So you’re like, just a stay-at-home mom?
It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten that question, and it won’t be the last, I’m sure. Truth be told though, it stung more than normal. (And not just because I was actually at a professional meeting as this woman’s peer - actually, kind of as her boss, but that’s neither here nor there.)
It wounded this time because I did not have an true answer for her. I don’t have kids at home since my youngest started kindergarten this past August, but my children and their appointments still constitute a significant part of my week. I didn’t try to start a new job this fall; the flexibility I would require to care for my family is something not offered in the average workplace. There’s space in my life that hasn’t been there for 17 years. I don’t feel a kinship with calling myself a stay-at-home mom anymore. Her question left me uneasy because I couldn’t answer what’s next.
For months, I’ve felt unprepared, inadequate, and embarrassed that I didn’t know the next step for my life. I wanted to know this answer back in September, and here it is May. My youngest’s inaugural year of school is done. In many ways I’m struggling to not feel like this year was largely wasted. I’ve spent a lot of time working, but it’s not all that measurable for the general public. Significant time spent confronting wounds, healing pain, and working to transform my internal life: that doesn’t present like accomplishment. Making the work of this past year about learning to sit comfortably with who I am and the fact that I don’t know what’s next doesn’t read well on any sort of resume, official or not.
What are we to do when our life doesn’t look the way others think that it should? When what we should’ve done or accomplished, what we wanted to do or say or live or have doesn’t pan out in a way that is easily explained to others? Maybe you’re just a stay-at-home mom or just a receptionist. Maybe you spent thousands of dollars on education and now you’re working retail. Maybe you didn’t pass the bar or your civil service exam. Does this mean you aren’t fulfilling your promise? That you haven’t followed your dreams? The dreams that we have, dreams that others have for us, ways that society and culture thinks we should behave, milestones we’re expected to have reached at various points in our lives -- it’s pressure both internal and external that we weren’t meant to bear.
I was reminded of this the other day as I listened to an interview of a man who was living a very different life than mine. He’s a different nationality currently living in a major American city, is a celebrity of sorts, has been married for less than ten years, and has one young child. I’m full-fledged Midwestern both by birth and living situation, I have no celebrity whatsoever, we’re working on 22 years of marriage now, and five not-so-young children currently inhabit my home. Like I said, not a lot in common. He was speaking about his life trajectory and the reckoning he had to come to as he approached forty. Perhaps this is a thing for most forty-year-olds, but I’ve always assumed that the traditional “midlife crisis” tends to be more about life stage than years. This man and I are definitely at different life stages, so I was surprised to find such resonance with his words.
He talked about his past couple years where he had just burned out. His wife knew, his friends knew, but he just kept pushing and continuing with what he thought he was supposed to be doing. It was when he stopped that he came to some clarity about his life. He needed space and time off and away from the hustle. That’s when he realized the enemy had stolen his dreams. That statement turned on a light bulb for me. Whether or not your worldview would welcome language about “the enemy”, I think probably some of you can relate to this too.
Have you ever felt like your dreams have been stolen?
We all have enemies of our dreams. Circumstances, relationships, work — a lot of the time, that enemy might even be ourselves, but one thing I know for sure is all of that expectation and pressure placed on us by society and family and ourselves is what snuffs those dreams out quicker than anything. When I turned the corner towards forty this past year, people started asking me what my dreams were. I had no answers. This was part of my life that I had not explored in a long time. In fact, I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time teaching others about the unhealthiness of “following your dreams.” I don’t think that was absolutely wrong — there’s a lot of truth to doing the right thing, doing the thing you’re called to, not limiting your life because of pie-in-the-sky dreams that you might not actually be able to fulfill, opening your hands to what comes your way, even the unexpected things. There’s beauty in the ordinary, everyday lives that we live. Always longing for something more can be a thief of contentment, and sometimes all the dreaming and heart-following is itself a limitation. All this is true, but in my youthful exuberance to find the joy in the mundane, I had forgotten there’s also space for big dreams and audacious plans.
Most of us spend long years being faithful with what we’re given. Being a responsible adult demands it of you. I know the steadfastness required to live my life with integrity, but I’ve reached a point where I need to know what’s in my heart too. I’ve spent the past twenty years doing what was right in front of me. Just the next thing, over and over and over. There
is both truth and beauty in that. It’s what helps you do hard things and learn to live with open hands. It’s what helps you accomplish big things, one step at a time. I don’t regret it, but it took me eight months of having no idea what the next thing was to clear out enough space in my soul that my dreams could resurface. I’m just now seeing the magic and grace in dreaming towards the things are way out in front of me. Do you have some things out there in front of you too? Or maybe they’re even to the side, just out of view. Maybe you can’t see them clearly, but there’s a spark. A tugging on the threads of your soul towards something.
You might have some of the same hang-ups and questions that I have about all of this dream talk. Isn’t this selfish? Self-indulgent? Isn’t responsibility and faithfulness about being content with what you have and what you do and who you are right now? Isn’t living with an open hand the opposite of dreaming? Foster care and adoptive parenting for ten years have put me into a purposeful and constant exercise of letting go, but as it turns out, I’ve held everything so loosely that I have held on to hardly anything at all. Open hands is a surrender to what’s next, but no longer do I believe it means not dreaming, not yearning.
This winter, I sat in my friend’s living room and listened to her lay out a dream. In subsequent months, I’ve watched her take steps towards that dream. A bittersweet ending made space for a courageous beginning, and the whole way through she hasn’t let go of who she is and her heart towards others. That’s the opposite of self-indulgent. That’s the work of a faithful heart pursuing a dream. It’s hard work. It’s bold work. It’s inspiring work. It’s work that gives rather than takes. Like Emily P. Freeman says, it’s about entering a room and instead of saying “Here I am!”, you’re saying “There you are. I made this for you.” When is the last time you dreamed with that kind of passion and focus? The kind that requires hard work, time, fire, a heart for others, and then comes true.
That’s the kind of life I want to live, so I’ve been working on my dreams. They’re still somewhat vague which is a place that my personality loves and prefers to be, but it’s not a place that actually gets much done. I had to put some concrete words and actions to them, so I told a couple people that I was ready to write again. Then…I sat down and wrote. And I’m under no illusions here, I am rusty. These posts have not been everything I wanted them to be, still I am putting in the practice that this takes and fueling that spark of passion in my soul. It’s not selfish or self-indulgent in motivation, and it takes a lot of responsibility and faithfulness to show up to the computer on a regular basis to write. That’s the hard work part.
The brave part? It’s putting this out there. It’s sharing a dream of mine with you, even if it’s a dream not completely realized. Even if it’s something I’m not great at just yet. But it’s something that makes me feel more like myself, and that’s sort of the point of a dream anyway.
What’s a dream that you have?
Be brave and share it.
Find a thing that makes your soul come alive, and do the thing.
Do it in love.