Have you ever asked yourself, “Is this all there is?” Perhaps you woke up one morning and just weren’t content with the state of things…or you knew that you were desperately in need of a change. It happens to lots of us, and often when we least expect it. Suddenly the life you’ve built seems sadly lacking and you begin to wonder if it’s too late to change your life and whether your best days are behind you.
A few years ago I found myself at a low point in my life. It was my 17th year as a classroom teacher. I had three little kids at home. And I felt like the best years of my life were behind me.
I looked at the years stretching out before me and knew one thing: I was too young to spend the rest of my life in a work situation in which I felt unchallenged, unappreciated, and bored. It was time for a change.
Change is scary
But the truth is, I was also scared.
What if the best years of my life really were behind me? What if there were no more challenges for me professionally? I’d ask myself, “Is this all there is?” and I’d be unsatisfied because I had a gnawing feeling that this wasn’t really all there was, but I didn’t know how to change my situation.
And then I found a book that changed my life.
Now I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true. I’d been teaching gifted students for several years and was familiar with the work of Sally Reis. When I began reading her book, Work Left Undone: Choices & Compromises of Talented Females, I felt like she was speaking directly to me.
My life had taken a rather traditional path up until this point. Like many women my age, I’d married, had babies, and gone into a conventional career. It wasn’t necessarily the one I might have chosen had more options been open to me, but I poured my heart and soul into it, determined to be the best teacher I could be. Who knows if I succeeded or not – it’s not a career full of accolades and thank-yous.
By the time I hit this low point I’d taught a variety of grade levels and subjects and I wanted more. I just didn’t know how to get it. Even worse, I didn’t know if it was even available to me at that stage of my life. I was only 39, but I felt old, stagnate, and desperately in need of the courage to change my life. But I also learned that I wasn’t alone in experiencing these feelings.
That realization alone made me want to weep.
Our lives are different
We might as well just go ahead and address the elephant in the room: women’s lives are different from men’s lives.
Whether it’s fair or not is up for debate and another topic completely. For now, let’s just agree that the way the men in our lives experience work and family life is different from the way that we do.
As a working mother I always felt pulled in two directions. While I wanted my kids to feel loved and nurtured, I also wanted to achieve something with my own life. I liked to work and had always known that staying at home wasn’t for me (no disrespect to those who do choose to stay home).
I got a sense of pride – and identity – from my job. It was how I answered the question, “What do you do?” and it was as much a part of me as my fingers and toes.
But I also knew that when I became a mother that I had responsibilities that went beyond my own wants and needs. Suddenly there were these little people – and it was my job to help them grow into people I wouldn’t be afraid to let loose in the world. The sense of “what was I thinking” was more than I could handle some days.
So I juggled.
Not very well perhaps, but I juggled.
Something always felt out of balance and frankly, it was usually me. Because no matter where I was or what I was doing, with every choice I made I was neglecting something else.
I felt like I had given up my life to motherhood and that I would never achieve all the goals I’d set for myself when I was young. And I grieved and was frustrated.
I also had days when I was ticked off, angry, and moody.
Some inspiration for you
It turns out that a lot of women don’t make their mark or come into their own until later in life. Consider these women who didn’t become “famous” or really hit their stride until they were over 40:
- Vera Wang
- Judi Dench
- Julia Child
- Grandma Moses
- Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Viola Davis
- Jane Lynch
- and one of my favorites, Betty White.
While most of these women didn’t come out of nowhere, it took years before they gained the eminence they would later be known for.
But I’m Way Over 40!
Now you may be thinking to yourself, “That’s all fine and good because you were young when you went through this, but I’m WAY over 40 and it’s too late.”
Well, truth be told, I hit another one of those life-examining periods when I finally quit my long-term job and moved back to my hometown. Now it was truly up to me to figure out how to start over and whatever avenue I wanted to pursue next I was going to have to totally create from scratch.
And I experienced some of those same old “I’m too old and it’s too late” feelings again.
