Friday, September 11, 2009

Mothers of Reinvention

When I turned forty my older sister signed me up for a three year subscription to a magazine aimed at women in the second half of their lives. "Thanks for nothing," I growled when I called her to acknowledge the card telling me of my questionable good fortune."I'm not dead yet!" I added, trying to be heard over the sound of her cackling.

But within two issues I was hooked. I liked that the magazine features fashion that doesn't require thighs of steel or boobs that have never been the midnight subject of an infant’s laser focus. Topics like heart health and wrinkle camouflage are treated like crisis-level phenomenon, and there is little if any page space wasted on quizzes to determine what kind of hottie your dream crush is.

But what I really liked about this magazine was its stories of reinvention - as many in a single issue as you might find on orgasms in Cosmopolitan. In mid-life, reinvention seems to be the ultimate pleasure. There are vignettes of corporate marketing professionals turned B&B owners, doctors leaving hectic hospital schedules behind to open free clinics in the African bush, and empty-nest moms starting successful clothing lines aimed at female golfers.

I found these dramatic stories particularly inspirational when, six months after my fortieth birthday, I stepped off the corporate treadmill I'd been on for fifteen years and hung out my shingle as a freelance writer, planning to write a novel alongside my paid assignments. I knew it would be risky, financially, professionally, personally. But these women faced the same risks and went for it. They talked of fear and temporary poverty, but each story ended with a triumph: waiting lists at the B&B, an expansion of the African clinics thanks to successful fundraising, a deal with the LPGA to feature the golf-girl clothes.

The other day, a new issue of the magazine arrived, and the reinvention du jour hit a little too close to home. It concerned a corporate marketer turned writer who wrote a bestseller on her first try. "I decided if 'The Devil Wears Prada' could be bestseller, then I should be able to write one too,'" says this author, who is featured in a photo laughing jubilantly while, strangely, a small dog pees behind her.

I sighed and threw the magazine aside. I envied her with all my ungracious heart, except for the peeing dog part.

My reinvention hasn't had quite the triumphant ending I was led to anticipate as a disciple of the magazine. I've been lucky to have plenty of work from a handful of great clients, but cost-cutting and layoffs in the media industry make freelance writing less lucrative than it was (and it was never lucrative, compared to my old corporate salary.) I finished my novel, and the eleven publishers who rejected it were in agreement on one thing. “Good story, great research,” they said. “Keep working on it.” My husband's long and rock-solid career as a banker became suddenly fragile in 2008 as the credit markets dried up, making it imperative that my career get on stable ground, and fast.

So I’m on the cusp of another reinvention, a reentry into the corporate world. And just like when you learn a new word and suddenly hear it everywhere, I realize I'm surrounded by people who have taken a two steps forward, one step back path in life, the finish line for their goals a fluid destination. But those small, unheralded adaptations add up to big changes over time.

There’s a college friend who worked in publishing, then channeled her passion for literature as the ubervolunteer for a local library when her children were small, sure it would culminate in a paying job eventually. When it didn’t, she found a job at a local university, and any regrets she may feel about not working in the literary world have faded in the face of her increased financial stability and related reduction in marital stress. Another friend has spent untold hours building up her graphic design business to great critical acclaim, but financial reward has been out of reach in a competitive market. She’s blowing the dust off her old business resume to see where it will take her with a pragmatism deriving from her entrepreneurial stint. A third friend is completely repositioning her retail business for a third time to make sure she can keep afloat when her customers are cutting back on spending.

Indeed, most of the people I know who are leaning headfirst into the buffeting winds of life are women, and a great many of those women are moms. My theory is that mothers are natural reinventors, because we know the sheer courage required to pull the rug out from under your own feet. Courage is the only trait that matters on the day that a nurse hands over your newborn baby, a sample pack of Huggies and a Mylar balloon, as if you actually know what you were doing. Moving across country for a new job, or applying for a management job after working retail for years? Sure! It’s bound to be easier than figuring out how to use a nasal aspirator.

Or maybe it’s because mothers grow accustomed to the inscrutable rhythms of their children's changing passions. This week Tommy is obsessed with firemen and nearly passes out with excitement when a ladder truck passes? It’s a given that next week he’ll have moved on to Star Wars, especially if you’ve just splashed out on a really expensive fire helmet for him on eBay. Nothing to do but put the fire helmet in the gift closet and figure out who this Darth Maul character is.

Between motherhood and midlife, I've found serenity in the knowledge that nothing's permanent. The clingy child gives way to the solitude-craving teenager who becomes the personable young woman, and moms learn to grit their teeth and pray for the passage of time. Or as my illustrator friend puts it, "In college I thought I would be an artist, then I became a businesswoman. When I quit to do illustrations, I thought I'd come full circle...but now as I'm going back into business I realize there are a few more spokes on the wheel." My own wheel may include a published novel yet.

If, in the current economic meltdown, you find yourself contemplating reinvention out of necessity or out of passion, rest assured you are in the best of company. And lest you worry that your current situation is the one in which you are forever trapped, remember Mom's famous words: "It's just a phase."

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