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Ambitious Women: Meet Nancy Schatz Alton

Yep, that's me

Published on: May 29, 2018

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Nancy Schatz Alton
The author. Photo courtesy of Nancy Schatz Alton

What does having ambition mean when you’re a woman? When you’re a mom?

In May 2018, ParentMap is taking an up-close look at how five women think about ambition.

Every week, we’ll publish a short Q&A with an ambitious woman. Who’s that exactly? She’s a mom with big dreams — for her family and for herself. 

Last one: Nancy Schatz Alton. Yup, that’s me. (Read the firstsecondthird and fourth installments.)

I’m a part-time freelance writer, editor and creative writing teacher. I live on lower Phinney Ridge/East Ballard with two teen daughters (16 and 13), my husband Chris and my dog Indu.

What does ‘ambition’ mean to you?

Ambition reminds me of riding the metal playground ponies at my elementary school and dreaming of being a writer. I imagined the first words of my first book while pumping my legs. My ambition is about my strong desire to spend my time reading and writing and to see my name in print. When people tell me I’m lucky that I got to follow my passion, I tell them it’s almost like I didn’t have a choice. My need to create is overwhelming and powerful.

What’s a habit you have that helps make it all go?

I give myself time to do my own writing at the beginning of my work day, usually poetry but sometimes essays. I don’t always get to do this, but it helps keep me centered. Writing poetry is the highest form of self-care for me and it makes me a better parent. Because if I am honest, my other huge ambition is to parent my daughters well and I need time to write (and read) for this to happen.

Also: Writing gratitude lists in the morning and before bed and when I am in foul moods. Sometimes I write five lists in one day. I usually email these lists to my best friend and she emails me her lists, too. I am a huge fan of reframing and it’s how I get through the long days of toggling between working, parenting and being a partner to my husband. 

Why do you do the work that you do?

I do the work that I do because it feeds me (and give me paychecks so we can pay for groceries, too). It gives me so much pleasure to interview people, to learn new things that help me and in turn may help my reader. I like to think that sometimes my articles give a small piece of information to a person who really needed that small piece of information. Sometimes that means helping someone cry because they read an essay that I wrote. But that sounds so heady and egocentric. The truth is when I am have written a poem that really speaks to me, I am filled with unbridled joy. It’s the same joy I felt while writing poetry as a kid. 

Teaching writing also sustains me. I teach kids between the ages of 5 and 16, and it’s a delight to talk about words with them. I also am madly in love with the analytical brain, and watching the wheels turn in my students’ brains is pure magic. Also, I feel like all that parenting time I put into raising my own kids is being put to beneficial use in the classroom. I might flinch when my own kids throw fits, but when my students do, I'm like, 'I've seen this before; carry on.'

If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be and why?

It’s okay that you aren’t confident enough to apply to graduate school to get an MFA and become a poetry professor. You’ll become a good writer and an author anyway. 

And as for parenting: It’s okay that you don’t always know what you are doing. That saying, that we do better when we know better, don’t use that saying to beat yourself up for not knowing better before. Love your difficult traits because you’ll need to love those difficult traits in your daughters, too. Focusing on the love you have for your daughters and husband will always help in those hard moments.

How has your ambition changed since you’ve had a kid? 

My ambition to be a writer has never dimmed. My need to make money has thrown a wrench in my self-esteem and tainted my ambition in some ways. I didn’t realize that my ambition to raise my daughters well and my desire to be with them as often as possible would mean I’d have to struggle to fulfill my writing dreams. And I never thought I’d write about parenting. In fact, the day an editor asked me to write for ParentMap was the same day I told a friend I didn’t want to write about parenting because I was already living it. But researching and writing about it has helped me at home.  

It's been interesting to continue to struggle to figure out the balance between working and being with my kids. My youngest was diagnosed with severe developmental delays when she was in kindergarten. This was right after I cowrote two books and I yearned to write another or go back to working in an editorial office. But my place was right with my daughter, carting her to up to six tutoring sessions during the school days for five years. I’d complain to my husband about wanting to work more and he’s gently tell me, ‘What you are doing is noble.’ It never felt noble; it often felt hard. 

But you know what? Learning how to support her and build a solid relationship with her had taught me more about being a good human than anything else. 

And now that my oldest is almost done with high school, my urge to be with her is stronger than ever. Of course, her urge to be with me wanes. She is super glad I am passionate about my work.

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