Choosing to Work During Life’s Second Half

choicesLast 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?

About Angela

(Advisory Board) grew up in Utah, then moved to Minnesota, then came back to Utah, then packed up her husband and four kids and moved to Minnesota--again!-- in the summer of 2010. Although she loves the Land of 10,000 Lakes, she dearly misses Slurpees, Sunday dinners at her Mom's house, and eating a whole entire Cafe Rio pork salad while lunching with her Utah-based Segullah sisters. And yes, she finds it telling that everything she misses about her hometown is somehow related to food. She has an BA in English from BYU, an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, and has taught writing to high school and college students.

23 thoughts on “Choosing to Work During Life’s Second Half

  1. The 1 point I don’t get is “now I can work since all my children are now in school”. (I’m not referring to women who are the sole providers for their family.) In my state, school’s in session somewhere around 185 days/year. What is happening with these children whose mothers have jobs that aren’t on the same schedule as theirs? That’s a lot of days in a year with no mother during the day. Daycare? Babysitters? On their own? My Relief Society lesson this week is on “I seek not my own will, but the will of the Father”. Perhaps question #1 should be ” what is Father’s will in regards to my children” and then question # 2 – What is His will concerning me.

  2. Lynn, I understand what you’re trying to say, but I, for one, took my decision to work part time very seriously and sought guidance and confirmation through prayer. God wants us to do his will, and he also wants us to seek and choose depending on our personal needs and life circumstances. Do not assume that women who work are going against God’s will. God confirms all sorts of righteous choices (not all righteous choices look the same) and, in my experience, even directs and assists women who desire to work outside the home.

    And as far as the question about what mothers who work are doing with their children during the days they’re off school? I’m sure the answer to that question varies widely from situation to situation. All I know is that plenty of women I love and admire occasionally leave their children to be looked after by others (a spouse, a trusted daycare provider, a teenaged sibling) and many women I know work part time or from home so their schedules can allow them to be home when their children are as much as possible. It’s a complicated issue, but please do not assume that all mothers who work aren’t thinking about the needs of their children.

  3. Lynn, in the case of this author at least, she’s very clear about working part time as an adjunct which is very flexible and generally follows a school calendar.

    Angela, I’m not in my second phase yet. But I think it is a smart idea to think about what you want your future to look like. We don’t often imagine our mid-40s, not as glamorous and imagining other aspects of life. Some reflection on what you want, knowing that things will always change, seems really wise.
    Thanks for this.

  4. I’m still in my mid-30s and my youngest is still two years away from kindergarten. But a few years ago I got divorced and found myself having to re-assess my life plan and realized that I needed to have this kind of vision for the future. I wasn’t having any more kids and I knew that the ones I had were only going to get older. I also found myself in the position of having to support not only my children for the next 10-15 years, but myself for the rest of my life. Do I want to have to work for the next 50 years I’m (hopefully) alive? Do I want to be able to help support my kids as they grow up and go on missions and college? Do I want to provide a stable home for them? Yes, to all those things. So, when looking for a job as sole provider I’ve been keeping all those things in mind. When my employer started talking to me about retirement options, my impulse was to tune it out since that was 30 years down the road. But then I realized that 30 years can go by fast and I don’t want to be one of those people I’ve worked with that are working past the time they wanted to be because they can’t retire. I know that you can’t control everything in life, but having a long-term view can be good to get priorities in order and aid in making choices.

    Another thing to keep in mind when you are thinking long-term is that bringing in more money is only one half of the family-finances equation. When I talk with friends who are married and worry that they are not working and contributing financially, I remind them of that fact. Just as important as bringing in money to the family is managing the money you have. Avoid excessive debt, buy a house you can afford, and live within your means. Don’t forget good life insurance and investments if you can. I’ve known a number of women who have found themselves suddenly having to be the sole provider due to a divorce or death of a spouse, and being out of debt and in a reasonable and stable financial situation was just as important to their success as being employable. I think this is especially true for women in their 40s and 50s. You might think your husband will live to be 90 or that he will stay married to you forever, but sadly that is not always the case.

