Navigating the balancing act of motherhood to find your true self.
Photography & Editing: Tamara Boxx
Amber Richardson’s photo popped up on my laptop screen. Her hair was in a bun and her baby was in her lap as she rocked side to side in a soothing motion. There she was, the picture of motherhood. She was a modern-day masterpiece, organized chaos framed within a 19-inch screen just staring back at me warmly. You could tell she was more excited than nervous as she adjusted in her chair, trying not to disturb the baby boy in her arms.
I remember those days – sweet memories wrapped in soft blankets and endless belly kisses. I used to walk into my daughter’s room to check on her, and she would crack an eye, and I would freeze. For some reason, this is the standard issue action for all new parents. Our brains automatically go into fight or flight, and we choose to be a statue, convinced our infants to have T-Rex vision and could sense movement. But I digress.
This was the real world—the reality of motherhood – kids over comfort any day. But, come to think of it, that is precisely how I would describe Amber’s last few years.
After her interview for this piece, I felt the need to take a deep breath. Not in a bad way, but from the overwhelming stress I could relate to from various periods throughout my own life. I felt the struggle and anxiety every time she looked away, like she was watching clips of her past. I felt it. I saw it. I related to it. I knew the look on her face because I saw that in the mirror a time or two.
“You have this vision in your head of what your life is going to be like. All planned out neatly in front of you. Like, this is when I’m going to get married and have kids and so on. However, that is not how life works. It is, in fact, the opposite,” she laughed.
In her early twenties, Amber was still exploring her professional options. She knew early that she wanted to be a mother and wife, but professionally she was at a crossroads. Nothing was quite fitting… that is until 2011.
Marco Island Academy was a brand new school in Marco Island, Florida, just in its infancy when Amber joined the staff. The school was brand new, and she was part of this exciting period when the structure was being built and standards were being set.
This new adventure and growth were like a flame for a moth, and Amber threw herself into work. Within three years, she was promoted to Co-Assistant Principal. Her role took a serious turn. She consumed her time by creating a new academic legacy for the students, community, and her resume.
“It was a huge and challenging experience, but one of the most rewarding. To be part of that school’s transformation from where it was to where it is today is amazing.” The following year she became the only Assistant Principal at the Academy, so working 10-12 hour days was the norm, and her personal life was decidedly on the back burner.
But like most of our stories, a significant other comes in a thoroughly disrupts the flow. A lovable speed bump on our road inevitably uprooting our plans, and we end up on a completely new path. Cest la Vie.
In 2014, Amber met her husband Bobby, and by January 2015, the two were married and expecting not long after. It had always been a dream of hers to be married and have children, but she went from single and streamlined to married with children super fast, and the adjustment period was chaos, to say the least.
When school started again, it was a massive challenge. Days were long and holidays were there, but not really as Assistant Principal. You are always on and always in demand.
“It was important, the work we were doing, educating and preparing these young adults for the future,” she said. But the balance between motherhood and professional success was slowly teetering towards chaos. She became a master at compartmentalizing her time and actions, she became almost robotic to become as efficient as possible. I think we can all relate to the need to feel like we can take it all on and still be Supermom. I think sometimes we end up tripping on our cape.
The demand for Amber’s time and attention was constant, and the guilt she was feeling for not being around a lot was creeping into her mind and focus. In the beginning, her family was there to assist her with childcare, but after about six months, it was time to shift to a more permanent plan. It was time to discuss Daycare. “I had a hard time with leaving Rhett at daycare. I felt terrible that he was often the first one there and the last one to leave.” Her voice cracked a little when she uttered those words and she again drifted to some distant memory that she almost seemed to shake as she came back and focused on me.
She found herself locked in a dance between work and family, not willing to give an inch on either. Instead, she and her husband put their noses down and eventually found a rhythm, although it was a mechanical one. Though still shaky, Amber felt the foundation beneath her feet begin to firm once more.
Then, enter the feather that tips the scale. Enter, her daughter, Reese.
Amber always knew she wanted to have multiple children because she felt the sacred bond between siblings was something that her children should have. “My sister Nikki is my rock, my best friend, my person, and I knew I wanted my children to have that special relationship. I am even luckier because I have two other siblings along with Nikki, so I know how important that environment is,” she smiled.
This family bond would come to play an important role in the coming year that promised to be one of the most challenging of all.
