Two years ago, when I turned 41, I did something I hadn’t thought a working mother of a certain age could (or should) do.
I reinvented myself.
As a child, I tried on new professional personas like costumes, each one a daring new future. President, teacher, writer, psychologist, movie star. I only started narrowing my choices in my 20s when I took the White House and an Oscar off my list. Yet, as an adult, I kept my options open. I chose jobs that felt meaningful and changed employers when a new path interested me or when the old one failed to satisfy. I used advanced degrees to move from one sphere to another. With no obligations other than to keep myself solvent, I could try new things with limited trepidation. I had the confidence of youth and the freedom of the single life.
Graduate school led to policy work, which led to law school and clerkships and a coveted spot a top law firm. It was challenging and lucrative at first, but it wasn’t long before I realized that I wasn’t interested in bloated 15-hour work days, the hostility of an adversarial system, and 24/7 availability. I considered leaving, reconsidered when I thought about the pay cut, and considered leaving again.
Then life intervened.
I got married. Became a stepmother. Got a dog. Bought a house. Had a baby. Suddenly, leaving my job wasn’t as easy as it had been in the past. There were bills to pay, college to save for, a home to be maintained. Although some days I wanted nothing more than to stay home and take care of the kids, I was proud of the financial contribution I made to our family. I liked having a professional identity. I had invested years in my education and training and didn’t want to leave that behind. It was important to me that our boys had a strong working mother as a role model. There was also the nagging sense that stability was more important than the novelty of a new experience.
Flitting from job to job didn’t seem like a thing a mother should do. It wasn’t responsible, predictable or rational. Leaving my job to start something new seemed as improbable as having an uninterrupted adult conversation or a full night’s sleep.
Work became a means to an end, and nothing more. I longed to be inspired. I wanted a new challenge. Unwilling to upend my world, my husband suggested I pursue one of my childhood dreams on the side. So, during the day I responded to clients’ needs and partner demands. At night, after the kids were asleep, I wrote. I wrote for free. I wrote in all the spare moments I could find. I wrote because I loved it. I tested the waters, wondering if it would ever be more than something that stole my sleep and gave me a thrill when I saw my byline. After two years of squeezing writing into the cracks of my life, and with my husband’s encouragement, I quit my job to pursue writing full-time.
At 41, with two kids, I was, for the first time in a quarter century, unemployed.
I was simultaneously terrified and euphoric.
I am aware that this is an incredible privilege. Having a spouse who supports me financially (at least for now) and professionally (always) is no small thing. Having said that, what I learned by quitting my job was that most of what held me back all those years wasn’t financial. What held me back was fear. Fear of losing my identity and status. Fear of failing. Fear of what other people would think. Fear of upending my role in my family. I had a million what-ifs to rein in my aspirations and dreams. I suspect a lot of us do.
When I quit I faced incredulity from colleagues (and envy from others). I went from being an experienced attorney to a novice freelancer. Instead of the scrutiny of judges and opposing counsel, I face rejection from faceless editors and comments from unknown critics. I struggle with self-confidence. Every so often I miss the structure of office life and, yes, the paycheck.
Yet, anything I’ve lost pales in comparison to what I’ve gained. Autonomy, flexibility, creativity, time with my kids, a good night’s sleep, and the chance to try something I’ve always wanted to do. I discovered that skills from one job can be bent and molded to fit another. Education and training are never wasted, just repurposed. My family doesn’t define me by what I do for a living, and I spent too much time thinking they did. I don’t have a book deal, a viral post or a regular paycheck and that’s okay. For now, I’m building a new career, and even if I fail spectacularly, I know I can pick up the pieces without any regrets.
I won’t lie—making a drastic change in the middle of your life involves plenty of obstacles and sacrifices. But if you need a fresh start and can wrap your head around what it takes to begin at the beginning, the upside is worth it. We can’t all be E.L. James or Sara Blakely, but we can all aim for something more. Shel Silverstein said it better than I ever could:
Listen to the mustn’ts, child,
Listen to the don’ts
Listen to the shouldn’ts
The Impossibles, the won’ts
Listen to the never haves
Then listen close to me –
Anything can happen, child,
Anything can be.