Some New Shoes: Looking for Work at 40 Years Old

Dorothy's Ruby Slippers

Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers (Photo credit: AlbinoFlea)

I’ll be 41 in November and, in some ways, I still don’t know exactly what I’d like to be when I grow up. More precisely, I’m just this minute trying to figure out what more I would want to be, since I’m pretty much set, like everyone is, with what’s happened up ‘til now.

This looking for work business for mid-career folks is now far more common than it used to be, back, oh, whenever that time was when people went to the same job for much of their adult lives. Now, we change jobs more often than shoes.

(Well, at least for some of us. Personally, I haven’t updated my shoes since I got pregnant and they mostly became an expensive form of torture. I refuse to concede that I will never be able to fit into those utterly dated but still pristine kitten heels again. Stubborn, pointless pre-preggo nostalgia, anyone?)

Still, each moment of change asks us something different – who and what do we want, now? Is the next step a linear move from the last one, a side-step, a step down, or a leap off the steps entirely into something new?

Since I’ve been writing about work-life (im)balance a bit, I’ve had to acknowledge my ambivalence, and that my priorities since having my daughter (who turns 2 in two weeks, sniff) have shifted more profoundly than I would have thought possible as a mid-thirties workaholic.

Being with Maya is so delicious, right this second, with her stumbling attempts at 3-word strings that actually mostly make sense, and her “look, mommy” need for my gaze while she tries something new.

I’m keenly aware that this will too soon pass into something else entirely. Even when she’s testing me, I think, well, she’s still so manageable, so obviously ill-equipped to deal with her quick shifts of emotions and desires that she’s really hard to dislike. I suppose that parenting will soon become so much less about physical labor and so much more emotional work – less what will she eat and more what will she think. Wow, that will be harder.

So I rather like it here, with her, right now. I have a job to do that’s reasonably clear to both of us. And Maya would still agree that she needs me, which is something.

Unfortunately, it’s not something I can take to the bank. One considerable downside of being a public interest lawyer, as opposed to some other kind, is the persistence of student loans that require continuing employment.

And far more importantly, so long as my health holds out, I have 30 years of gainful contributions to things I care deeply about left in me. I’m up for that, and looking forward to what can be done with whatever I already know, and whatever I’ll learn. I have energy for that next thing, and I think I’ll know it when I see it.

But let’s be clear on terms: it’s more about values clarification than “work-life balance,” which, when you think about it for more than two shakes, doesn’t make a lot of sense anyway.

After all, for many of us, myself included, our professional work is a defining aspect of our so-called “life,” and we find purpose and meaning there, when we’re fortunate. On the other hand, of course, the notion that all of what we do outside of our jobs is not “work” is unfair because it disqualifies the ordinary labors of running a household, paying bills, or, more essentially, maintaining the emotional and physical lives of our relationships.

Weighing scale

Weighing scale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So it’s not about “having” it all, or, more crudely, having some boxes checked. And while maybe sometimes it feels like a balancing act, it’s not really about a “balance” either, because it’s all (or mostly) work, and all (or mostly) life. Instead, it’s about how we want to spend our always limited time.

Once that’s clear, the question becomes what we value, personally, and what we think should be valued, by society at large. On that second measure, I would suggest, any truthful account would show we’re doing a terrible job at valuing the ways we care for and support each other – both for parents and other caregivers, and for the caring professions like nurses and teachers.

As to the more personal, my job search this time around is of course mainly about finding a job. But not just any job, I’ll (boldly) hope:

Mom, 40, ISO purpose, job: in that order.

When I consider where I am today – in terms of both looking forward to the next three decades, and what time away from Maya now and then will cost us – I need the following: to be part of something that suits me, that feels powerful and meaningful, and that allows me to build on and make sense of the my work and experiences thus far.

If only I could I be so lucky. As they used to say on my favorite series before they rushed out to take the field, “Clear eyes. Full heart. Can’t lose.”

