I am not much of a sports fan, but I recently attended a Washington Wizards basketball game with friends.
Characteristically, I tuned out the buzzers and the shrieking fans and fell into conversation with my friend Corinne. We might as well have been having a glass of wine in her living room.
I had known Corinne for a few years, but our interactions had revolved around carpool pickups and kids’ birthday parties. I knew very little about her life.
As we talked, I learned that she had married on the later side after rising to a top position at a New York City publishing house. She stopped working to raise her step-son and later her own two girls. She was surprised to find herself happily living the life of a stay-at-home mom in the suburbs.
My path had been a little different. I got engaged right out of college to my college boyfriend, someone I had known since high school.
When we married, we drove across the country to start graduate school, our tiny car crammed with all our belongings. My husband was studying law and worked late at night, while my journalism program was structured more like a 9 to 5 job. Our studio apartment was so small that I wore headphones to listen to the Tonight Show without disturbing him. He would hear random bursts of laughter as he sat five feet away from me reading about contracts.
When we started having kids a couple years later, I shelved my fairly new career as an editor and writer and threw myself into motherhood. Like Corinne, I felt confident about my choice. But by the time my second child was born, I started to get antsy and wondered how I would make my way back into the work world.
I couldn’t imagine returning to daily deadlines and instead decided to enter a counseling program, partly because the field fascinated me, and partly for practical reasons. I wanted to work in a school and be on my kids’ schedule. I earned the degree just weeks after delivering my third child.
I’m now in my early 40's. I’m in a new phase, and Corinne is right there with me. Our youngest kids are in elementary school and much more independent, and we have more mental space for creativity. We are melding skills acquired throughout our lives, piecing them together so we can test-drive new passions. Our ventures may appear random to an outsider or even to ourselves at times, but they carry a strange logic.
Even our flukiest experiences fit into a bigger narrative.
Corinne has become so obsessed with organization over her years as a school volunteer, she is teaching others her unique techniques. As a former publisher, she can even envision writing a book on the topic. She is astonished at her newfound drive after so many years working at home. As for me, I broke a fourteen-year streak of not writing, and it turned out I had a lot to say. I have found this somewhat mystifying, but I am rolling with it.
So many of my fortyish friends are in the same place. An investment banker friend started cooking school. A former lactation consultant is now a nurse. A teacher became an editor, and an editor became a teacher. It’s like the career version of the game musical chairs.
My friends and I have found that life is too complicated to abide by hard and fast rules or others’ expectations. It’s okay to make non-linear decisions, to wear several different hats, or to risk looking foolish. We all will experience setbacks, so we may as well have some say in how we go down.
As a mother, I would love to impart these midlife lessons to my kids, but it may not be possible. I suspect they will need to grow up, experience triumph, failure, endure a few lousy jobs and bouts of uncertainty before they can get to this place. It’s earned wisdom.
As Corinne and I wrapped up our conversation, I started paying attention to the final minutes of the game. It was so close, I felt an odd compulsion to snap a picture of the scoreboard. My husband looked at me. “Did you just take a photo of the Jumbotron?” he asked. When I said I might have, he laughed. “It just goes to show, you can know someone for 25 years, and they can still manage to shock you.” As Corinne and I have discovered, sometimes we even surprise ourselves.
Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at the Sheridan School in Washington, D.C. and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda. She regularly writes columns for the Washington Post on counseling, parenting and education. She tweets @pfagell.