How I Am Forging My Own Path Through My Mid-30s

by Lara Dotson-Renta
Originally Published: 

On a bright Tuesday afternoon last month, I brought cupcakes, party hats and juice boxes to my daughter’s classroom for her sixth birthday. As we don’t have a second car, I trekked to her school with all her party supplies in a broken Radio Flyer wagon, out of breath and jiggling and turning the wheels with every bump in the road, cursing the missing screw in the handle. When I walked her home after school with what I didn’t yet know was pink frosting all over my left breast, I asked her if she had a good birthday. She bounced over the crack in the sidewalk. “I had the best birthday ever, Mama! Because you were there,” she replied, reaching out for my hand.

I looked at her broad, genuine smile and my heart leaped. I felt loved and appreciated in the work of parenting I do each day, which helped blunt the sting of uncertainty I continue to feel nearly a year after leaving my full-time job as an academic dean for freelance writing, research and time at home with our girls. I had been exhausted maintaining (not “balancing,” like a fairy on a pinpoint) a work life of increased demands with the kind of parent I wanted to be, and something had to give. While my days are now filled with many moments of grace and the fleeting touch of fingertips eager to hold me, working from home is fraught with tensions I had not anticipated. I have grown into this chosen role slowly, unveiling a fresh skin and flexibility I didn’t realize I had.

It wasn’t always this way. I struggled to find my place at home. The lack of external validation of my time and worth was a blow to my ego and sense of self, so professionally defined had these been. In my 20s, I had imagined my life along the lines of Simone de Beauvoir, not mid-afternoon sessions of Simon Says. I had left work to be more available to those I loved, and yet I found it difficult to not fill every moment with things I could check off a list, to strategize how to maximize my income because I had always envisioned money as mine or his and never ours. A series of squabbles over small expenditures over time forced a reassessment of not just the logistics of our family finances, but also of worth and power in marriage, over the meaning of independence itself.

Days spent producing writing and applying for jobs I did not actually want left me as cranky and confused as I had been before leaving my position. My 2-year-old daughter was at my feet, but my eyes were still gazing at my laptop, anxious and impatient. Doing had become a marker of achievement in and of itself, busyness a measure of worth and accomplishment. Nearly a year after leaving work, I was not fully present at home either, my frustration at the “real” work I should be doing often obscuring that I could now, finally, watch my girls build with blocks or climb trees at my leisure, that I could see off the school bus and be the first to hear stories of the day, that I had the power to embrace the changes I had sought and own them. The structure of my work life had changed, but I had not.

For many years, I had naïvely seen the mid-30s as some magical time when things would make sense and my life would have a defined path, one that would shield me from the vicissitudes of upheaval. Somehow, stability and a linear path would equal maturity.

Instead, peace has come, slowly and haltingly, with accepting that the path is winding and half forged. Maturity is giving myself permission to evolve, to adapt to what unfolds before me. I am not so much barreling down a clear-cut path in my mid-30s as I am carefully redrawing it (and me) each day, situated squarely in the middle of needs I could not name or understand a decade ago: young children, aging parents and grandparents, loans, changing work aspirations, the fact that marriage is both fortifying and hard work—you know, life. This is reality, and reality has a fourth dimension—it breaks through and grabs you midway through the movie you thought you were watching, changing the plot and deleting the expected ending.

Instead, the plot thickens and slows, stops and rewinds. My story is being revised each day, begging for the time and space to be written anew, but still moving. Slowly, in little victories and quiet hours, I am learning to be with what is instead of what I had planned.

In this season of my life, I choose the path that chose me. I am leaving behind could, should, and would, and instead prioritize the relationships I desire and the family legacy I hope to build by simply saying “I am.”

I pick up the phone more often to call my ailing grandmother, recalling that her greatest gift to me as a little girl was that of undivided time. In my mid-30s, I have worked at getting to know my own mother once more, not defining myself in opposition to her but rather alongside her. I call friends, write letters and watch my oldest daughter bounce in her seat on a school field trip, because for the first time ever I can be there to witness it. I have frank conversations with my husband about what this all means for us, as daily life takes on new contours. Sometimes we reinvent ourselves to make room for others, and that’s okay.

This path may well change, as it always must. But for now, I write in stolen moments and continue to craft a version of the world through the words that dance themselves together in my head, and in my moments with my children. I jiggle around the curves and bumps with the Radio Flyer and try to live in this instant, when their hands are small and their hugs are big, because like everything else this too shall pass.

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