Last year was a big one for me. I was enjoying my work as editor of The Well, doing some writing and speaking, and living in a small town in Pennsylvania. I could not have predicted that one year later none of that would remain true.
I sensed that change was coming for our family, and I would not have been surprised about a move to a new place or new work for my husband. But much more change was in store.
The month that I turned forty, our family closed on a house in Wheaton, Illinois. My kids started a new elementary school, and I started a new job. My husband was in a new position as well (and in a new line of work).
In the midst of all of that transition and upheaval, I was amazed. After many years of striving, of ambition toward “something more,” I found myself in a position that felt like it was meant to be.
I’ve written before about my passions to serve women and for New Testament research, of how editing has scratched some of my itches, and of my old desire to be a biblical studies professor. In my new work as an academic editor for InterVarsity Press, these threads of calling have been braided together into work that is immensely satisfying, though still challenging and tiring.
As I turned forty, I sat back and breathed. My thirties had been full of both joy and frustration. My desire for achievement kept ramming into my limitations, particularly with babies, then toddlers, then preschoolers. I shook my fist at those who told me just to wait — I wanted to “lean in”!
Now that my kids are in school all day, I have space for more work. There is always more to do, and life is still busy, but I seem to be hitting my stride.
So I can’t say that turning forty was anything but joyful for me. I was not plagued by self-doubt, questioning my choices, or grieving the loss of youth. That birthday went by without a hitch.
But then there was another birthday. My oldest child just turned ten. And that birthday brought on my soul-searching.
As my son turned double-digits, I felt a wave of regret. While I was striving toward achievement at work, what had I missed at home? Why had I spent so much energy wishing for more at work instead of investing in my son’s character? Was it too late to teach him patience and to get him to help out around the house?
And suddenly my aging body gave me pause. I had put taking care of my body on hold for so many years while I invested in work and kids. And looking at my tall boy who once had been sheltered within my body, I realized how long I had neglected it. My middle-aged body that once ran and jumped and did cartwheels needs a bit more care.
I guess you could say that his tenth birthday stood in for my fortieth in provoking more reflection on my life thus far and how I might want to live in these next years.
When we hear about midlife crises, we imagine sports cars and marital affairs. Our images of midlife are often centered on an out-of-date narrative that assumes marriage, kids, and a house in your twenties, a man working his way up the corporate ladder until reaching the height of his career in his forties, and then everyone wondering, “What now?”
We all know that’s no longer the narrative for most men and women (if it ever really was). But what is the new narrative? Is there one? What does it mean to be in the middle of life? or even the end?
At The Well, we recognize that there’s not just one single story. What it looks like for women to follow Jesus in their multiple callings varies from person to person. Our tagline “in the academy and beyond” points to the fact that some women will be called straight from grad school to a tenure-track position in the academy, while others will follow a more circuitous route. Maybe some will even join me in editing academic books!
If you’re feeling hemmed in by a narrow view of “the right path” or wondering if you’ve accomplished enough by now, I encourage you to pick up The Wonder Years: 40 Women Over 40 on Aging, Faith, Beauty, and Strength. Leslie Leyland Fields, author of Crossing the Waters (among others), has gathered a rich array of women to share their stories of life after forty. Some, like Jen Pollock Michel and Lauren Winner, are just barely into their forties. Others, like Luci Shaw, are well past that (at ninety!).
And the stories vary as much as the ages of their authors. Lauren Winner reflects on her need to choose with intention what to say yes to, particularly with the freedom that her childless life offers. Amy F. Davis Abdallah, on the other hand, gives us a glimpse of her own multiple callings as she serves as a full-time academic and cares for babies in her forties. And Shannon Ethridge describes how God led her to a new calling in midlife thanks to unexpected job loss.
I was particularly moved by Brené Brown’s piece calling women to practice creativity and to make art. In her words: “‘I’m not very creative’ doesn’t work. There’s no such thing as creative people and noncreative people. There are only people who use their creativity and those who don’t.” Amen to that. And Luci Shaw reminds me that there’s no age limit for adventure. Instead of looking back on my life and regretting adventures not taken, I can look ahead. Her account of a rowing expedition at age seventy-one both impressed me and inspired me.
No matter where you find yourself, whether midlife is still to come or long gone, The Wonder Years is a beautiful collage of the many ways God works in the lives of women. As I move further along in these years, I am glad to have these stories of companions on the journey.