  5. I am very different from the OP. I think about this a lot. But the “what will other people think” has never, ever been a part of the equation. That surprises me about this post.
    I pretty much think about my future daily, and research and contemplate many options daily and I have done this every since leaving the workforce.
    Unfortunately, no concrete steps have ever felt right for my circumstances, so I still don’t have a path mapped out. It makes me uncomfortable because I live my life very deliberately.
    But it is a part of raising a family and keeping a marriage happy. You do what needs to be done, even after all the planning.
    I have always made very sound financial decisions (I babysat for one year 10 years ago in order to beef up retirement savings, for instance) so my deliberate choices about our finances means we can live on one income, for instance. I have thoughtfully raised our children so they are each in a healthy place so that means they are quite responsible so maybe I could leave them for a part time job even on summer vacation. I have been a SAHM with a husband who works and commutes and find the stress difficult so he would not transition well to me working if it means he needs to step up more for parenting or housework but so far this pattern has been necessary for his mental health and our family functioning.
    I want to know the future, but all I can do is make the best decisions now for the present and for the possible futures. I wish there was more certainty, but there just isn’t.

  6. Eliana, I agree that imagining our years after 40 doesn’t seem as glamorous. But it’s surprising to contemplate how much life could be ahead of me, and how many things I have yet to do. It’s kind of energizing, actually.

    Jessie, your story is so important. And thanks so much for mentioning living within one’s means as a way to prepare for unforeseen events. Also, if the work/don’t work issue comes down to making money alone, for some women they can make more money staying home and carefully budgeting, cooking, etc. than paying for gas and possible child care and the quicker (but more expensive, and probably less healthful) meals that working often necessitates.

    jks, I’m glad you think about this a lot. You’re ahead of the game. But I’m surprised that you’re surprised about the “don’t worry about what other people think” element. Although I’m quite secure in my own decision, it took me a while to get there and I know many of us are greatly affected (either consciously or unconsciously) by the perception that we’re being judged.

  7. Lynn the beautiful thing about God’s will for me is it looks completely different from His will for you. You don’t need to worry yourself about the authors children or her choices, isn’t that great? You don’t need to make judgements about her child care etc because it isn’t your life!

    I am an active, devout LDS woman with 3 children who has always worked outside the home part time 15-20 hours as a nurse. My husband is hard working and provides well for us. I work because I LOVE my job as a NICU nurse and I am honestly a better mom because I work. My kids are well cared for by a sweet nanny 1 day a week and my husband on the weekemd, and our family is very happy. I am quite certain The Lord is okay with my choice because we chat about it often. I learned long ago not to care why others think of my choice, it is between me, my husband and The Lord.

  8. I remember the moment my SAHM bubble paradigm popped: I was visiting my sister who lives in a predominantly LDS town in Hawaii. She and her husband both work full time for the church, juggling their schedules to cover the needs of their children, but every school “early out” day or holiday, and of course summer break, is challenging.

    I suggested perhaps she should ask a friend in the ward to watch her kids one day, and was shocked to hear that there is no such things as SAHMs there. ALL adults work. There isn’t a single adult in her ward who doesn’t do some kind of income-producing work. If a mother doesn’t have any other options, she will do in-home day care/childcare for other families…(but they are all full-up, not able to take on strays on an “as needed” basis).

    This conversation got me to thinking about just how vastly I’d projected my myopic world-view. Of course most women have to work! It’s been thus from dawn of time. It’s only very recent history that women have had the possibility of not working dawn to way-past-dusk in the support of hearth and home. Modern appliances have reduced the amount of time cooking/cleaning consume. The move from farm to city has shifted the kinds of work we do. The concept of a husband going off to earn money was ever inseparable from the wife working quite hard all day, too. And not “just” raising children. But for the first time in history, there is a small subset of the population that has to consider the questions Angela poses in this post.

    I’d never really thought much about work and what I wanted to be or do when I grew up. I assumed I’d be a typical LDS FT Mother with a dozen or so kids and my husband would work all day and come home and be busy in his calling as bishop, stake president, or possibly general authority :-)

    Well, life has turned out a bit differently. I’ve had about one cumulative year of time since I was sixteen that I wasn’t employed by someone else at least part-time. I have spent the last dozen years working part-time as a flight attendant, which was a complete fluke and not something I ever expected to find myself doing. But it was a prompting to apply for it, and has turned out to be such a blessing, and also quite a lark! I love my job, and the many opportunities it has given me and my family to stay connected to people and see the world.

    I am grateful, now that my 30s have disolved into my 40s (while leaving me still feeling 20something), that despite my lack of foresight and planning, I have something that I could support myself and children on, should life throw a massive curveball my way. I’ve never had a hard time finding a job, but finding one I love and wouldn’t mind doing is a massive bonus. Living small and frugally has also been a key to reduced stress.

