Last September, after sixteen years of having a child at home, I watched my youngest trudge up the stairs of a big yellow school bus, his backpack filled with the accoutrements of all-day Kindergarten. I’d never cried when my other three children had gone to Kindergarten — they were ready, I was ready — but this time was different. Not only was my youngest son my baby (could he really be ready?) but his leaving represented a significant shift in my life as well. My kids were all in school. I’d entered the next phase.
Many of my closest friends are entering this next phase as well, and every single one of us has been faced with the question, “Now what?” It’s not that mothering is any less intense now that our children are older; the emotional demands, especially, are more taxing than ever before. At my house, the weekday hours between 3:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. can be absolutely bonkers, and I often fondly remember the days when all my children were tucked into bed by 8 o’clock. But the constant physical demands, the often minute-by-minute busyness that can engulf a whole day (so much so that all you can do once the kids are tucked into bed at 8 p.m. is retreat to your bed too) were in my rearview mirror. I had a little time to myself; a little quiet. And I knew what I wanted to do with it: work part time outside of the home for pay.
Looking around me, I see that most of the women I know who are in my phase (or past it) have chosen to work in some way, shape, or form while their children are out of the house. Some women choose to work outside the home in a volunteer fashion, throwing themselves into the PTA or investing hours each day teaching early morning seminary. Some intensify their efforts as homemakers–gardening, cooking, organizing their homes in ways that invite the spirit and allow the second half of their chaotic days to run more smoothly. Some focus on bettering themselves intellectually by going back to school, or physically by training for a marathon, or spiritually by delving into the scriptures–all with a level of intensity that wasn’t possible when the children were small and needed constant attention. And some choose not to put their children on the big yellow school bus at all, instead opting to home school. Finally, some of us choose to work for pay, out of necessity or desire or a mixture of the two, either part time or full. All of us will work during life’s second half; the questions is, what will that working look like?
That question — the big “Now what?” — is fraught. It’s difficult. And many women in my phase of life are quite thrown by it, myself included. The truth is, we get a lot more guidance regarding what we should do with our twenties and thirties than what we should do with our forties and beyond (from both the Church and the world at large), and while this opportunity to choose more freely can be a wonderful thing, choices can be terrifying too. Many of us also prepared ourselves for the choices of early adulthood (will I go to college? marry? have kids? stay home when they’re young?), making decisions as far back as middle school that helped set us on the path to make those choices more easily. But women in their forties often find themselves a little stranded, either by life circumstances (the necessity of working when one wishes to stay home; the desire to work outside the home but no college degree or work experience to help ease one’s way back into the workforce) or simply by fear (what if I make the wrong choice? what will people think of me if I choose xyz? what if I fail?).
If there’s one thing I’ve learned while navigating this phase of life, and watching others navigate it too, it’s that we need to prepare to choose what to do with the second half of our lives. Could life circumstances get in the way and make it difficult, or almost impossible, to live out our choices in the way we imagined? Of course. But the same thing was true of our early adulthood as well: we were encouraged to plan to go to college, or get married, or start a career, or have children, even when those outcomes weren’t assured. We need to do the same with the second half of our lives as well.
The question is this: what do YOU want to do with the rest of your life?
I’ve been lucky in some ways. I accidentally made decisions early on that have helped me do what I want to do right now. My going back to school and getting a Master’s when my kids were small truly was accidental: I needed to get out of the house for at least a few hours a week; there was an MFA program that allowed me to take one class a semester; my husband and I agreed that it was okay to take out student loans for what some people would view as a frivolous degree. I didn’t do any of this because I was planning for my future; I did it for my mental health in the present. But, lo and behold, getting a Master’s ended up helping me find a job that works well for me at this stage in my life: teaching college English part time as an adjunct. But it hasn’t been easy. After moving from Utah to Minnesota, my spotty resume made it difficult for me to get my foot into the door and it took me over a year and a half to find a job. Choosing to spend my time at home with my kids is something I’ll never regret and I’d never change, but it did have an impact on my ability to find work when I wanted it in ways that frankly surprised me. (It shouldn’t have surprised me. But it did.) I often wonder what I would be doing now if I hadn’t stumbled into that MFA program. I’m sure I would still find my way, but the path would have been even harder.
So here’s a little advice. If you’re young, thoughtfully consider what you want the second half of your life to look like. Ask yourself: what do I need to do now to make that transition easier? If you’re married and have young children and want to spend the second half of your life doing unpaid work (volunteering, church service, homemaking) what choices can you make now to help that vision come to fruition? What can you and your husband do to facilitate living on one income into retirement, a prospect that is becoming more and more difficult–although it’s certainly not impossible. It’s also worth considering what you would do if your life circumstances changed and you had to go out into the working world: what kind of paid work would you like to do if you had to, and how can you prepare for that possibility? Be honest with yourself here, and consider all the hard questions like the limits of your husband’s career (and pay) prospects, the state of your marriage, your husband’s health, the needs of your children as they grow and go out into the world. Then there are people like me, women who know that they want to work outside the home in some capacity even if it’s not an absolute necessity. What should you do, even a little bit at a time, while your children are small to prepare for this transition? Should you freelance a little? Keep your foot in the door somehow? Go back to school at night?
If you’re not young — if you’re my age or older and still struggling with the “what now?” question (and I haven’t stopped struggling with it, to be clear) — here are a few things I’m learning as well. First, it’s never too late. We all have different circumstances and constraints. We don’t have an array of choices laid out before us like we might have at 20. But we can always choose something; even choosing not to choose is a choice (but rarely a good one). So don’t be afraid to choose mindfully. Pray, seek the guidance of the Spirit, stop worrying so much about what others will think. Some of us worry about what others think if we choose to work, while others worry about what others will think if we choose to stay home, but do your best to own your choice and move forward with confidence.
I’d love to hear from the rest of you. How do you see (or have you seen) the second half of your life playing out? If you’re young, what choices are you making now to facilitate this choice? If you’re a little bit past young, what do you wish you would have known or done when you were younger to prepare for this phase of life?