It all happened in a Panera Bread drive-through, when Amber answered an unknown number at 7pm, a most unusual action for her. But for some reason, she answered.
It ended up being her doctor and she told her that she needed to call her back when she got home to her husband. Amber had just gone to the OBGYN for a pre-natal screening and she knew something was wrong.
She called her sister Nikki, crying into the receiver all the way home spiraling down an emotional tunnel. Every possible scenario went through her head at lightning speed as the lump in her throat almost cut off her ability to breathe. When she was finally able to speak to the doctor, she was told that her tests came back 97% positive for Trisomy 21, or Down Syndrome.
“My immediate reaction was relief! I thought I was losing the baby so this was like, “whew” we’ve got this,” she smiled fondly.
Amber and her husband knew they needed to be very open and discuss any fears and concerns they presently had. There were a lot of fears, but the feeling was mutual. They were going to love this child come hell or high water.
On her second visit to maternal-fetal medicine, they discovered that Reese had a heart condition, which was not uncommon with babies with Down syndrome. It was completely unknown just how Amber and her husband were going to navigate this new path, but they would do it together and with the support of family.
When Reese came into the world, I don’t think anyone really knew how much she was going to change their lives. You have never seen a family go cute-a-tonic simultaneously until you’ve seen this family around Reese.
Reese became the “rhythm disruptor” as Amber called her, and life went into true overdrive with no room for overgrowth. “One thing Reese did for me is that she snapped my priorities in line real quick. She made me realize what is important and that helps to trim away and prune that garbage that we tend to hang onto.”
The fear of not being the perfect mother and never being enough melted away. There wasn’t room for it, there was only room for positive and proactive action.
“That year was hard. Reese was born at the beginning of October, right at the start of a new school year. She was in the NICU when she was first born, from complications with her lungs – and then in March, she had her open heart surgery,” Amber sighed. She looked tired just thinking about it. “I was mechanical at that point, because I was constantly physically on demand. I was in pure survival mode.”
To get through this she knew she needed her family. They were her community. They were the sunshine that allowed her clouds to melt away. You see, her family took Amber’s situation and made it their own. And this allowed her to find her footing once more and reset. The rhythm disruptor became part of the orchestra and life was an organized, chaotic mess once more.
Then, the Earth shook.
Amber’s mom was a huge part in helping her through this transitional period. She was a selfless woman who put all others ahead of herself. When Amber returned to work, it was at the end of the school year – prom, graduation, testing, and planning for the upcoming year all happened at once, so it was a welcome break when the last day of teacher planning was upon her.
It was a Thursday and everything was routine as usual. She picked Reese up from her mother’s, not knowing that this would be the last time she would see her. Amber didn’t speak to her mother on Friday, which was unusual since a tradition for Amber was to talk to her mother at the end of every school year. Still, there was nothing out of place. That Sunday, she got the call that her mother had passed away at home.
“There are no words to describe the loss,” Amber looked off. “She was my best friend and my rock. We talked all the time and to lose that was devastating.”
The week of July 4th was her mother’s burial service, and Amber took that week off to reflect on her life. It was at that moment she decided that her new role was full-time mom. “They can replace me at work. I can’t and don’t want to be replaced at home.”
In October of 2019, Amber bid The Marco Island Academy farewell and began her journey as a full-time mother. She wanted to step away from the unknown and enjoy the flexibility that being at home gave her. It was time to explore her love of writing in a new capacity, to share her own stories and wisdom with people, to make an impact.
Not long after Amber left the professional scene, COVID consumed the planet and everyone’s plans were put on hold. Yet out of the darkness of a global pandemic comes opportunity. In August of 2020, Amber began writing for a brand new digital publication, that’s right – LUXYMOM®. This new opportunity allowed Amber to recant her stories and lessons in a creative way.
“When is the last time you reflected on life and appreciated how much we have grown from who I was to who I am. I’m still here. There is a lot of significance there. That is why I love connecting with people,” she said.
Amber is a woman who has learned the art of existing in two worlds while remaining herself. For her, the saying that you never know what you can handle until it happens is an understatement. Yet she managed to find a way to bring balance into her life by letting go of the weight of doubt and moving with life like the currents in the ocean. She uses each experience as a learning opportunity and has accepted her magnificence as being a true navigator of organized chaos.