This is an exciting time in my life. I have been an adult student for well over a decade. Years ago I decided to return to school to earn a second masters degree. That degree segued to a PhD. I am still working on that degree!
It wasn’t so much that I wanted another degree, or two, but that the academic work I was doing helped me address some of my own existential struggles about mothering and caregiving. I often joke that my academic work has simply been a labour intensive and expensive form of therapy.
But after many, many years I am beginning to see the end of this journey. If all goes well by this time next year I will have completed my (final!) degree, or be very close to defending.
I have spent most of my adult life being a caregiver and/or student. I have spent most of that time being totally overwhelmed and struggling to sort out how I would juggle those two, often times competing, demands. For long stretches of time I fear I did not do it well. I could tell you about my second PhD comprehensive that was probably some of the worst writing that I have ever done. It was a frustrating and deeply humbling experience that almost sent me packing. To be fair my life was hell back then, but I refuse to make excuses.
So I find myself now looking a year ahead and thinking that for the first time in over two decades I could be neither a full-time student, nor a full-time caregiver/mother. It is both an exciting thought, and absolutely terrifying. After many years of never having enough hours in the day, or night, I find myself facing a future where I will need to learn new ways to fill my days. My youngest will be leaving for university. My eldest is an adult sorting out his next steps. And Matthew now lives a shared-care life where his care is divided between our home and a group home. Even when he is at home with me his care is well-supported by a complex team of caregivers and nurses leaving me with a fraction of the caregiving responsibilities I shouldered in the past.
So these days I find myself thinking about what is next. And I know I should be excited. And most days I am. But there are moments when I simply feel daunted. I am 50 and I am starting over. Indeed there are moments that it doesn’t feel like I am starting over, but simply that I am starting. In many ways I am in the same place as my 22-year old son – trying to figure out what I am called to do and whether the world will support or hear that same calling. And then there are periodic moments when I mourn lost opportunities. I am not proud of those moments, because they can quickly resemble pity parties where I am saddened about what I didn’t get to do during the years I was caregiving, rather than focusing on my present-day life of immense privilege and opportunity.
I am aware that my “decision” to remain at home wasn’t a decision at all. There was no other choice twenty years ago and to pretend there was is unfair to my younger self. I need to remind myself of that every once in a while. I also need to stop comparing myself to women who did not spend 20 years as an extreme caregiver.
I recently tried to sketch a tentative work plan for the next year. I tend to do better when I impose some structure on my work, particularly because doctoral work is done largely in isolation. At the top of the page my header reads “I make plans: God laughs”.
And before you think this blog post is a total pity-party I will admit that I am also proud of my efforts. I have registered for no fewer than three doctoral programs in my life. THREE! At times I feel my insistence that I finish this damn degree borders on masochism. That I should have read the writing on the wall long ago – that doctoral work and my life were incompatible. But maybe they weren’t. =) And I hope that in the end my unwillingness to throw in the towel, and even more so my willingness to talk about my never-ending PhD journey, will remind other middle-aged women out there that a new, very cool (!), chapter in life might just begin at 50. Or 40. Or 60. Or wherever you find yourself today. So be stubborn. Be audacious. Don’t be afraid to tell the world you’re not done.