I don’t know when it started exactly.
Perhaps as early as second grade when we had to cut out a construction paper bear and dress it according to our chosen profession. My brown bear with peached fur of circa 1986 seriously-thick construction paper was clothed in a crisp white uniform emblazoned with a bright red cross on her cap. My godmother was a nurse, a professional woman performing heroic feats on the daily. I wanted to grow up and do the same. I actually kept the bear for years and years, its rounded belly and little ears a visual reminder of a future I thought I had pinned down. Then I learned what nurses actually did and how little I wanted to see or attend to blood and that plan went out the window. In sixth grade, I had a folder of detailed drawings, ruled with my grandfather’s drafting pencils. Architecture became my new career goal – until I learned how much math was involved. In junior high, I began the self-awakening and introspection of adolescence and writing became and stayed my love, but it was certainly not a straight line from there. There were – and are – many detours – self-imposed and otherwise.
But wondering about my future wasn’t limited to only possible career paths. I was not one of those girls who played dress up and dreamed of her wedding day in a frilly white dress, but my parents were happily married and I assumed I would be someday, too. Likewise, I never dreamed of being a mother. I didn’t love little kids or clamor to babysit, but I did figure someday it would be different when they were my own.
Though at times I wondered – and worried – exactly how it would all shake down, there seemed to be a pretty clear progression of how life was expected to go. Do well in school, get a part-time job and save for college, graduate and go to college, get a degree, a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, and – be fulfilled?
The entire first two (plus) decades of my life were so consumed with working towards these goals, it never occurred to me what would come after that.
My husband is three and a half years older than me. He has hit many of these milestones just slightly before me. He turned 41 a month before we welcomed our fourth child – and started shopping for a motorcycle. I told all our friends that he was going through a mid-life crisis. While it amused me to no end, there was part of me that wondered if it was true. I began to wonder in earnest about what that clichéd phrase actually meant.
I hadn’t yet figured it out when I hit the big 4-0. Age ain’t nothin’ but a number, or so the song goes, but it did mess with me. Whether it was the extra introspection or society’s insistence of a shift, I did feel different. It could have something to do with knowing you’ve reached the back end of your life. That stupid ‘over the hill’ metaphor does have some potent imagery. But my musings presented a different metaphor.
As I sat in the driver’s seat of our little standard-shift car, having just pulled into the driveway after a rare coffee date sans kids, I stared out the windshield at the garage doors and the bright light blooming over the roof and explained my theory to my husband.
The whole first segment of our lives, we are propelled forward by the steady string of goals we seek to accomplish. Then, suddenly, we find ourselves in a state of slack. We’ve pushed and pushed and pushed, ticking the boxes and striving for all those markers that make a life – or the conditions of a successful life we’ve been sold – and now we’ve reached them. Completed most or all of them. Our sense of forward movement is stalled. And in that sudden, unfamiliar stasis, we take stock. We look at what we have accomplished and how – or what we haven’t – and have to decide if we like where we are. We may not recognize where we are, where we have ended up. We may realize that pushing ever forward has made us miss the sights or alternate paths along the way.
Rather than seeing the second stage of life as a downhill slide on the other side of the mountain, I see a sailboat. The first phase of life moves at a good clip, a strong wind pushing the sail straight out in a fully formed billow, propelling it across the tips of the waves, blowing our hair back and ruddying our cheeks with exhilaration. At midlife, we are becalmed. The wind drops out with no warning and the sails go slack, leaving us wondering if we’ll get back to port before sundown. We feel a loss of control. We look around and wonder what we did to find ourselves in this predicament. We don’t know when or how we’ll start moving again or in which direction.
But the beauty of sailing, and midlife and beyond, is that we have the power to tack; to move in varied directions to get to a fixed point. Or to change course completely. We also have a bit more time to sit and float for a bit while we assess or wait for the next gust of wind to present itself.
It’s strange and different, but the mind shift that comes with this age allows us to focus on what we want in a totally different way than when we were young and obsessed with success. Now success means listening to what our soul is calling us to do; achieving what we can’t bear to leave undone. We care less about what we’re supposed to do and more about what we want to do. We are more willing to take risks to achieve our wildest dreams because we’ve lived one version of our lives for too long and it’s time. And because we have some very wonderful things under our belt and wonderful people beside us.
I didn’t go out and buy a motorcycle, but I did look around and wonder, what now? I won’t even get into how the total consumption of motherhood came into play; that could be, and perhaps someday will be, an entire book. It’s scary that floating in this lull, alone and independent, means I am responsible for fashioning the next phase. It’s also exhilarating if I keep breathing and don’t let fear take hold. Two (plus) decades in, I feel it’s my time to pick the path. I can draw on the examples of others, but know, deep down in my soul now, that the ultimate decision is mine.
There is nothing in the mid-dle about that.