Embracing Your Inner Mommy Warrior

A Milk White Flag

A Milk White Flag (Photo credit: Vintaga Posters)

No one likes the so-called “Mommy Wars.” At the BlogHer 2012 conference last weekend, the speakers I heard were unanimously opposed to them, calling on all of us to move past these bloody battlefields to someplace more productive – a greener pasture of peace, tranquility and mutual appreciation. Where, I presume, we get to have tea together under a white flag and our children serve it to us with ceremonial perfection and crisp, clean napkins draped over their small forearms.

Which certainly sounds good to me. No one’s been more disdainful than I have about the media’s over-simplification of these issues. But then I got to thinking about how characterizing disagreements as disagreeable can be its own kind of social censure, and about all the playground conversational tangos and tangles that general impulse may be creating, even as it attempts a truce.

If what we mean by “Mommy Wars” is a tedious mud-wrestling match in which we hurl well-worn clichés at each other about stay-at-home moms versus working moms, I’m all for moving on. It’s a yawner, to begin with.

On the other hand, though, call me crazy, but I do have opinions on things. I maintain these developing viewpoints on all things mommy because, first, I have to make decisions for me and my family that impact how my daughter is raised, and second, with apologies to Kahlil Gibran, I’m not merely a vessel through which my daughter arrived into this dubious and sometimes wonderful place.

In this battle, I’m a frontline trench warfare expert, and I came by my stripes honestly. I’m not about to abandon my albeit modest rank of Captain-of-One-Child readily. As anyone can read here, I do not lack my own nutty perspective on a host of questions concerning how I’d like to be a parent to my kid and what impacts her health and experiences.

And it sometimes feels like the call to halt the “Mommy Wars” is about never, ever passing judgment, about anything. As though we must subscribe to an indifferent laissez faire attitude as a prerequisite for holding onto whatever shredded tatters remain of our coolness, post-child.

I do live in fear of being labeled – that horror of horrors – a “Sancti-mommy,” and have no doubt that I’ve crossed that line, at least in my heart. But given that moms are called upon to – and do – make 85 percent of the household purchase decisions, and that we, er, have brains and the concomitant opinions those brains freely generate, how do we tiptoe across these Mommy War minefields?

For example, when my sister, whom I dearly love, offered my not-yet-two-year old daughter a “princess pancake” a few weeks back, was I remiss in recoiling in horror and saying, with my typical grace, that “Maya will be happy with the obesity-shaped one.” Ok, I’ll admit the appalled look on my face was likely unnecessary, and that Cinderella may in fact one day eat my daughter, but in the meantime, durnit, Maya doesn’t yet know what a princess is and I hope to keep it that way for as long as possible.

Or yesterday, at a concert, was I wrong to be annoyed when another mom asked me to get out of the way of her 2-year-olds’ view of the show? First, the kid was catatonic and not even really paying attention, and second, IMHO, kids should be moved around adults and not the other way ‘round. Anything else just teaches the inmates that they are in charge, and dangerously sacrifices what little power we grown-ups may retain.

But clearly that’s just me. It’s also just me on the playground when I don’t want Maya grazing opportunistically from some other kid’s plastic bag o’ Cheez-its and have to find a semi-gracious way to say why I’m declining their generous offer to share. (“So sorry, we don’t eat sodium-packed, processed junk at our house” seems a tad ungrateful somehow.)

And when I happen to mention that Maya’s a little big for her tender age, I’m not being a Competi-mommy, I swear. I’m merely trying to cover for her lack of social grace. She looks like a 3-year-old, and so people are often puzzled when she won’t take turns – like, unless I beg her – without a dramatic amount of squealing and/or physical violence.

And even along the critical fault line of the SAHM vs. working mother, there are important things to say about how hard it is in ways it shouldn’t be, and about everyone’s ambivalence concerning the choices they’ve made. None of it is easy, as I’ve noted. And I’ve also been gratified to see “Grass: Greener” posts from far more gifted self-observers.

In short, moms have to navigate this world, trying to preserve their own peculiar take on parenting and choices for their kids. There will be judgment involved in this. There will also be provisional decisions pending more data, and lots of agony. Certainly, so long as we otherwise “click” as people, we can be friends and support each other regardless of these somewhat petty distinctions.

