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Living Longer, 'Midlife Crisis' Can Become 'Midlife Opportunity'

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"What do you want to do with your life?" It's a question I ask my college students this time of year to help them define their goals, and I'm beginning to realize the silliness of the question. It's almost like asking people casually at the grocery store what they did over summer break -- expecting them to sum up 10 weeks of their lives in a sentence. Not an easy task.

And sometimes the answer can't be summed up anyway. For instance, this summer I went to Disney for the first time, which would be easy to convey. I also learned that I have no idea what I want to do with the rest of my life, which might take more than the time allotted in the checkout line.

The summer began the same as it always has, with vacation plans and weekend plans and cookout plans; having the summers off with my kids has always kept me busy, and I enjoy being busy. This year, however, they started making their own plans as well -- to hang out with friends and sign up for sports camps and go to the pool.

And they didn't need me to help them.

The boy, of course, has been pretty self-sufficient for a couple years. But by virtue of her status as the youngest, I've continued to "service" my daughter -- filling every role from cook, maid and chauffeur, to professional watcher -- sports camps, afternoons at the pool, flashlight tag -- I was there. Until this summer.

This summer, she was old enough to be at the pool by herself. She rode her bike both to the pool and to the daily recreation program, as well as to her friends' houses. She cleaned up after herself and folded her own laundry. She went to overnight camp for a week. She stayed home by herself if I needed to do errands.

And while she discovered her independence, I discovered something about mine: I have no idea anymore what to do with it.

The first morning that both kids were gone for the day, I sat in my comfy chair with my coffee and thought, "Wow! This is cool! A whole day to myself!" I went to the driving range, did a little shopping, a little cleaning... a little of everything.

The second day, however, I sat in my chair and thought, "Huh. My 'little of everything' is done. The house is clean, the shopping done. And I have all day to fill. What do I do now?"

And that's when it hit me. I don't know what I enjoy anymore. I hadn't anticipated that it would ever come up, apparently, because in the grand plan of my life, I didn't plan for this. I knew I wanted to have kids, and I knew I wanted to be a writer. I've done both, yet suddenly they're not enough.

When I was a kid, we essentially chose a career, worked toward it, and if we wanted to have a family, we worked on that too. But I don't remember ever thinking beyond that, as though, in my head, once those goals were met, life was complete. Done. Fini. Evidently I assumed that people retired at 50 and eventually just died, because I don't remember ever thinking beyond that point.

Now, at 50, I could conceivably have another half century ahead of me, with no idea of how I might want to spend it. Volunteering? Horseback riding? Fostering dogs? I don't know. I will always be a mother, although I'm seeing now how that role can change over time; I will always be a writer, and I'm beginning to see how that role can change as well. But if I have these extra years, this found time, I'd like to make use of them.

Maybe I shouldn't ask my students what they want to do with their lives. Maybe that's where I got hung up all those years ago, thinking that there must only be one right answer. Maybe I could help them more by asking them what I'm now asking myself:

What do you want to do first?

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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