What comes next?

Since before I was born, my life has been structured by a blueprint I was later taught both implicitly and explicitly. My mother was 19, my dad was 23, a newlywed Mormon couple fulfilling the measure of their creation. In the 9 months between marriage and childbirth, my mom became so sick she had a hard time in classes, and she withdrew from BYU to care for me.

I was first in a long line of pregnancies. My mom ultimately had 8 children and 4 or 5 miscarriages. My youngest sibling was born when I was finishing my first semester of college. My parents made it clear that we were going to grow up and go to BYU, and we all did. My parents said I had to go to BYU. I was not a completely compliant child, but I wasn’t strong enough to defy my parents on something so big. It paid out for them. I became deeply indoctrinated into the traditional Mormon plan while at BYU, just as they intended.

I married right after I turned 20 and immediately surrendered my life to what I understood as “God’s plan” for me. In 15 years, I was pregnant 10 times. I brought my kids to church alone and sat alone each week, while my husband was in the bishopric. I made sure we had family home evening each week. I made sure we read the scriptures every day. I sang my children primary songs and hymns every night. I cut out pictures and activities from the friend magazine and glued them onto cardboard from cereal boxes. And I almost never had time for myself. I had been taught that was selfish and worldly.

I had been miserable and bone weary for over a decade. While I occasionally daydreamed about going back to school or at least getting a part time job, I was too conditioned to consider that an unrighteous goal unless God sanctioned it by telling me it was okay. God didn’t answer my prayers. I asked, is this enough babies yet? But god didn’t answer those prayers either. My husband had served in ‘big’ church callings while being a full time student and part time employee. I cloth diapered and served many varieties of beans and rice to stretch our dimes.

I bought into a really unhealthy understanding of God. I never really felt like God cared about me. I did everything I could to be obedient and earn God’s love, just like my patriarchal blessing told me to do. I did feel God’s love in the love I had for my children and felt obligated to make them into good little Mormons. I mistakenly began using a lot of the same coercive techniques that my parents had used.

When my youngest was born, I was several years into a faith crisis. The baby’s health issues kept me home from church for several months, something that I had never done before in my life. I was the mom that had missed only one Sunday (or none!) at childbirth. Anyway, when I started trying to attend again I suddenly had a resurgence of panic attacks and horrible anxiety and depression that I hadn’t realized had faded while caring for a very needy baby. I tried for a few more months, but after much struggle and prayer learned my only path to peace would be stepping away from the church of my childhood. It was the only worldview I had ever known, so deconstruction was truly scary and painful. I hadn’t yet learned how to reach out for support, and the few times I tried I was met with judgement and scorn.

It has been almost four years since my youngest was born, and they have been the hardest of my life, yet also the most healing. I have had to completely let go of trying to please my parents and others in my life. I have had to learn to differentiate and to create and maintain healthy boundaries. I have had to learn to listen to my children and try to learn to let them be themselves. I have had to start making decisions and planning out my own life instead of just doing what I was told.

Now I am finally coming to a crossroad, one I have seen afar off and thought and thought over and never understood how to navigate. My youngest child finally potty-trained a few weeks ago. My children are almost all in school. Now I wonder, what comes next? In the past I just did what I thought I was supposed to do, and now I feel like I can give myself permission to choose, but I don’t know what to choose.

The careers that most interest me would take a PhD. I am 40 years old. I don’t have time and money to put into that kind of schooling. But I also don’t want to work a boring menial minimum wage job. After nearly 18 years of childrearing, breastfeeding, diaper changing, cooking, cleaning, teaching children to read, juggling schedules, etc. I find my degree irrelevant and all my skills out of date. What does a woman do?

I am still raising these 8 humans I created. My husband is still teaching middle school. We really could use more money, a lot more! But I don’t have a clue how to contribute. I feel frozen by indecision and trying to juggle too many things. I hate talking about it as ‘going back to work’ because I have been working so hard all along. And ‘going back to school’ sounds interesting, but forebodingly expensive and time consuming to fit into the family’s busy schedule.

