Day in the Life of Mamalode: Angi Dilkes Perry

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It is official: I am a college graduate. Although watching a 37-year-old walk through her final day of college might not be quite what Mamalode Instagram followers normally expect, I volunteered to share because I wanted to demonstrate it is never too late to accomplish a goal. I planned glimpses into my life as a mom balancing a myriad of responsibilities and just a few mentions of school.

Then the whole truth about the significance, for me, of finishing college began flying through my fingers into the tiny keyboard on my phone. My hands shook, I sweated through my dress, I imagined various people in my life reading my honest words, and I felt terrified. But I kept writing.

As mamas, we make a lot of choices out of necessity. But more often than not we make choices because we put the interests of our kids above all else.

This is where finishing college collides with mothering; I dropped everything because my son mattered more. For 15 years, the story I told myself was cruel; I said I quit because it got hard. It was hard but that’s not why I chose a different path. My path transformed because I chose him.

Through the #dayinthelifeofmamalode process, I received the gift of a full-circle moment I didn’t know I needed. I walked the path of my 21-year-old self, between the Oregon Capitol and the campus of Willamette University, directly across the street, and I felt wounds I didn’t know I still carried begin to heal. Even now, weeks later, tears are again spilling down my cheeks. It was an honor to share my story, to read I’m not alone; to display it is never too late. And I am grateful.

Here is Angi's #dayinthelifeofmamalode series:

Good morning. My name is Angi and I'm excited to be your next day in the life participant. I live in a small town south of Portland, Oregon with Bill, my husband of nearly 10 years, and our sons Steven (15) and Nick (7). I work as a lobbyist from my home office when the legislature is not in session and make a daily trek of 45 minutes to the state Capitol when they are. I'm awake, mostly, as I work to follow the lead of many writers I admire, most recently words by @clairebidwell about being able to breathe again after writing in the morning. 

Over my suburban neighborhood, the morning sky lightens. I'm standing outside to feel the chill in an effort to shake my nerves. Today marks a significant milestone (in addition to writing here!) along my long and winding journey toward earning a college degree. I enrolled at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon just after high school and although I attended for four years, I did not earn a degree. When I travel to Salem later this morning, it will be for my final day of classes as an undergraduate student. 

Meet Nick. He's my seven-year-old ball of fire. He loves fiercely, cares deeply, and can be distracted for what feels like an eternity by something as small as a piece of lint when we are trying to get out the door. He's currently standing in front of the bathroom mirror, teeth brushed, fighting an imaginary opponent with masterful martial arts moves. He attends a Spanish immersion school and although he is teetering on the edge of fluency, he often tells me he hates school. I see him mirror my fear of failure, which makes me want to fail harder so he can see it is okay to try.

@adonnrowley recently wrote a blog post about the importance of sharing our stories. It made me rethink my approach for today and I'm going to share the real story of my early college experience, rather than the glossy version I tell at cocktail parties. The Willamette University campus is serene, well-maintained, and ensconced in an invisible bubble. When I arrived at age 18, I didn't know what to expect but I never imagined anything but graduating. Somewhere along the way, I let my fear and the intimidating world I encountered get the best of me and I started making backup plans. I married my first husband between my sophomore and junior year and found out we were pregnant later that fall. I was 20. Marrying young, let alone becoming a young mom, was never my plan but there I was. I pretended to be nonchalant about my growing belly but felt increasingly out of place as I walked around campus. During the spring of my junior year, I stopped attending classes and instead traveled to the local library and consumed novels on a nearly daily basis. I left home at the normal time and I came home at the normal time, pretending I was still in school. 

Born in June of 1998, my son Steven saved me. Before my water broke, I was lost, afraid, and unsure. After I held him in my 21-year-old arms, I knew I had a purpose. I didn't hesitate, I dove head first into my new reality. I ignored the funny looks and the pediatrician commenting about my age and introduced him to family and friends with pride. My boy went everywhere with me and in August I returned to campus with a renewed dedication. Thanks to the generosity and grace of sorority sisters, to whom I owe an enormous debt for babysitting Steven while I attended classes, I completed the semester. He also traveled with me to work, where I was learning the ropes at a small lobbying firm. Shortly after the beginning of the final semester for my classmates in 1999, however, I dropped out again. I knew I wasn't going to graduate, a legislative session had begun, and Steven needed me. For 14 years, every single time I walked out of the back doors of the Oregon Capitol, I viewed campus across the street and I ached.

