Filling the void: Reflections on A Cup of Ambition's first year
or, turning lemons into lemonade and potatoes into art
Tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of when I published my first article for A Cup of Ambition. In retrospect, it was a precarious time to begin writing a weekly newsletter. It was the peak of the Omicron wave, and I was exhausted from balancing pandemic parenting, a stressful academic job, and launching my own business the previous fall. I had a very full plate, and yet… I had a flurry of ideas swirling around my head that I wanted to sort out. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that— for the first time in my life—I felt compelled to write.
This was strange, because I’ve always considered myself much more of a reader than a writer. I majored in English in college, so I’ve done my fair share of both, but reading is—undoubtedly—my true passion. My relationship with writing has always been a bit more complicated.
When I was in elementary school, I had my heart set on being an author. But when I went to write, I would get lost writing detailed character descriptions—I wanted to unearth every last detail about the people I created (perhaps foreshadowing my future career?) Needless to say, I never got very far with my stories and I soon switched gears, setting my sights on becoming the first female president (I later reconsidered when I learned about Lincoln’s assassination, which conflicted with my other goal at the time—to live to 100).
As I grew up, my interests turned to the psychological realm, and I made it through both a MSW and Ph.D. program, writing increasingly long essays and, eventually, a 357-page dissertation that decidedly destroyed any last shred of desire I had to write for the next seven years. But then the pandemic hit, and after weeks of intellectual under-stimulation, I felt an overwhelming desire to tap into my dormant creative side.
It all started with a potato and a blank wall. There was a large space on my family room wall—between the bookcase and the window—and it need an oversized piece of art. I couldn’t find anything I liked that was reasonably priced, so I decided to make something myself. I went to Michaels’s, bought a canvas and some cheap acrylic paint, grabbed an overripe potato from my counter, and got to work. While singing along to my Spotify playlist (a welcome reprieve after listening exclusively to Frozen 2 and Raffi), I ended up with a presentable piece of “art” and—much more importantly—demonstrable proof of my competence.
Bolstered by the success of my tuber triumph, I continued my brief foray into the visual arts. But the itch to write remained. So, I started writing letters to my kids. They weren’t even 2 and 5 at the time, but I wanted a written record of our shared pandemic experience. My husband is a virologist and a physician, so he spent the first several months of the pandemic essentially living in the lab while the kids and I were on our own. This was simultaneously magical, boring, gratifying and incredibly lonely. Recounting our shared experiences helped me make sense of what we were going through.
And still… as time went on, I felt compelled to write more. I had so many things I wanted to say. I wanted to write about motherhood—particularly working motherhood—and the whole bullshit system that makes it feel so impossible, and the ways we can begin to regain some of our sense of control over it all. But when would I have the time to write that? I didn't even have time to take a shower by myself.
In the summer of 2021, a friend forwarded me a Substack newsletter. I’d never heard of the platform before but was intrigued. By that winter, I was the regular reader of a small handful of Substack newsletters. Over the holiday break, I suggested to my virologist husband that he start a newsletter focused on translating the latest scientific research on Covid for the lay reader. He was completely uninterested, but still I kept pestering. He finally turned to me, exasperated, and said “Jess, why don’t you write a newsletter?”
So I did. I hammered out my first essay fairly quickly, and sent it to a few close girlfriends to review. Before I published it, I asked my husband, “Does anyone actually care about this? Am I just shouting into the void?”
“You’ll never know unless you try. Plus, I feel like you would benefit from shouting right now, regardless.”
It turns out I didn’t find a void. I found a community of fellow working moms and dads (and stay-at-home parents, and childless allies, and grandparents) who craved conversations around these topics in the same way that I did. Over the past year, I’ve deeply appreciated the comments, direct replies, conversations, and real-life relationships that have stemmed from this newsletter. All of this gives me great hope in the collective power of working parents, and I remain inspired.
This isn’t to say it’s been all sunshine and rainbows, of course. I’ve had my fair share of self-doubt, writers block, and disappointments. During our first meeting, I was quick to assure my Substack writers group—filled with career journalists and experienced authors—that I wasn't a real writer. And I’ve come to accept that once a quarter I will inevitably have a mini-existential crisis where I’ll wonder if writing this newsletter is actually worth it (Glenn Cook, a member of my writing group, assures me that this self-doubt cycle makes me very much a “real” writer. 🙃) But, undoubtedly, the good outweighs the bad, and so I keep on writing…
I would be remiss if I ended this post without acknowledging the cast of characters who have helped make this possible:
My husband, who proofreads every issue, brainstorms story ideas, and listens to me yammer on about this project.
My kids, who provide purpose, inspiration, and giggles.
My mom, who is always certain that each week’s post is the best one yet 😉.
My mother-in-law, extended family, and friends (you know who you are 😘) who have offered support, sent along articles, and shared my work.
My Substack writers group, whose thoughtfulness, cheerleading, and willingness to troubleshoot are a godsend.
And, most important to each of you.
So with that, I raise my cup of ambition, currently filled with equal parts gratitude, inspiration, and sweat equity (but actually just lukewarm green tea ☺️) to you, dear reader, and to this little corner of the internet that we’ve carved out together.
Cheers to what’s ahead!