How One Stay-at-Home Mom Followed Her Dreams to Become a Pilot

By Chaunie Bruisie – Babble.com

Happy but not completely fulfilled in her life after giving up her job to be a stay-at-home mom, MJ Marggraff did the one thing that many of us dream of but never act on — she reached for the stars.

No, literally. She become a pilot and trained for a suborbital mission. As in, space, people.

Marggraff explains to Babble that although she loved being there for her children’s milestones, it was still sometimes difficult to deal with the rather lonely and isolating world of being home alone with young children.

“I found that exchanging the climb up the corporate ladder for showing my son how to climb up stairways was one of the most memorable and gratifying moments of my life,” she says. “I lost on the income side and gained on the love and sharing new discoveries side. But frankly, SAHM compared to the corporate world is often harder, lonelier, and not given the respect it deserves.”

In a way that I know all too well, Maggraff tried to fill her days with busyness, thinking a life filled with carpools and after-school sports and PTA meetings made her a “good mother.”

It wasn’t until the day that Maggraff actually lost her pen-and-paper planner that her life suddenly changed. Her old one was filled with all her obligations, it “defined who I was by what I did and checked off … It was a full schedule but was also empty.” But her new, fresh planner was a blank slate which allowed her a choice: “[Do I] refill it with the same routine? Or rewrite it with a dream? … I thought, what kind of mom goes to flight school? In her forties? Come on.”

That initial hesitation was difficult for Maggraff to overcome, but the dream was always there — burning within her since childhood when she would check out books from the library on airplanes, space, and the stars. She’d watch launches and draw pictures until her family of “terrified air travelers” encouraged her to set aside her dream to pursue more “acceptable careers.” And by the time she had married, had children, and put her career aside, she worried that maybe it was just too late to revisit her dream.

MJ with husband Jim and kids Blake and Annie.

So for a couple of years, Marggraff began by reading about what is involved in becoming a pilot, unsure if she had the “right stuff” to be a good flight student and be a good mother. And after some coaxing from her friends (“it was more like yelling”) to finally do something about it, she enrolled in flight classes when her children were 8 and 10 years old.

Her children had some unusual responses to her decision.

“I’ve never been a very good cook, much to my son’s dismay, so when I announced that I had signed up for flying lessons, he cheered thinking I had said ‘frying,’” Marggraff laughs. “My daughter was very excited. But after they heard some negative remarks about how could I do something so ‘crazy’ I had to address that to allay their fears.”

But in the end, Marggraff believes her decision to take up flying has impacted her kids in a positive way.

“Having a family I value made me study harder to fly safer,” says Marggraff. “I instantly loved flying and wanted to be around for my family, too; these two motivations helped me want to be a smart, safe pilot. I studied like crazy but my flying wasn’t at all done that way. I told them stories about what I saw, the spectacular mountains and rivers below. I also told them that practicing over and over to get the maneuvers right was hard work and that I sometimes made mistakes, but kept trying.”

Marggraff gave herself permission to let her “dreams take flight midlife,” as she tells it in her book, Finding the Wow. Her husband, Jim, also supported her ambitions, even later taking his own lessons to learn how to fly a helicopter. “He appreciated how much time I devoted to learning it, studying for the FAA tests, and persisting,” Marrgraff explains.

Eventually, Marggraff moved her way through a primarily male-dominated field (only 6% of pilots are female) to become a commercial pilot and a mission support assistant, training for sub-orbital spaceflight.

In hearing Marrgraff’s fascinating story and doing approximately nothing even remotely as exciting with my life, I had to ask her: What is it like learning to fly a plane?

“Do you ever have flying dreams, the kind when you’re soaring and feel so good?” Marrgraff replied. “It’s like that — even better. I feel I’m where I’m supposed to be. I never tire of take-offs, feeling the wheels lift from the ground, and watching the earth fall away. In my first months of flying, I thought it was only going to be about physical and mental challenges and lessons. Then it became evident that flying is also spiritual. That was unexpected and exalting.”

She explains that for her, flying became more than just a new skill to be learned — it became an entirely new way for her to look at the world and herself — as a woman, as a wife, and as a mother.

“At first I was scared about learning new maneuvers in the air — steep banks, preventing skids, making the airplane stall — until I realized I had a choice to learn them, all about them,” Marggraff admits. “When I took the unknowns away, the fear diminished, too. The untried became the new experience with a good outcome, and then an amazing new thing happened. A new and undiscovered power inside me began to grow.”

But being hundreds of feet up in the air didn’t mean that Marggraff escaped the inevitable and dreaded condition of “mom guilt.”

“I felt guilty because what I started was so out-of-the-ordinary and I knew there was some chatter about me,” she says. “Someone even asked how I could do ‘such a thing’ when my husband worked so hard. I felt guilty about wanting to do something for myself. Once I reframed the problem I felt less guilty: I could love flying AND still love my family just as much. The capacity to learn something new and the capacity to demonstrate my love for them were compatible, not either/or.”

That discovery — that women can be anything they choose without taking away anything from anyone else — is the kind of message that Marggraff hopes to pass on to future generations. She’s the founder of a new STEM experiment aboard the International Space Station called Space Games, as well as a volunteer at a space museum, where she does demonstrations as a female pilot.

In the end, Marggraff is proof that dreams, no matter how lofty they may be, should never be allowed to die. “They say there are two important days in our lives,” she says. “The day we are born and the day we find out why. Flying is my ‘why.’”