If Kezia Willingham someday were to write an autobiography, the outline of the early stages of her life would look something like this:

• High school dropout

• Raised in a splintered family

• Burdened by a serious lack of self-esteem

• Destined for failure

This isn’t a sob story. There was a time it could have been, but Willingham has made sure it isn’t.

The Albany native and former Corvallis resident is a success story if there ever was one, but her life isn’t marked by glamour. It’s filled with trips to the food bank, the fear of losing her house, working long hours to support her young children and the fear that all she has worked for could come crashing down at any moment.

With all that tumult in mind, Willingham asks, “Is this the American Dream?” in an essay published in the anthology “Torn: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood,” released May 1, by Coffeetown Press in Seattle.

It’s not always pretty, but Willingham’s version of the so-called “dream” lifestyle is a clear upgrade from what she’d grown accustomed to. Motherhood spurred the changes. 

“From the very moment I became a mother at the age of 23, I wanted to improve my lot in life,” she said. “I wanted to finish my education. I wanted to have a middle-class job and buy a house for my daughter to grow up in. I didn’t know how long it would take or how hard it would be to get to this point.”

After an unstable home life and other distractions caused her to drop out of both Crescent Valley and Corvallis high schools, Willingham, now in her late 30s, slowly began to take control of certain aspects of her life and, most importantly, let go of those things she couldn’t influence.

Quickly, the self-doubt and missteps that defined her life became distant memories. In 2001, she graduated cum laude from Oregon State University and landed a job as a social worker in Lebanon before earning her master’s degree from the University of Washington.

Willingham lives in Seattle with her husband and their three children. In “Torn,” her essay paints a picture of how, as the breadwinner, she leads the struggle to stay afloat in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds.

“I want to provide a life for my kids that is rich in encouragement and opportunity,” she said. “I hope to be a strong example for my children like my mom has been for me, despite the difficult terrain that shaped my adolescence.”

“Torn,” in bookstores just in time for Mother’s Day, is filled with essays from moms of every variety. In equal amounts, it’ll make you choke back tears and laugh out loud. (One mom writes of a 5-year-old daughter who stuck a Post-It note to her rear that read: “Der Momy, I dont lik you anemor.”)

Willingham’s story is like that of many moms in the book, marked by happiness and worry. When one considers what she overcame to get where she’s at, it’s easy to see why she smiles now more than ever.

“The one thing the world cannot take from you is your belief in yourself and the future you want,” she said. “It takes time, but if you stay focused, you will get there.”


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