It hit me pretty unexpectedly. One minute I’m thinking I’m a pretty cool mom minding my own business dancing to Childish Gambino in the car while driving my kids to every co-op and homeschool activity under the sun and the next thing I know there I am trapped motionless under the 18-wheeler of middle age. Paralyzed with fear and questioning everything I’ve ever known about myself. You know, no big deal. Just a mid-life crisis in the making.
Okay, I’m being dramatic (imagine that!) but, no lie, middle age came knocking hard on my door this past year and it hasn’t been an easy thing for me. Please don’t misunderstand. It isn’t that I think 40 is so terribly old. Everyone who has been there before me tells me how great it is. And I believe them. It’s more about facing certain expectations of who I would become and what I would accomplish by the time this magic number rolled around onto my calendar. My life has grown in directions I could never have imagined and 18-year-old me would wonder who in the hell she was looking at if she met me. I joke a lot about the way I had my life planned out. I was going to get married at 30 and have my first (of 3) kids at 35. I was going to establish my writing career before getting married and explore the world with my husband before we had kids. I had big plans. BIG PLANS.
And depending on the lens through which you view things one of two things happened. I either failed to commit to my plan and let life happen to me. Or I followed a new plan in a direction that God led me. If I’m honest, the truth probably lies somewhere in between the two. My plan was dreamed up by 18-year-old me before I knew anything about the big wide world I was going into. And I picked it because I thought that was what people in my family thought I should do. I was, after all, the one who got good grades and was the first in my family to go to college and get a degree. Those girls don’t go to work for their parents and just start popping out babies, right? Those girls DO something. If you don’t believe me, just ask my family. Every one of them will tell you, just like they’ve told me over and over and over, I am the last person they expected to graduate from college and become “just a mom.” Ouch.
But, this girl did just that. I eloped on Christmas break of my senior year of college and went to work for my parents after graduation. I didn’t pursue writing or anything I had dreamed I would pursue. I turned in my career goals for $27k a year and a guaranteed job writing marketing copy. I had my first baby at 24, my third before I was thirty, and my fifth just shy of my 35th birthday. Four years later I became a foster mom and brought home 2 additional kiddos. And somewhere in there I stopped working. Stopped writing. Stopped thinking about myself as someone capable of a valuable contribution. Somewhere in there I decided being a mom was something I was “settling” for. And so when 39 came lurking around the corner I (not so quietly) began to freak out.
Let me be really clear about one thing for the reading audience who don’t know me and for my kids who may read this at some future date, I really love being a mom. I love each of the amazing humans I had the privilege of growing in my body. I love fostering and the bonus kids I have the joy of giving a safe landing space to. I didn’t accidentally fall into this. I didn’t settle for this. I chose it. As far back as I can remember when I thought about what my grown-up life looked like it always included kids. It always included me being a mom. What I didn’t plan on though was absorbing and taking to heart society’s message that “just” being a mom is somehow less than or a plan B for women. I didn’t plan on taking that into the very fabric of my being and operating with that program running in my brain. But I did. And never was it more apparent than in the days leading up to my 39th birthday. The unraveling it brought with it was very real.
A quick note about unraveling. In the last few years I’ve taken up the art of crochet. I’m not particularly skilled but I enjoy the rhythm and keeping my hands busy often quiets my mind so it’s a good practice for me to engage in. Because I’m not great at paying attention to stitches or counting where I am in the pattern I frequently make mistakes. In crochet when you make a mistake you have two options. You can frog (unravel) the whole project right back to where you screwed up and correct it and go forward. Or you can look at the flaw and decide its one you can live with and continue on with the project. Life, I suppose, is very much like that. When you make what looks like a misstep you can tear it all apart until you get back to the spot you screwed up and try and make it perfect so your project looks exactly like it planned all along. Or you can embrace it as something that makes your creation uniquely yours and celebrate the different direction it took you. It won’t come to much of a shock to you that I’ve never been one to frog a project. It has to be unsalvageable for me to tear something down to square one. I’m more of a save it and work with it kind of girl. In crochet and in life.
The problem with year 39 for me is that I wasn’t conscious of my unraveling. I wasn’t really aware of how hard I was pulling the string of that work I had been weaving for so many years. And even the slight unraveling I allowed to happen was incredibly painful. Nothing terribly dramatic happened in that unraveling. It was (is?) an internal struggle that I found myself in the midst of. I don’t want to frog a project. I’m an Enneagram 6 to my core. I’m loyal to people and belief systems. Even when they don’t always serve me well. But this unraveling was out of my control. And it took its shape in resentment. Or disappointment. It manifested in periods of wondering how I let go of so much of who I was “supposed” to be. It was comparison to others in my life. It was recognizing very toxic family patterns and the incredibly painful process of cutting ties for self-preservation. It was deeply lonely and isolating despite having so many amazing people cheering me on. It was and is, in so many ways, a really necessary deconstruction of things.
I say all this in the past tense like its behind me and over though I’m quite certain it isn’t. But I’m looking at it so differently now. There are things that need to unravel. Expectations. False identities. Dreams that never belonged to me to begin with. Unraveling those things doesn’t mean letting go of the life I have created. It means letting go of the narrative that I’ve allowed to shape my perspective of that life. I can choose what I allow to unravel. I can frog that garbage view that tells me motherhood is less than and that kids aren’t worth upending plans you made as a teenager. I can also frog the narrative that tells me I have to “just” be a mom and that I can’t also be a sometimes writer and all around complicated human.
As my 40th birthday looms on the horizon the frogging hasn’t stopped. The unraveling is continuing. But deconstruction isn’t something that is happening to me. It’s something that is happening for me. It’s something happening with me as an active participant. It is necessary and hard but good and right.
My Facebook memories from 6 years ago reminded me of a quote I shared (that my good friend Mama The Reader had shared) and I don’t think its coincidental that these words came back to me today as I was processing all of this.
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” — Frederick Beuchner
Forty will be coming for me in one month. In the meantime and beyond, beautiful and terrible things will happen. I’ve spent almost 40 years being afraid of those things. I don’t want to spend the next 40 doing the same. Let the fear and lies unravel. I’m ready for the second half of life.