The Power of Redefining Ourselves
Can you hear it? The dreaded questions you will answer 100 times at the next social gathering (whenever that might be). “Hi. Who are you? What do you do?” The way we answer often reflects our well-defined identity; one that is stated with authority and conviction. For me, it was “Dr. Ashley Wellman, professor, scholar, and advocate.” If it was an intimate conversation, I added “mother” and “wife.” It’s funny how we ground ourselves in what we do and how quickly that becomes our security blanket. But what happens when life starts to unravel? As a professor specializing in trauma, grief, and violent victimization, I thought I knew. I had no idea.
Flashback to 2016. My husband and I naively tried for a second baby; confident it would be “easy.” Four miscarriages later, I was a shell of the mother and wife I wanted to be. I had achieved the holy grail of academia: tenure. Still, happiness was out of reach. Recognizing I was struggling mightily, my husband suggested a change of scenery.
In the summer 2018, after many sleepless nights, internal battles, and two polar-opposite job offers, I moved my family to Fort Worth. Despite a significant career sacrifice, I had more optimism and excitement than I had felt in forever. The future was ours, and The Greatest Showman soundtrack became a loop of anthems for our hopes and dreams.
Weeks later, the day before I started my new job, the sound of breaking glass would shatter my world. On August 12, 2018, I rushed downstairs to find my husband unresponsive. Our daughter, then 4, screamed, “Save my daddy! Help him, mommy!” The next 90 minutes included a 9-1-1 call, chasing an ambulance to the ER, witnessing CPR, coaching him to live, and begging medical professionals to save his life. At 4:30 pm the doctor yelled, “Stop!” My dreams disappeared, and I instantly became a widow and single mother with a grieving baby. As I kissed him goodbye, I made a seemingly impossible promise to create a magical life for our daughter.
Those first couple of months were a blur. I was fighting to find purpose and peace in a life that felt like a nightmare. At night, I sat in an empty, dark condo just feet from where my husband died. I turned to creative writing to fill the quiet. A simple picture of my daughter dancing with her “best friend” served as my inspiration. The image captured her love for Fresno, a poseable plastic skeleton meant to be a prop in my office. At age two, she had named him, which as we all know means we were keeping him. Fresno the Skeleton had become a staple in our family – taking naps, going on trips, and attending special events. The innocence in the way she viewed Fresno inspired me. Something that so many would deem scary was, to her, incredibly special. I started to write about their precious bond.
As I returned to work, I thought I would find comfort in my “normal” routine. Truth is, grief had altered my world and my place in it. I could not return to the “old me” or the “old life” that I so desperately craved. I was exhausted. I had little left to give. Then it hit me. We control our own destiny, our worth, and our story. What if creative writing, a tool for healing, could help me find life’s magic too?
I partnered with the brilliant artist (and FWAFA alum), Zachary Thomas Kinkade, to write and created my first children’s book, “The Girl Who Dances with Skeletons: My Friend Fresno.” It’s the story of my daughter, Reagan, and her best friend, Fresno. A celebration of unlikely friendships, the book reminds us that we are perfect just being ourselves, our differences make us special, and that we are better together. At age six, my daughter is my muse, cheerleader, and favorite business partner. Through my small business, we plan to use the My Friend Fresno series to spread messages of inclusion, acceptance, and love.
Now, when asked “who are you?” there is so much to say. I am terrified, brave, imperfect, empathetic, valuable, and passionate. I am pursuing a life of purpose, happiness, and health. I am an author, mother, educator, advocate, and friend. The truth is, we can be WHOEVER we want if we are brave enough to create her!
Mama, gift yourself the messages we tell our children: new things are exciting, I believe in you, and you are enough. Life doesn’t always follow a beautiful script, but beautiful things can happen when we trust ourselves to rewrite the story.
“The Girl Who Dances with Skeletons: My Friend Fresno” is available for preorder now (ships October). Shop and play at www.myfriendfresno.com. Enter TANGLEWOOD20 to save. Follow our whimsical journey @MyFriendFresno.
Dr. Ashley Wellman is a criminologist specializing in trauma/victimization. She has published numerous academic articles on unsolved murders, homicide survivors, and sexual assault. She frequently appears as a media expert/television commentator and serves as an advocate for families impacted by violence. As a widow and single mother, she is rebuilding and redefining her life. Now, as author of the My Friend Fresno children’s book series, she is creating a life of full of magic for her family while spreading a message of love, acceptance and friendship. Above all, her greatest title is that of mother to her 6-year-old daughter, Reagan. For more about Ashley: www.ashleywellman.com