I have mixed feelings – on one hand I feel life and opportunity have passed me by. I would love to be traveling and enjoying hobbies, but I barely know how to find out what I like because I have spent so many years absorbed in the needs of others and following the life outline I inherited rather than designing my own. On the other hand, I know 40 is not that old and I can hope to have a lot of good years ahead of me. But I am ill prepared to recognize the best use of those years and to get started!


Chiaroscuro is a play of light and shadow. Finding noisy messy lovely life in all the shades between.

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21 Responses

  1. Florence says:

    Our stories have some strong similarities, with the main difference being that I showed up on this planet about 20 years before you. After my children were grown I picked up where I left off in my career pursuits, obtaining my architect license at age 55. No regrets. You are never too old to follow your heart. Hugs!

  2. Sandi says:

    Same here, just 20 years earlier. Went back and got my engineering at 44, best decision I ever made. It’s never too late, ever.

  3. Jessica says:

    Such a similar story here, and I am 41. Spent the last couple years really digging into what I wanted to do, now in a degree program to finish next year, building a career I can really sink my teeth into. My youngest is also four, same as yours. I am ready to define my life instead of having it defined for me. I wish you well, my sister.

  4. Stacy says:

    So many of the things you wrote here are so familiar. After 18 years of child raising, all my children will be in school in a few weeks, my oldest in college and my youngest in kindergarten. I am finding it exciting, intimidating, and a little painful to be finding out who I want to be and how to get there after so long. A faith transition makes it that much more complicated.

    I wish you peace, strength, and clarity as you find your way.

  5. Sally says:

    Yes, to all of it. My details are different, but i feel compelled by life circumstances to choose something, and i don’t know how to choose. Not that I’m having a hard time choosing between A and B, but I’m realizing how much of my agency I’ve been surrendering (virtually all of it) to make the the “right” choices that would bring me blessings. Well, they didn’t. And i am woefully inexperienced in choosing.

    I wish you every happiness and success in yours

  6. SisterStacey says:

    Look at online degrees! I highly recommend WGU (because I work there so I know the quality)… but don’t give up on your dreams. My mom had a similar story, but my dad was abusive and they divorced my senior year of high school. She could have gone back to school, but didn’t try very hard and it’s sad seeing her now close to retirement but thinking she can’t do anything or even go back to school. Pursue your dreams! Teach your kids that women in the Church can be anything they want, especially working mothers. That women need to be themselves first and be individuals to truly reach the purpose of their creation and find joy.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    This is so powerful and heartbreaking. I am in a similar situation; I start prerequisites for a bachelor’s in a different field that I hope will lead to a PhD; I’m 42. I tried to talk myself out of this more expensive path for a long time…how will we pay for our kids’ school? Am I dooming my husband to continue in a career that may be unsustainable for him while I go back to school? What if I completely fail at this career path?

    I realized that if anyone else was talking about this (and this is confirmed by reading your post and those brave women with their stories of going back to school), I would say, “Oh, honey, of course you should go down this path.” I’m working hard on believing that this advice applies to me as well.

    • Patricia Paystrup says:

      Quality online programs like Western Governors University (WGU) are a revolutionary solution for women in this situation. Please know that YOU CAN DO IT! (Heck, you’ve raised a family!!!!!!! You can move mountains!!!!!) Be warey of for-profit diploma mills, but there are other state-sponsored compacts like WGU if you don’t live near a university or community college. It may seem daunting, but it will be worth it!!!!! There was a classic either Dear Abby or Ann Landers column (the two were actually twin sisters) years ago where a woman wrote that she dreamed of going to medical school and becoming a doctor but that would take so many years (let’s say 20, can’t remember exactly) before she could practice medicine. The advice columnist responded: And how old will you be in 20 years if you DON’T go to medical school? As President Kimball used to say: JUST DO IT. By the way, I have a PhD and worked as a university professor ( in a male dominated field) for over 30 years, so I am not just “blowing smoke”. Go for it.

    • Chiaroscuro says:

      this is my same issue. my interests have changed, and the bachelor’s degree i got many years ago is unrelated to my main interests. it is not just a phD, i want, but all the schooling leading up to it. and the same feeling of uncertainty about failure or finding out i actually hate it…

  8. Lady Wilhelnina says:

    With no kids of my own and tuition-free universities at hand here in Europe I cannot comment on your circumstances. I only can assure you that it’s never late for a new turn in life.
    I’ve re-entered university at 38 and at 58 I’m on my way to becoming a psychoanalyst. You always need new goals and purposes of life, right?