    I don’t know where I’ll be in one, five, ten years, but I loved this post and the issues Angela raised. All good (vital) food for thought. Thanks for the discussion! ♥

  9. Well, I’m now in the “second half” of life doing what I thought I’d be doing in the first half. Sometimes even the first half plans don’t go the way you expect. I did everything I wanted to do in my younger years (college, mission, get married, grad school) and expected that I would then settle down and raise my family. I actually had plans for the second half of my life of how I would ease back into my career. But then infertility stormed in. I wasted a lot of time in my late 20′s and early 30′s because I was so stunned and in such grief about the loss of the life I had envisioned. I had five extra years I could have pursued my career, but I didn’t. I sat home thinking that any month a baby would come. Now I’m in my 40′s with young children, the youngest only 2 years old. And I’m very happy. I do think sometimes that by the time my kids are out of the house it might really and truly be too late to get back into my original career (which I do still want to pursue). Because I’m a homeschooling mom, my children will be home full-time for many more years. I have actually found that homeschooling has filled the intellectual void in my life. It is a huge and demanding project that I can really sink my teeth into, be passionate about, and make a meaningful difference. I think it fills many of the same needs that having a career would fill for me. As far as my original career in music, I just trust that God will provide. I once heard a true story about a woman who’d given up a prestigious performing career to raise a family. In retirement, she and her husband decided to serve a mission, and the assignment they received was something that allowed her to use some of her very unique skills. I feel that the Lord will do the same thing for me, maybe not in the same way (and I definitely was not destined for any kind of performing career)… but He didn’t give me those talents or those years of experience and training for nothing. There will at some point be some way provided for me to continue what I once started.

  10. I was employed part-time from the time my youngest started kindergarten. Of course we prayed and felt strongly that this was the Lord’s will for our family. As it happened, I was home with them after school most days, and during the summer they went to the same excellent half-day summer camps and classes that were also filled with children of full-time parents.

    Being at home full-time does not exempt one from seeking the will of the Lord. It is not automatically always better to be at home. I suspect this is one reason why advice in general conference in recent decades has been about nurturing our kids and focusing on their needs rather than specifying one type of maternal employment status.

  11. I have been giving this issue a lot of thought lately. I worked in a career I loved until I became a mother at 35, only one year after I married. My daughter is two now and chances are good she will remain an only child. So I could be going back to work in only a few years. But since the day I quit my job I’ve been worried that when I do decide to go back to work no one will want to hire me because I’m 5-7 years out of practice. I do have a graduate degree and about 7 years experience in my chosen field, and I do try to stay up to date by following industry news and publications. Recently I had an idea for a website that is tangently related to my former profession. I know a little web design and a fair amount about online publishing, and I just signed up for a six week evening course at the local tech college on building a money making website. I hope to make a small sum from my web venture, but even more I hope it shows future potential employers that I worked to maintain my skills and that I am motivated enough to pursue and complete projects.

  12. Aly and Naismith, thank you for your examples of seeking God’s guidance as you made decisions for yourself and your family. Blue, you bring up a great point about the privileged position most of us are coming from. Most women throughout the history of time have had very little choice about what kind of work they’ll do (or how many children they’ll have, or even who they’ll marry). And eljee and Kara, I appreciate your take on the issue as well. Many women — more and more women, both Mormon and non — are having children in their late thirties and early forties for a variety of reasons which also changes the motherhood/work equation in complex ways.

    If anything, all these comments have made it clear how different our paths often are!

  13. As I see how people miss what my comments meant, such as Aly, I realize that I can’t assume I fully get what other people are trying to convey either.
    I wasn’t sitting in judgment on anyone. I think trying to understand Heavenly Father’s will for each of us is a real struggle – and even harder is aligning our desires and wishes with His, especially if we don’t want to let go of something. I just think the arena where it’s most critical is the care and well being – physically, emotionally and spiritually of those children He entrusts to us. How much we’re aligned with Him is something only an individual can know. But it’s a measuring rod each of us should be continually using.

  14. I am 40, so I guess I am already in the second half of my life (supposing I kick the bucket in my 80′s.) I’ve contemplated this question off and on for years but have had a hard time coming up with an answer. I used to joke that I’d avoid the question by continuing to have children. Ahem. After last year’s pregnancy I’ve pretty much concluded that I don’t want to do that anymore–it hurts too much physically at my age. The thought of getting a job and having a boss does NOT appeal to me. Here’s what I want–I want to rely on my Sugar-Daddy (husband) and either concentrate on homemaking and/or take college courses for fun. At this point I don’t really feel like donating my time or volunteering for anything. I feel like being quiet and still and meditating and then (when they begin to arrive) enjoying my grandchildren for awhile. And after that I wouldn’t mind kicking the bucket and going on to the next grand adventure. :)

  15. Three years ago, with my youngest in preschool, I started a graduate program that I hoped would springboard into a PhD and an eventual tenure-track position. When I got into the program, I realized that although I loved what I was learning, a PhD wasn’t going to be in my future due to where we live and the other circumstances of our life.

