It was hot, the graduation ceremony had been long, but when my mother’s name was called, an energy surged through my body. The air felt electric. “Pomp and Circumstance” rang through the loudspeakers. I was bearing witness to an accomplishment most children do not get to see their parents achieve. I was watching my mother graduate college.

Walking across the stage in her mid-50s, she was almost indistinguishable from the 20-somethings, not merely because of her exceptional genes but because pride, excitement and hope lit her face with a youthfulness I had never witnessed throughout my childhood. I felt as though I was seeing my mother come to life for the first time — stepping into her own personhood after spending a lifetime tending to others.

This day had been 30 years in the making, and witnessing it was so much more powerful than I had expected. I wiped the tears away from my eyes and waited to embrace her as she clung proudly to her college diploma. I congratulated her, hugged her, gave her wine and a homemade cake, but my offerings felt inadequate. I felt as though I owed her penance for the years I had stood in her way.

Beneath the swell of positive emotions, I couldn’t help but feel a sort of guilt. Her graduation was inspiring but also bittersweet. My mother had waited her whole life for this. She had waited because of me.

I had helped her look over her transcripts and pick classes a couple years ago. Her transcripts dated back to a year before I was born. Then they stopped. There was one withdrawn class from when I was a child, then nothing until my adulthood. I would have asked her why, but I knew all too well. I was now a mother to three young kids. Why someone would press pause on their dreams for 20 years made sense to me now.

Motherhood quickly overshadowed my dreams of becoming a writer. Inspiration would strike just as my newborn woke up from his nap. I jotted down notes on whatever paper was nearby, but when I returned to them during a quieter moment that evening, the spark was gone. I stared at a blank screen, daunted by the emptiness — not just on the page but within me. My creative energy was spent from the day of breastfeeding and consoling and carrying around my fussy son.

I had once thought motherhood would complete me. Perhaps it would have if it hadn’t stolen so much from me. I loved being a parent, had longed for it wholeheartedly, but I never expected the way it would devour my energy and creativity. For a while I tried to steal away time to write while my kids sat down to lunch, but then someone would need a glass of milk, their chicken nuggets needed to be cut smaller, they needed more ketchup from the fridge. I would intend to write after tucking them in at night; instead I would end up tidying the living room while my husband clamored for time with me. There was always something that needed to be done. Something that needed me.

I wondered how I was supposed to hold onto my dreams when I could barely hold my eyes open until bedtime. All the snuggles and proud parenting moments could not combat the fact that I was losing myself to parenthood.

I shelved my ambition to write a novel, or even become a writer in any capacity, because motherhood was so consuming. I told myself that I would have time for all my big dreams eventually. The novel I had so passionately worked on during my pregnancy would still be there when I returned. The years I would spend tethered to my children would be gone before I knew it. So much life still lay ahead of me. These sentiments were true enough, and my mother was ample proof of it, but I was using them as a salve to lessen the sting of a dispassionate life. The pain was still there beneath the surface.

I recognized the lifting of that pain as I watched my mother graduate. She had spent my childhood so consumed by motherhood that she never cultivated her own passions. She let her dreams sit for my sake. She walked off the graduation stage lighter, more joyful than the mother I remembered. I found myself wishing I could have seen this side of her earlier, but yet here I was, doing the exact same thing by putting my own dreams on the back burner while I raised my kids. I realized that perhaps letting my dreams lay dormant was not a service to my children after all.

In truth, I knew that motherhood was not stopping me from being a writer. I knew many mothers out there who had followed their professional and creative pursuits. These women were not more privileged than me. They were not necessarily smarter or better writers. They simply wanted it more. They made their passion a priority. They refused to let their dreams wither away, because they knew their dreams mattered — not only to them but also to their children. Motherhood was an easy excuse to not follow my dreams, but it could be an equally strong reason to propel me toward them. That choice was up to me.

My mother’s contagious joy on her graduation day made me see that chasing my dreams was a much better gift to my children than modeling martyrdom through motherhood. Sure they would get a little less of my time and undivided devotion, but in return they would see a mother who lived not just for them but also for herself.

I returned home from my mother’s graduation and pulled down my neglected novel draft from the shelf. I took my laptop behind the closed door to my bedroom, and turned away my children’s requests, redirecting them to their father. I told them I was writing, I was working, and that this was more important than their need for the game they wanted me to grab from the hallway closet. They could play something else. I needed to come first for a change.

Slowly but surely, I am regaining my footing. Fighting for my time and space to write will always be a challenge, but it is worth the effort. Eventually my children will learn that my writing time is sacred. They will learn to respect it. Hopefully, it will teach them to respect their own passions with the same fervor, even if they become parents. I feel the lightness, the joy of a life lived for myself as well as for my children. I have my mother to thank for inspiring me to chase my own fulfillment — one more gift I can never repay her for.