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Babies, Business, Books

| This is the 570th story of Our Life Logs® |

“I don’t think I’ll have any trouble getting pregnant,” I told my coworker, Diana, when she offered to make me a ‘fertility packet'' full of charts/predictors/calendars, etc. Her eyes were bright as bunnies on Easter as if she couldn’t wait to help.

My mother is one of 14 and my father is one of 11. My maternal grandmother gave birth from the age of 19 to the age of 50. Granted, this was before the pill and safe sex were common, especially among people in my grandparents’ socioeconomic class, but come on! I have 35 first cousins on either side of my family tree.

So, when my eager friend suggested I prepare for a possible struggle at 31 years old, I laughed and smugly thanked her anyway.

That was the summer of 2008. This is where my story begins.

At the time, I was the owner of my own creation, Growing Young Café.

Ad from the Spring 2009 issue of WNC Parent Magazine.

Growing Young Cafe was a coffee shop/drop-in child care center and avenue for community education and arts classes, meant to be a haven for moms to hang out, have coffee, and get a break from the stresses of being a mom. We offered child care for up to four hours a day so parents could get haircuts, run to the DMV, have lunch with a friend or spouse, shop, you-name-it, all gloriously child-free.

Or, for those parents who didn’t want to leave their child, just needed someone else to entertain them for an hour or so while they enjoyed a mocha and muffin, uninterrupted and within viewing distance, we did that too. We had easels, a bouncy castle, slides, dress-up, all kinds of toys, and an eager, friendly staff, who were all moms themselves—except for me.

Why did I bring this lovely place into existence before I had a child myself to enjoy it in, you ask? Because I love kids? Yes, but more importantly, because I wanted to create this refuge, get it running successfully, and deal with all the stress of launching it before I entered the scary highway of motherhood. It was sensible, but I had no way of knowing how hard it would be to greet these ebullient mothers daily, serve them coffee, wipe their children’s noses, and read their kids stories while they climbed on my lap and rested their sweet heads on my shoulder. I cleaned up the crumbs their adorable toddlers deposited all over my café floor and sent these mothers on their way, back to their fertile lives.

Still, my regulars told me that this place allowed them to be a better mom. I knew this was an important place; I just wish it had been economically viable as well.

Within a year, it was evident that my skills did not lie in business. Everyone loved the café, but no one wanted to pay to use it. Having more of a George Bailey mentality, I hated the exchange of money and having to tell people they couldn’t camp out all day and buy one cup of coffee while their baby gnawed on my carefully-selected collection of books.

My husband was offered a job in his hometown in Florida, and although I didn’t want to leave my favorite place in the world, Asheville, North Carolina, I knew we needed a way out of the business. We sold it for way less than it was worth and moved to be near family and start our own.

Now comes the hard truth: If you’re not in love with your life, or at least enjoy most aspects of it, it’s not a good time to try and bring someone else into your world. A baby cannot replace a life.

When we first moved to Florida, I hated everything. I had failed at my dream business. I left all my friends behind, and I was living in a place that was unbearably hot nine months out of the year. The town was so brainwashed by football that if you said the words orange and blue in the same sentence, a two-year-old knew to shout, “Go Gators,” with a sickening fist pump.

One lesson I had to learn over the next year was how to go looking for life.

In my first two years in Florida, I took Zumba, Shakira belly-dancing class, started a writing group, joined a book club, saw a number of plays, acted and sang in community theatre, attended author talks by two of my favorite writers, danced at amazing concerts in town and at the beach, took long drives on country roads, saw alligators from ten feet away, and drove through the night to have Christmas in Key West with my husband.

Even though I was finding distractions from my barren situation, I was still planning my life around the remote possibility of getting pregnant. I took a major pay cut as a teaching assistant at a preschool and lost all career ambition. I didn’t want to start something stressful with a lot of commitment, when I could be starting my new life any time.

When it didn’t happen after the first year of trying, instead of reevaluating my life goals, I took an even more dead-end, low-paying job as manager of a coffee shop. It was like I thought if I had nothing else going for me, I’d have to get pregnant because I was putting motherhood first. Bad idea. I started to feel embarrassed when people asked me what I did for a living.

“Why aren’t you teaching?” they’d ask.

And I could only eek out, “I’m just taking a break,” or, “I didn’t want to start something I couldn’t finish.”

What I failed to recognize was that the pregnancy challenge might have also been something I couldn’t finish and would prove to be much more frustrating and demoralizing than the anxiety that comes with handling a classroom full of kids. Infertility changed me. It made me look at myself differently and question my self-worth. I wondered if I could really do what I wanted with my life or if I would be doomed to disappointment.

