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What I Know About Work Now That I Am In My 50s

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WORKING WOMAN 50S
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Back when my older son was a toddler, I found him in his booster seat one morning scribbling furiously on a legal pad with a stub of a crayon.

"Evan," I asked, "do you want breakfast?"

"I can't talk, Mommy," he answered. "I have to work or my editor will be mad with me."

I've spent the decades since trying to live the balanced message that I want my children to hear. I'm not quite there yet, but over the years I have gotten closer, and learned more than a little -- not just about the meaning of life, but also of work.

1. It is okay to live for your work. "No one on her deathbed ever said, 'I should have spent more time at the office,' " the saying goes. But I'd wager that many have looked back on their lives and been damn proud of what they accomplished at work. Isn't the goal to find something you are so passionate about (and so talented at) that you want to be doing it all the time? Go ahead. Define yourself by what you do.

2. You probably won't feel that way every day, or even every year. A working life is not linear. We used to think it was, back in the days when you put in 40 years at the same job and got a gold watch when you retired. But the workplace has changed -- job security is more about months than decades now -- and that has freed workers to change, too.

My mother (who has been a teacher, guidance counselor, lawyer, businesswoman, business law professor and travel agent in her 70-plus years) believes you should change careers every seven years so you don't get bored. That's not practical for all of us, but odds are you will change your feelings about work at least that often. Some years (days?) you will want to devote your soul to it; others you will see it as something you have to do in order to do the things you want to do.

3. Embrace that. Ping pong around, zig and zag -- not only from one job to the next, but from one state of mind to another. Go full throttle straight out of school. Take a more scenic side road during the years while you raise children. Roar back again when those kids are grown. Or, maybe, the other way around. It doesn't make you an inconsistent worker, but rather a better human being.

4. Build your life with someone in a different line of work. Or, at least, take a raw, honest look at your own ego strength. My two serious relationships before I met my husband were with journalists. In one, he was just plain better at it than I was; in the second, I was more successful. In both, the feeling of competition broke us. So I married a pediatrician. He gets to be the best doctor in our house, and I get to be the best reporter.

5. Talk to that person about work and life from the start. Are there unspoken assumptions that one of you will be the breadwinner and the other the caregiver? How do you both go full steam and have a family? Do you take turns? You won't be able to anticipate the choices life will throw your way (or the way you will feel down the road), but you will get comfortable with the conversation when those choices arise.

6. Stop feeling guilty about the gel time. The best place to find inspiration, perspective, enthusiasm or direction in your job is outside of it. "I would very soon become threadbare if I were only lurching from one film set to another without any nourishment," Daniel Day-Lewis said recently of why he insisted on waiting a year, and just living his life, before playing Lincoln. For those of us who don't have a year? Take a walk, read a book, play with your kids. When I get stuck in my writing, I take a shower.

7. Sometimes you just have to do the work. Or, as my grandmother used to say, there's a reason they call it work. No job is free from the tasks you hate. Complaining only makes them take longer.

8. Sheryl Sandberg is right. Too many women "leave before they leave," moving emotionally away from work when they start to have families, failing to "raise their hands" for promotions and big projects.

9. Anne-Marie Slaughter is right, too. Women can raise their hands day and night, but there are logistical barriers in the current outdated workplace, that are far higher than any "ambition gap." The reason women are "leaning out," rather than "leaning in," is largely because they are overwhelmed by the impossibility of "doing it all."

10. They are both right because the answer is somewhere in the middle. A la Sandberg, women need to raise their hands -- but not only for promotions. A la Slaughter, they also need to demand workplaces that are more flexible day to day as well as year to year. All of us -- parents and non, men and women -- need to slow down and speed up on the career track, interspersing times when work is all encompassing with times when it isn't. The solution is staring us in the face: embracing the pauses rather than writing off the workers who take them.

11. I know more than an eager 20-something. I am wiser. I have made more mistakes, hence learned more lessons. I know that what seems like a crisis, or a debacle, or a triumph, will probably look far less dramatic by tomorrow, and it's better to take the long view of life rather than riding the roller coaster day to day.

12. They know more than I. Every day they teach me something about technology, or pop culture, or optimism, or how things need not be done the way they've always been done. Mostly they have taught me about balance. Everything I just wrote I learned by trying to articulate it for the now-21-year-old who once scribbled on a pad at breakfast. His generation deserves a better mix of what Freud called the "cornerstones of our humanness," love and work. Mine can't build that for him, but we can take hard-won knowledge and point the way.

This story appears in Issue 34 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, Feb. 1.