Along the way, life was good to me. I divorced Steven's dad and moved back in with my incredibly supportive parents for a year, making choices along the way that not everyone would've made. I survived being fired (the divorce process tried to do me in but I didn't let it). Steven loved me with his whole heart and I loved him with mine. We often shared a bed during that year, as one of us (okay, it was usually me) would migrate across the room in the middle of the night. A friend turned into something more and we married in 2004; our son Nick completed our family in 2006. Professionally, I worked incredibly hard to establish myself in the tough world of politics. As a result of my college experience, I always felt like I needed to prove my worthiness. Kind, thoughtful people helped me just because. Steven spent enough time with me in the Capitol halls to be regularly recognized by my fellow lobbyists. A dear friend hired me to serve on the staff of former Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, where I worked as Legislative Director and Deputy Chief of Staff. Still, though, deep down, the wound from dropping out wouldn't heal.

When my dear friend, the one who offered me the opportunity to work for the former Governor (an amazing gig, I must say) asked me when I was going to get around to finishing my degree, I stuttered and stammered and sweated, much like I did today as I wrote the difficult parts of my college story. (Yes, it is gross. I know. But also kind of hysterical.) I nearly immediately applied to attend a state university through an e-campus program, thinking it would be a faster and less expensive route to completion. Two years later, in 2011 with the finish line still impossibly far away, I quit again. I felt helpless and restless and instead accepted what I thought was my dream job, a corporate gig outside of politics, but that required a nearly three hour daily commute plus attendance at frequent non-profit evening events. I found out, soon after starting, my same-age cousin's brain cancer was no longer contained; it was terminal. Watching her struggle for nearly a year resulted in my burning desire to reconsider everything.

After a friend (originally a fellow Willamette student) approached me about joining his burgeoning lobbying firm late in 2012, I felt as if the universe was offering me a new path. He has four precious daughters and a wife he adores and believes in working hard until the work is done and then enjoying life. As an added bonus, he knew my college story and was supportive when I said I wanted time to work toward my degree sometime in the future. My cousin died on December 18, 2012 and my last day at the corporate gig was December 31st. The new year brought a clean start in a comfortable environment, a new legislative session. My grief at times consumed my every waking moment; the sadness seemed insurmountable. One day, after a crying jag in a bathroom on the third floor, I impulsively sent an email, requesting a conversation with someone in admissions across the street. The black line in this photo, next to the garbage can, in the Rotunda of the Capitol, is the bench where I sat a few weeks later to talk to the Registrar at Willamette. I told her bits of my story and asked if it was possible for her to review my transcripts to determine what it would take for me to return to the place I started and earn a degree.

After multiple conversations and emails, the University agreed to readmit me under the rules in place when I originally attended. They told me how many classes I needed to take and, uncharacteristically, I asked them to reduce the number. They said yes. I needed five classes. No more excuses; I was going back to school. My family cheered and so did the friends I told, not many in the beginning. I didn't want to make a big deal in case I failed again. Luckily for me, and there's a theme here, my friends wouldn't let me back away. I started one final time last August. The only non-traditional student in any of my classes, I feared a negative reaction from my 20ish-year-old classmates. To the contrary I found them to be accepting, intelligent, passionate, and funny. These two, Annie and Emily, were my group for a quantitative methods class this semester and they rock. I'm extraordinarily hopeful about our collective future because of students like them.

As I walked away from the classroom and from one final conversation with a beloved professor this afternoon, I felt my chest tighten. Pushing open the door, I gulped fresh air as my eyes welled with tears. Hysterical laughing/crying ensued as I stood and soaked in the emotions of the moment. “I did it,” I whispered.

Nick talks on the phone to the other half of our family. Bill invited Steven to tag along on a work trip to Washington, DC and these are my handsome guys from the other side of the country tonight. Steven is close to six feet tall, nearing the end of his sophomore year, a soccer player, avid reader, and thoughtful old soul. Bill is the most supportive and encouraging husband with whom I could hope to spend my days. Together with Nick, my date for a celebratory dinner tonight, they made it possible for this day happen.

Well, my friends, it is time for me to collapse into a puddle of mush, to say goodnight. I anticipated some emotions but the magnitude bewildered me. I didn't intend to write long descriptions each time (although my little brother says I always use too many words) but my story poured forth and I feel relief after letting it out into the world. Thank you for indulging me with what ended up being a cathartic and incredibly healing day. With your encouragement, I walked the path with my younger self and we made it, together. The official graduation ceremony will occur, fittingly, on Mother's Day, and I will not only walk but I will dance across the stage. With vast gratitude, and with hope to meet each of you again some day, I am @adilkesperry for @mamalode #dayinthelifeofmamalode

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Erin Britt

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