you for your struggles and successes. It is always great to hear of a Latina that, through perseverance and familial support, is able to come out on top. I, too, found myself divorced with a 15 month old child at a very young age. I, too, found the strength and determination to get ahead in life and provide a better life for myself and my daughter. The difference between you and me is that I gave up my dream and found another years later. My struggles were different, but nonetheless very challenging. I am glad to report that I too have a happy ending. Congrats!

    • Angélica Pérez-Litwin angelica says:

      Margarita! Would love to see a photo of you to check my memory! Thanks for visiting over here, and thanks for your kind words. Can you friend me on Facebook?

  20. My girlfriend recommended this blog to me and I am glad she did. Angelica, your story is impressive. I love to hear from people who overcome adversity and accomplish big goals. I guess my one concern would be your point about folding away your personal life into an isolated corner of your soul. It was beautifully written and I can definitely relate. I put myself through college while holding down a 2nd shift job operating heavy machinery. It was the toughest four years of my life and my personal life basically disappeared. I accomplished my goal but I also understand now that life is short and we need to make difficult choices about our time. There will always be a new challenge and never enough time in the day to juggle career, family, and personal time. So, what advice would you have for someone who is driven to achieve, but who also wants to enjoy life and not take the future for granted?

    • Angélica Pérez-Litwin angelica says:

      Hola Joshua, thanks so much for reading this article! And congratulations on your own personal and professional achievement. You mentioned concerned about putting away my feelings at that time. Well, this was a temporary defense, just to get me through the next step. I was fortunate to have a truly amazing family and supportive friends. So, they were always there. Regarding your question on how to balance achievement and life, I would highly advice you gain insight into why achieving is so important to you. For many of us, achievement becomes part of our identity and a source of validation. I took some time to really understand the price I was paying for this type of validation, and it really helped. Today, I live my life based on values that are essential to me: being a good mother, taking care of myself, enjoying life, resting & taking breaks, and being myself. I hope that helps! Hope to see you around here again, Joshua.

  21. You are so inspirational! It is really an honor to know you and be able to call you a friend. All your hard work has paid off and you deserve all the success in the world.

    I emailed your post to my sister as she is a year from her doctoral dissertation defense and I can’t wait to be in that room like your sister was. It’s a day I look forward to so much for her.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Angélica Pérez-Litwin angelica says:

      Hi Patty, Wow! What a nice comment! So we have something in common: a special sister! You must be so proud of her. What area is she doing her doctoral degree in? And, please let her know that I would love for her to guest post here on New Latina, and share her story(ies) on being a doctoral student. Have her get in touch with me.

  22. This post moved me to tears. On behalf of all of us that know these feelings, un abrazo muy fuerte. I am so proud of you. xoxo
    Best,
    Li
    @LaLicenciada

  23. Lisa Renata says:

    You are a woman to be proud of. A Latina Woman at that. You are an example. Very very inspiring Angelica.

    • Angélica Pérez-Litwin angelica says:

      Thank you, Lisa! Yes, we Latina women are full of strength. More than we can ever imagine…

  24. Angelica —

    I loved your story. Your strength, courage and focus through your dream achieving journey is so inspirational.

    I love your website too. Your message of women empowerment is clear.

    You are a true treasure. We’re all very lucky for your existence. Thank you for all your work!

    Irene @SopaLatinanet

    • Angélica Pérez-Litwin angelica says:

      Irene, thank you so much for your comment. I am still in disbelieve with how much this story has touched people. Stories are powerful….

  25. EILEEN CARTER-CAMPOS says:

    As I have recently become familiar to this website, as of last night this was the first article that I read. It was so uplifting as a mom, a teacher, a wife, and someone who still has many goals that I want to fufill. I loved your perserverance, your drive to want more and continue through it all even though you went through a divorce and was a single mom. I envisioned you working on your Phd and your child beside you writing or coloring as well. I was able to relate because although I am married, I often find myself doing work late at night and my children wanting to be close by and that is okay. They get to see their mom working and I believe that this serves as the foundation for their work ethic, as you served for your child.
    I was filled with pride as you walked me through the steps of you receiving your doctorate. I commend you on your new site and your role as a mother. You represent those moms who are working full time and are still able to do a wonderful job at raising their family. You make me EXTRA proud to be latina.

    Thank you for sharing,

    Eileen Carter-Campos

Trackbacks

  1. [...] A Chapter in My Life: Keeping It Together In The Midst of Change [...]

  2. [...] week, I had the honor of meeting Joshua Garriga, who left a very nice comment on a post here on New Latina.  Joshua’s personal story of persistence is quite remarkable.  His [...]

  3. [...] to the hair salon every 8-12 weeks to relax the new natural hair growth is a normal part of many Latina women, of all ages.  The pressure to give in to soft, controlled and straightened hair is often stronger [...]

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