    It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that very shortly after I came to that realization, I decided that I wasn’t ready to let go to the busyness of young motherhood. While my youngest biological child started first grade this fall, I now have a two-year-old and a one-year-old to keep me as busy during the school day as the four big kids do when they get home from school.

    I know the transition will come eventually, and I hope that I’m doing something during this time at home with my little ones to prepare for it. But I have a feeling that when my youngest leaves for kindergarten, I may take a month or two to catch my breath before I start actively pursing the next phase of life.

  16. Very interesting conversation. I was 33 when my youngest (of three) started kindergarten. About a year after that I was asked if I wanted to work part time at the school. I figured if the kids were there all day, I could be there for a few hours too. It totally wasn’t in my life plan, but I loved it. I did that for about four years until the position was discontinued. I didn’t go looking for other work but another opportunity found me.

    I started working in another field, totally out of my comfort zone, doing something I learned to love. I was working about 10 to 20 hours a week. This job was a blessing that helped fund school trips and extra activities for my kids.

    Two and a half years ago that company closed. I lost my job. A few months later a child got married and another headed on a mission soon after. Boy, we could’ve used the extra income but I felt VERY strongly that I needed to be home while my youngest finished high school. I feel like that time was very important for me to be available whenever I was needed. I think The Lord knew that this child needed more of me.

    Now that youngest child is soon to be married, I have one grandchild, with another coming soon, and my oldest is very independent and on their own.

    And now, at 47, I feel lost. I don’t know what to do. My husband has always been the main provider and I am very grateful for that. We love to spend time together, but I realize that he still has quite a few more years of work ahead of him(he’s 47 too). And seriously, it’s the first time in my life I feel totally lost. I am trying to find my way. I go to the temple at least once a week, sometimes more when I feel like I’m just spinning my wheels and ought to be doing something more productive. I know I’ll figure it out, but boy, no one really told me about this.

    Thanks for the post. It’s got me thinking….

  17. This was a beautifully written post.

    As a single mom during almost all of my daughter’s childhood, I was so busy that I really could not do a whole lot extra to plan for my second phase (although I think that is wonderful advice). I felt so overwhelmed so much of the time.

    However, I did do one thing that was invaluable in preparing to go back to school–I had a deep-seated aversion to credit cards, as a result of my divorce, and so I didn’t use them. I drove a very old car, that was paid off. Sometimes, we did without. My car had no inside door latches for a long time. But, taking on student loans and living off them with my daughter for three years of graduate school is scary enough. I don’t think it would have been possible with credit card payments and a car payment too.

    I can’t claim credit for this as part of my plan. It was truly an aversion; it gave me anxiety to even consider using a credit card. That anxiety turned out to be the blessing that allowed me to follow this dream now.

    Kate @ BJJ, Law, and Living

  18. and sometimes they do several of these things – I started full-time work the same week I stared teaching early morning seminary – after an extremely strong answer to prayers that yes Heavenly Father did want me to do at the same time. With three school aged children, and a husband that is the the High Council it can be a struggle but an amazing struggle.

  19. So I am one od those Utah stereotypes who dropped out of school(with a year left :(!) and had babies when I was young. 3 by 24. My second half will begin in just a little while at 29! I have realized that, while I am grateful for the time I have had with my cute kids, I need to get out into the world again. I have been slowly doing night classes and will get my bachelors and than hopefully a masters so i will have greater opportunities for flexibility(see Lynn, look at how my education is still centered on my kids. I guess there might be lots of ways to prioritize family. )I made my choice based on my own needs , but also to show my kids some different options. My daughter is spunky and smart and I want to be a good role model for her.

  20. Lynn, thank you for your additional clarification. And Magpie, I know a lot of women who have experienced what you’re going through. I have myself in my own way. It’s a tough transition time. Thanks to everyone for your contributions to this conversation!

  21. I’m nearly 39 and still not married, let alone have kids. For me, there will likely be no place at which this “second half” is significantly marked the way it might be for someone with a family. Blue’s point about not all of us having the privilege of being able to make such a point comes very much home for me.

  22. Of being able to make such a choice, not a point. Typo! That is, not all of us have the choice of whether to work or not–some of us work because that’s how we eat. I’ve always felt that was a more interesting model–I grew up on a farm, and I liked having my dad around at home all the time, and I liked that my boyfriend in high school’s mom and dad worked side-by-side for the success of the farm and the family. The whole family worked together, really–including the kids–so for them there wasn’t really ever a 2nd half, either.

Comments are closed.