But some eye-rolling is also likely to be involved, particularly if we don’t know each other personally. We’re human, after all. We bring our discernment and pre-formed views with us wherever we go. And I, for one, get a lot out of reading even contentious comments on particular hot-button mommy topics, as they help inform where I come out on critical issues like whether investing in a Petunia Pickle Bottom diaper bag is cute or been-there-done-that. (My vote is the former, but I’m always behind on what’s hip by a decade or two.)

Even as we call for tranquility and tea, let’s be careful not to think that whenever a Mom – or Dad – expresses an opinion of any kind, that’s verboten under peacetime, post-Mommy War conditions. And let’s create an environment that allows us to compare notes on parenting without fear that any act of comparison at all is an odious attempt at competition.

Ultimately, we’re tougher than that. If we can deal with a red-faced two-year-old’s tantrums over absolutely nothing, we can also weather a little judgment concerning things that might actually matter. Making these decisions about our lives and families, is, after all, our prerogative as parents. We should be strong enough to debate the issues on the merits and indifferent enough to do what we decide is best. And, for the most part, to be friends (or sisters) after the disagreement, just as we were before.

Cinderella (Disney character)

Cinderella (Disney character) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Few Stray Thoughts on the Unbearable Lightness of Parenting

People with children always smile at you with an odd mixture of actual apparent happiness and schadenfreude when they learn that you are expecting your own child. It’s a warning, really, along with the empty phrases about how your life will be upended.

Obviously, any prospective parent is likely anticipating “a major life change” when the baby arrives. But there are many moving parts that no one really tells you, and maybe no one can. Or maybe you’re better off not really knowing. Regardless, here’s my feeble attempt to fill in a few blanks.

First, it’s terrifying. Ok, that may be self-evident. But what was news to me at least was that the scariest part was not the responsibility per se, but my new vulnerability from loving another new person that incredibly much. The equation, mathematically speaking, was her vulnerability (as a brand-new naked presence in the world), to the power of my vulnerability (basically, a bottomless love). Put a number on that and tell me what it adds up to. Please.

Second, it’s exhausting. Past the power of words to describe, really. At 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 in the morning. It’s a long performance beyond the realm of any reasonable physical endurance. Sometimes, you doubt you can do it. You pray for relief, and think your limbs will, quite literally, fall off. Yet most days, the energy for being present comes from somewhere, into your hands, and you work with whatever shows up for you in that moment.

I always think of the time, sitting across from an acquaintance with two kids, when Maya was eight months old, and I asked a little piteously, with a perceptible tremble in my voice, whether the sleeping got any better, any time soon. She didn’t want to say at first. She just had pity in her eyes. When I pushed her, she sighed. “It does get better,” she said, “and then again, it really doesn’t.”

Third, you disappear, never to return. Having a baby at the age of 38, after a decade of a career, and drinks whenever I wanted with friends, and a life of sparkly self-absorption, was, it should be clear, a bit of an adjustment. The sheer ego displacement, in which space once explicitly reserved for “me” is now almost fully occupied by someone else, can feel as though the oxygen has left the room.

The air does slowly come back in, and physical and mental space gradually reappears. But the person left now in the room is different, less complete. There will always be my heart somewhere out there, walking around outside my body.

Fourth, for parenting to work at all, you have to wear it lightly. With intention, but riddled through with joy. Despite the intensity of the emotional tightrope you walk, your child must feel the bond of an attachment that is supportive, not clutching, that celebrates without fear, one that extends itself without concern for loss.

And this is the most selfless, and self-abnegating act of all, because to do it well means the credit will never be yours. To bear everything, to figure out how it must work, and never leave it on the too-slim shoulders of a child.

To be the authority you never really wanted in your life, and then to let it go, to claim the power and give it away, as the adventure asks. And to do it all with ease, with grace, as though there was a plan, a script, some place the two of you just might be going that, as it so happens, you’ve never really been before.

So thanks, dear Mom and Dad. I don’t need to tell you that I may have thought I knew some things. But this, I didn’t know.