After the second failed IVF attempt, actually after about a week of crying and screaming at God and cursing the doctors in my head, I decided I needed a plan B. Also, a plan C wouldn’t hurt. I racked my brain for the reason this didn’t work out for me, and I thought maybe the Universe wanted something more from me before I became a mother. Maybe it wanted me to get off my ass and try to make a difference in the world again rather than sling organic coffee to whiny retirees.

I thought about what really excited me the most in my career, and that was talking with kids about great books. The Little Prince, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Where the Wild Things Are—these were the words that fueled my creativity. I wanted to help kids engage with amazing stories and find that escape that saved me when I was in middle school and beyond.

I applied for literally 200 teaching jobs in Gainesville and the surrounding area. I got one interview which I bombed. After a long subbing stint that did not turn into a full-time job, I decided to have a heart-to-heart with the principal to see what I was doing wrong. He recommended I get my Master’s degree. So, I did.

I decided I wanted to be a literary specialist, but it was more marketable to get my Master’s of Education in Reading and hope to make it back to this path. I learned how to teach kids how to read rather than how to help them fall in love with stories. I was again trying to change myself to get close to the job I wanted, but I failed to see that I was circumnavigating my real desire.

During my second semester of hard-core grad school, I finally got an interview for my dream job: middle school language arts at a Montessori charter school in North Carolina. Salivating the entire way, I flew up to Raleigh and delivered the worst model lesson I’ve ever taught in my life. I did a cut-and-paste poetry collage using winter words. In June. The room was pretty much silent the entire time.

When I ran out of ill-fated steam, I looked back at the huddle of teachers observing me in the back and said, “I think I’m finished.” The head teacher stood up smirking and said, “Ya think?”

Miraculously, I got the job, and it was one of the most rewarding times of my life. These kids made me feel accepted for my quirky self in the way I only dreamed of when I was their age. I chewed on our conversations about books for days afterward. I learned something new on a daily basis. I also gave up my hater attitude towards anywhere that wasn’t Asheville. I went on adventures in downtown Raleigh, took hula-hoop and trapeze classes, volunteered at the children’s library, explored fabulous museums, and walked through historic neighborhoods. I opened myself up again to life.

We tried IVF two more times. Ultimately, it didn’t work out for us. We fell “on the wrong side of the statistics” as our doctor informed us. We closed this chapter and moved back to Asheville.

On a hike at Black Balsam, North Carolina off the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Planning a life around a potential baby and not having your vision come true upends you. I was devastated that I’d never had this experience that came so easily to so many people. I felt ashamed and cheated out of the chance to see my own brown eyes in another person; I felt guilty about the fact that my husband’s curls would die with him.

I had to rewrite my entire life to avoid falling into a deep depression. I had to imagine a different version of myself and accept that the old me would never be a reality. As my mother-in-law so plainly and wisely told me over brunch one day after our fourth failed IVF attempt, “You have to get on with your LIFE.”

It took years for me to accept myself as a complete person who was not able to conceive. I know now that I am not less of a person because I can’t have a baby. I’m open now to so many more creative paths than I ever imagined: DJ, voiceover artist, hula hoop enthusiast, travel writer. My life without a child is not a consolation prize. It’s carving out new opportunities that lie in the knots.

I continued teaching language arts and North Carolina history for five more years in Asheville. I loved what I was teaching, and I loved the kids, but I didn’t love the actual day-to-day grind of managing behaviors, dealing with parents, and being on stage for an entire day.

All those years circling around my love of books and exploring new worlds with children showed me that what I really want is to be a writer. The coffee shop was not really about babies, but about a space to create. Teaching literature and history inspired me because I was sharing enchanting stories and discovering the web of people who shaped the place I love the most. I decided to take a break from teaching in order to have time to write my own story.

When the pandemic hit, I was able to finally start writing the children’s book that had been bubbling in my brain for years. I incorporated everything I learned from teaching the life stories of Native Americans, European immigrants, and the journey of African Americans woven into the culture of North Carolina. I put myself and my family into the story, and it has been an incredibly healing process to see how this act of creation will help me to live on past this short, transient life.

There will be no more branches to my family tree, but I will exist in the pages of this book, in the lives of the students I taught, and in the mind of someone in the future who finds connection through my story and feels a little less isolated and a little more known.

This is the story of Tonya Clanton

Tonya started a drop-in child care café and art center as a way to connect to young mothers and give back to the children of her community, all the while, she planned for the day when she would become a mother too. After many years and failed plans, Tonya realized that she was not going to be able to have children of her own. It wasn’t until Tonya began writing again that she realized, accepted, and enjoyed the path of life she was meant to travel.

Tonya taught language arts and social studies for over fifteen years, started her own business, volunteered as a DJ and Guardian Ad Litem, all while she kept writing life stories as she lived them. Tonya is continuing her journey into the writing world and enjoying life with her husband and dog, Lucy.

This story first touched our hearts on March 3, 2021

Writer: Tonya Clanton | Editor: Colleen Walker

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