How I Made Peace with Being a Late Bloomer by Jessica Smock
My younger self had rigid ideas about when life’s milestones should be met. Now, as a mom of a toddler son at 38 about to earn my doctorate in education policy after more than 15 years in teaching and academia, I know that life’s achievements don’t need to come on any schedule. From my own research for my dissertation, I have been lucky to interview adolescent, urban girls who have demonstrated unusual levels of “grit” and perseverance to reach their goals of academic success. “Grit,” the subject of much recent media attention based on scholarly work by Angela Duckworth, is a personality trait that describes people who have passion and persistence for meeting their goals. They don’t give up, and this ability to persevere in the face of adversity and challenges may be even more than important than talent or ability in determining life’s successes.
And this is a lesson — the power of “grit” — that older moms should embrace and teach their children. Most older moms have had much more experience than our younger selves in striving toward a goal — whether that goal is a career milestone or conceiving a child. Older moms should view their experiences as a powerful potential parenting tool: being able to illustrate how hard work and passion are what leads to success and satisfaction.
My husband, infant son, and I moved last year from Boston to Buffalo, New York. As I was dealing with a colick-y baby and unpacking, in a box I came across my honors thesis in sociology, all bound and untouched from the 1990s. It was called “Constructing Gender: A Study of the Transition to First-Time Motherhood.” I flashed back to dozens of drives to couples’ homes in Connecticut, where I went to college, visiting women before and after their first babies were born. I remembered my feelings as a 22 year old talking with these women. I had been horrified as a feminist that every one of these new mothers, who were successful career women in their fields, ended up giving up their jobs altogether or becoming part-time or freelance. Even though that was the subject of my thesis, I had no ability to relate to the identity changes these women were going through.
And most of all, I remember thinking, “Why are you all so old?”
Nearly all of my study participants were over 30, and many of them closer to 40. I couldn’t imagine why all these smart, successful women had waited until they were so old until they had a kid. At the time, my goals and time table were clear: doctoral program in sociology after college (I had been accepted to several programs) and then phD by age 26. Home owner and married by 27 or 28. First kid by 30. Second kid by early thirties. Tenure and publications in my early thirties. Published writer by 35.
When I turned 30 and had accomplished none of those things, I panicked. I devoured self-help books, read chick lit, dated endlessly, had terrible breakups. Then I just let go. I had accomplished none of my goals on the schedule that I had planned, and I had survived. In fact, more than survived. The less that I stressed out about not reaching my goals, the happier I was.
Now, near the end of my 30s, the last few years have seen a lot of changes. I got married at 35, entered a doctoral program again after more than a decade in education, finished my course work, , and we became first-time home owners after our baby was born last year. I’ve also started a blog — part teaching and education, part parenting — and became “published” (sort of) with the help of the Internet.
I want to tell my twentysomething self, meeting all those amazing women who had experienced full and rich lives before they had their children, that it’s wonderful to have goals. They’re useful. But stop judging these women for being “late bloomers.” Work at your own goals that are important to you right now. There’s no way to predict or control what life throws at you, and that’s the best part.
And to older mothers, I want to say to take advantage of your experiences to teach your children about “grit.” Explain to them that talent and raw ability are wonderful assets, but it is their commitment and passion for their goals that will determine their future.
Jessica is a doctoral candidate at Boston University in education policy and development. She lives in Buffalo, New York with her husband, 1.5 year old son, Boston Terrier, and cat. Her dissertation is about high-achieving urban girls who are graduates of a nonprofit in Boston and attend boarding schools throughout New England. She received her BA in sociology and master’s in education and history at Boston University. Her blog is called School of Smock (www.jessicasmock.com).