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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