I have a distinct memory from one of my first teaching jobs. I was in my early 20s and new to the school. I was engaged, a homeowner, in charge of a group of my very own wily sixth graders, and it was Halloween. Several Bart Simpsons mingled alongside those blow-up wrestlers with their buzzing external fans, and I was a judge for the costume contest. And I was thirsty.
Like all middle school events, there were parent volunteers lurking, trying not to be seen by their self-conscious adolescents, but when I went to help myself to a frosty drink from the “teacher” bucket, I was still surprised by the voice of reproach beside me:
“Those are for the teachers.” It was some kid’s father.
“Oh. Um.” It was all I could say, blinking at this unfamiliar parent. Finally, I held out my hand, introduced myself and heard the line I would hear again for many years:
“Sorry. You look so young. I thought you were one of the kids.”
It’s not an insult. Not really. And in those early years of my career, I learned instead to to see it as a compliment. I looked youthful, I thought. How nice. The wrinkles that have since emerged around my eyes had yet to surface, and thanks to some terrific genes, there are, even now, just a few stray grays hiding in my hair.
But that sentence became a refrain that went on well into my 30s, and at some point, I began to hear these words differently. It didn’t feel the same to hear a comment about my youth when I was 35 and a new administrator. You’re so young to be a principal means something different. It means you’re not ready. You’re not experienced enough. It makes a parent wonder whether to bring a complaint to the principal or to go above her to the head of school. I’m certain that happened more times than I realize. And candidly, if I were that parent, I might have made the same choice. I found myself wishing I had more of that elusive gray hair.
The parallel remark that I’ve heard over the years from colleagues and mentors is that I am “wise beyond my years.” Usually I took this to mean that even in my relative youth I projected maturity, confidence and competence. It was also a compliment, but it still made me wonder: At what age will my years match my wisdom? In my 30s? My 50s? Can’t I just be smart, savvy and thoughtful in my job no matter how old I am? Is it only in grizzled Homeric old age that one can be truly wise?
So here’s the thing. Today I am 38, and in June I did something I never imagined I’d do at my age: I left my job. It took three years of late-night emails and evening meetings and nearly missed kid pick-ups for me to realize that the pace and the stress of the job along with the interminable commute were all too much for our family to bear. I love working in schools with children and teachers and parents; it’s rewarding and enriching work, but the toll was too high. I needed to recalibrate, and to do that, I needed time, which meant leaving employment altogether for a while. At the time, the decision felt both completely right and completely crazy—the competing emotions inherent in any decision. Still, I crossed my fingers and hoped it was the right one.
So suddenly, it’s a new conversation I am having about my age. Right after we finish joking about my “retirement” and the proverbial bonbons I’ll be eating, inquisitive friends and neighbors want to know what I am going to do now because, you know, I can’t just be staying home with my 8-year-olds, right? I want to answer with some lofty goal: I’ll write a novel. I’ll be the head of the PTO by October. I’ll volunteer at the food pantry. But the truth is that I have no idea. On the one hand, that feels OK. What a gift it is to have this time to determine my next move: time to be with my kids, invest in my marriage, explore my interests, catch up and catch my breath. Many women cannot indulge in this luxury. I know that.
But on the other hand, the uncertain future already looms large. I will go back to work. I want to go back to work—whatever that may mean—but how long is too long at this age to be out of the workforce? When I do go back, I’ll be in my 40s. Will it be harder? Will employers pass over a woman with a resume gap in favor of that twentysomething with wisdom beyond her years who looks like she’s still in middle school? When once I felt too young, would I now be (gulp) too old?
Maybe. Probably. Feeling old is inescapable even if your skin stays smooth and the gray hair comes slowly. But age is also a mindset, and haven’t I been fighting the “you’re so young” moniker all this time? I may be staring down 40, but at the end of the day, I am still the mature, confident and competent woman I was in my 20s. So I have made another decision. I have decided to worry less about what it will be like to stride back into the path of my career and focus more on what this welcome detour means for the path of my life.
Sometimes the unexpected detour is the best part of the journey, and it appears at any age. We just need to be willing to make the turn when it does.