What Shall I Be When I Grow Up?

It’s deer season.

I’m sure you’ve seen them in supermarket aisles and Starbucks lines, masquerading as middle-aged women. The “headlights are shining on me, so where do I go?” looks gives them away.

In Mommy Speak, that look translates to: “My youngest (or only) child just left for college; what shall I do with my life now?”

photo-21This scenario is far from novel. For centuries, women have stepped back from careers, hobbies and/or friendships to devote themselves to raising progeny.

Mothers fill their at-home hours and days and years with child-related tasks, such as cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundering, tutoring, coaching and coaxing.

They allocate considerable thought and worry to their kids’ well-being, at all hours of the day and night (more during the day with small children; more during the night with teens).

And then, seemingly suddenly, those little ones become young adults, moving boxes into dorm rooms and tacking posters onto new walls.

After a long, tearful drive or flight back to an empty-feeling house, the female parent takes a look in the mirror and asks, “if I’m not needed as a mom, who am I?”

(Of course, what these ladies don’t yet know is they may hear from their college kids more than ever, at least for the first few days or weeks, and that their work as nurturers, guideposts and bankers is nowhere close to conclusion.)

The fact remains, every fall a new crop of middle-aged women suddenly gains significant free time, and these re-purposed parents have an opportunity to “opt back in” to the workplace – re-starting a career, swapping part-time for full-time work or moving into a position with longer hours or more travel.

Fortunately IMHO, we women have the flexibility to step back onto career tracks without explaining resume lapses; the time spent at Toys ‘R Us, sitting on bleachers and driving carpools. We have choices and opportunities to reset and find new paths.

I used to harbor resentment about swapping a fulfilling career for primary parental duties. While I continued to work part-time for many years, I found balancing home and office work quite stressful. Like many working mothers, concerns about home life interrupted my time at work, and thoughts about work disrupted time with the kids. I never felt 100 percent dedicated to either realm.

I passed up chances to chaperone field trips (really, who doesn’t want to sit on a school bus with 60 eight-year-olds singing “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall”?). I couldn’t serve as Room Mother and missed Preschool Association activities and PTA meetings.

At work, I kept one eye focused on the clock and dreaded phone calls about playground injuries, diarrhea or vomiting. I dined at my desk, turned down Happy Hour invitations and left meetings at 5 pm sharp, leaving work undone and calls unanswered.

Work bled into my home. I distinctly recall speaking on the phone to a journalist, when I was in public relations, propping the phone under my chine as I cradled a nursing infant in my left arm and scrambled some eggs with the other arm.

The last straw came a few months later, when I took a call from a Wall Street Journal reporter while pushing my youngest, in a Baby Jogger, up a steep hill to meet my kindergartner after school. We could barely communicate over my huffing and puffing, the baby’s babble and the passing traffic.

So, with four kids ranging from two to eight, I “opted out” of that wonderful PR job and refocused energies. Fortunately, because I am blessed with “portable” skills — writing and editing — I knew I would never want for paid work.

Nevertheless, frustrations marred my new path. Every time a freelance deadline loomed, a child would spike a fever and demand cuddling all night long. My husband would return from business trips and question why I was glued to my keyboard at 12:30 am.

However, my resentment dissipated as I realized I had the better job. I could find work when I needed or wanted it, but also could choose to spend time with the kids. I could serve cupcakes at classroom parties and build LEGO creations in the afternoon. My husband didn’t have those options.

My work provided balance, maintained my sanity and kept my skill set sharp. And, as motherhood made fewer demands on my time. I was able to increase my work hours. I’m now enjoying my fifth career as a part-time French teacher, and still write and edit on the side.

So, that’s the point I’d like to share with the lost ladies lurking in the produce department: yes, it may seem that your primary job has ended, and in terms of day-to-day operations, it has. However, because you’re a woman, you’ll probably find new opportunities around the corner. Your next career may begin with an online or community college course, a volunteer position, an offer to help a friend, a Craig’s List ad or a Linked In profile.

Give yourself permission to try something new, and watch those headlights guide you forward.

– Linda Williams Rorem, 2 September 2013
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  1. Nadine Laszlo says:

    My advice would be to enjoy this newfound freedom before the “grand kid” era begins…and you’re right–they still need us, just differently.

  2. Love this post! I just went back to work (very part-time) a few weeks ago and have actually been gaining strength from memories of how seamlessly YOU seemed to glide between work and your children’s arms. It’s assuring to hear that it didn’t feel as seamless to you as it appeared to me. Sending big hugs to you and your crew!

    • Congratulations on returning to the workplace. I do think that part-time work can provide good balance to motherhood duties. Hope that sweet little girl appreciates all that you do for her!

  3. Rev. Ann Rosewall says:

    As I prepare to send my one-and-only back for her third year of college, I feel the familiar knot in my stomach and the melancholy invading my countenance. I have a job that I love, that I could never have begun if my child were at home: full time congregational pastor. I know in my head that as a young adult, she is capable of running the home (or an entire corporation!) in my absence, but I still feel awkward leaving for an evening meeting or writing the final paragraphs of my sermon on a Saturday night when we could be watching a movie. These are probably practice runs for us both, getting ready for the farewell next week. Your article is a much-needed reminder that my life is defined by so many different things, and that it may even be possible to find a third place away from family and work, to discover yet another aspect of mySelf. Thank you for the perspective and encouragement. Gratefully, Ann.

    • Thank you, Reverend Ann! I think as moms we always feel pulled in more than one direction. Good luck with the next transition as your daughter heads back to school, and don’t forget to carve out that time for yourself.

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