  9. Andrea Joy says:

    You might still consider a PhD if it interests you. I am finishing up my PhD now. Most good programs will pay for your tuition and give you an additional stipend (up to $30k a year).

  10. Melissa Smith says:

    Kudos to you for taking the scaring step of looking! Sometimes you have to step away from the comfort of the familiar roles and cultural teachings and take a look over the edge of what some have told you is a dangerous cliff. I’m 40 and just finished my master’s degree last December. I have to say that it was one of the most empowering experiences of my life. You’ll find opportunities by pursuing your education that wouldn’t have even come to mind beforehand.

  11. Carrie Ann says:

    Thank you for sharing your story! To add to the voices above, I was a sahm for years. Now I am 44 and in the 4th year of my PhD. Someone already said this, but amplification matters so…. Most PhD programs are paid for and usually you get an assistantship that gives you an income. It can be daunting to apply, but boy it 8s worthwhile!

  12. Elizabeth says:

    To reiterate what Carrie Ann ^^ said: debt shouldn’t be your primary concern with a PhD. Most all PhD programs these days are fully funded. The challenge would be finding a PhD program that makes sense with your geographic location/schedule/interests. But you can do that!

  13. amywest111 says:

    I love hearing everyone’s willingness to invest in themselves no matter what stage of life you are in! I’m at the more inexperienced end of womanhood, but am old enough to feel a little out of place next to some of the younger students. Sometimes I think to myself, “Some people have their Bachelor’s and are working on their Master’s by the time they’re my age”, but I also try to remember that I’ve also had a very different life path than the average college kid. At one point I ended up in real estate (of all things) and it was making me really unhappy, so I quit after wrestling/praying with the decision and still having no clue what to do. I had no other jobs lined up and no plan for school or ANYTHING. It was, by all accounts, the most financially irresponsible thing I could have done. The next day, I randomly recalled a conversation one of the bishopric members had had with my husband about becoming a pharmacist. Then I thought to myself, “Hey, why don’t I become a pharmacist?” It was so spontaneous and unexpected, but I have never felt so passionate about my education until that moment. I am constantly inspired by people like everyone here who are willing to follow their dreams and take another chance!

  14. Em says:

    I just wanted to throw in my two cents on getting a PhD. If that’s your dream, do it. Forty isn’t old. Look, it’s possible that you might not ultimately scale the highest professional height you could have if you had started fifteen years ago. But you could still have plenty of fulfilling work years ahead of you and what’s more the education itself will be fulfilling. You’ll make friends, and learn things, and become someone new even if you never work in your field at all. What’s more, as plenty of other people have said, PhD programs should be free. Be verrrry wary of one that wants you to pay wads of cash (I guess it depends on the field but still). Typically you work as a Graduate Employee in some capacity, again depending on your field. You might be teaching, or working in a lab or acting as a research assistant. That job will pay for your tuition and also provide you with a stipend. Possibly you’ll also get good insurance out of it — in my grad years my annual copay for outstanding insurance was $100. Yes. I had 100% coverage after spending 100 dollars annually. And this was in the mid-2000s, so not long ago. Thanks, unions!

    What I’m saying is, money and age are not strong reasons to say no to this. There may be other compelling reasons that you don’t feel drawn that way. But it sounds to me like your income from an entry-level part time job and your income from being a grad student could be comparable, only grad students get benefits like health care and tuition. Additionally, you’ll likely find that in grad school you’ll be less of a fish out of water because of your age and life stage than you might fear. Your age will be an advantage because of experience and work ethic.

  15. thediygeochemist says:

    I got my PhD at 43 after having four children. It set a great example for my kids of the power and importance of education. Also, it made me happy. 🙂

  16. Merry says:

    My mom went back to school when she was 40, getting a bachelor’s and a master’s in counseling. She loves counseling and is passionate about her work. My sister is 45. She just completed her bachelor’s degree and is in her first semester of law school right now. These women have taught me that it is never too late to invest in a woman’s education!!

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