And then when things were rocking along nice and steady, I got a cancer diagnosis. And once again those feeling that “it’s too late” came crashing over me all again.
I’ll even tell you honestly that there were days when I figured my diagnosis meant that I was going to die soon anyway so what was the point of trying to achieve any of the goals I’d set for myself (I was having a serious pity party!).
Now I don’t tell you any of that to elicit sympathy. I tell you so that you’ll know that I’ve been there – several times – and that the lessons I’ve learned come from real struggles. I understand how difficult it can be to feel like your best days are behind you and that there’s nothing to look forward to any more.
Creating the life you were meant for
Here’s the cold hard truth…as long as you’re breathing you’ve still got time to make changes in your life and achieve the things you want.
I don’t care how old you are.
Granted, it may feel harder to change your life at certain ages. There are people who are comfortable with our current behavior and situation. Society may have certain expectations of us. And there are certainly some roles we can’t – and don’t want to – abandon.
But at some point it’s time to realize that while there is still time left, that time is growing shorter every day.
So if you’re feeling a sense of dissatisfaction, if you’ve asked yourself, “Is that all there is?”, and if you’ve got this gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach that something better is waiting, then there’s only one question to ask yourself:
If not now, then when?
I do want to add that it is important to be honest with yourself here. If you’re 90 years old, 5’1″ tall, and have two bad knees, it’s unlikely you’re going to make a star basketball player no matter how badly you may have wanted it in the past.
But too many of us give up and sell ourselves short. We assume that we don’t have the talent, brains, persistence, or time to do something when that’s likely not the case. We underestimate our abilities and downplay our natural strengths.
We assume our best days are behind us and we give up before even giving ourselves the chance to get started.
We need to quit doing that!
You’ve made it this far…you’ve got knowledge and skills gained from a lifetime of experience. Now put those things to work for you.
Tips to change your life…even if you feel like it’s too late
- Put your hand on your chest. Take a deep breath. If you feel your chest rise and fall then you’re still alive and it’s not too late. My cancer diagnosis has taught me that it ain’t over till it’s over…and I intend to use every minute.
- Critically examine what is behind the gnawing feeling in your stomach. Ask yourself what is it that you want to do.
- Once you’ve determined that (and that may be the hardest step, to be honest), start listing the steps you need to take to get there. Be detailed – the more precisely you understand what it will take the more effectively you can plan to make it happen.
- Get out your calendar or planner – the kind that shows months and even several years into the future. Start plugging in when you’re going to do each step in your plan. Do not get discouraged no matter how long it will take to reach your goal! The time is going to pass anyway.
- From this long-range plan, start breaking the steps up into bite sized pieces that you can work on each day. And…(you knew this was coming), schedule these pieces into your daily/weekly plan. If you don’t make a plan to work on the small pieces, the larger picture will never come together.
- Each day, work on the pieces that will allow you to make the change and move closer toward where you want to be. Each. And. Every. Day!
- Realize that you’ll get discouraged – and plan for it. Nothing great was ever accomplished overnight. My favorite saying is “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was built brick by brick.” Now go lay some bricks.
- Accept that much of what you decide to achieve is related to your mindset. That old saying “whether you think you can or think you can’t – you’re right!” happens to be true. So always be working on your mindset.
What happens if you don’t change your life?
One of my favorite pieces of advice came out an Ann Landers column I read in the newspaper (or it could have been Dear Abby…I don’t remember).
The letter writer stated that she had always wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor. It had been her dream since she was a little girl. But she’d abandoned that dream, gotten married, and had some kids. Now she was 43 years old and would be 50 by the time she got out of medical school in seven years. What should she do?
The response from Ann/Abby has stuck with me all these years.
It went something like this:
“You say you’ll be 50 in seven years if you go to medical school to become a doctor and fulfill your dream. How old will you be in seven years if you don’t go to medical school to fulfill your dream?”
I think that sums it up pretty well, don’t you?
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