Midlife career change: ‘We’d tried amassing wealth and failed miserably, leaving us feeling utterly downtrodden and depleted’
When the bottom fell out of our lives almost five years ago, I wish someone had been there to tell me everything would turn out okay. Hindsight is a beautiful thing. Then again, hitting the deck was what it took to force us to examine where we were in life and where we definitely weren’t.
ruthfully, if someone had told us all would be well, we might never have embarked on what has been the most significant journey of our lives. In crisis mode, my husband Malcolm and I rediscovered perseverance and redefined what success means to us. Sounds profound, doesn’t it? I promise it isn’t.
In plainer terms, five years ago, he suddenly lost his job in banking. Although he’d been unhappy for quite some time, it still came as an enormous shock. I’d been running a busy children’s fitness franchise for five years. With three children of our own, I was also running on empty. Having recently packed it in, we found ourselves one Thursday with literally no income, no savings and a feeling of impending doom in the pit of our stomachs. Not only were we terrified, but we felt like complete and utter failures.
Luckily, we didn’t have much time to dwell on our shortcomings. Within hours, I concocted the idea of opening kennels as a short-term solution, and my husband took work as a gardener until he figured out his next move, applied for jobs, and went for interviews. Note to self: minding dogs is not easy, nor is nine hours of outdoor labour six days a week. With little other option, we ploughed on, grafting so that we’d fall into bed at night, too tired to contemplate what was next or ponder the past. We lived one day at a time, keeping our heads above water to survive.
Then the strangest thing happened. Amid what should have been the worst time ever, we began to slowly reform differently after falling apart. I’m not entirely sure when I first felt the fresh winds of change sweep through us. Perhaps it was witnessing my husband arrive home looking tanned and healthy in the evenings, sated after a day of work. Maybe it was listening to his animated chatter about species of flowers I couldn’t pronounce, watching his smile grow slightly broader or the realisation that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
During that time, it dawned on us both, separately then collectively, that making a living is very different to amassing a fortune. We’d tried amassing wealth and failed miserably, leaving us feeling utterly downtrodden and depleted. Instead, we did the only thing that made sense. We moved to a pile where accomplishment meant more than focussing on making as much money as possible, to where success became about happiness.
One Friday evening, over a horribly cheap bottle of wine, we finally broached the subject of the future. He’d just turned 40, and I was next. It felt like a midway point — a chance to reassess, an opportunity to rectify past mistakes and follow dreams. I can’t remember which of us posed the question, if money was no object, what would we want to do with the rest of our lives, but our answers were clear.
He’d fallen in love with working with his hands outdoors, and I told him I finally felt ready to write. It was something I’d been threatening to do for many years, but until that moment, I didn’t feel as though I had anything to say. Suddenly, I did. Giggling like the school kids we were when we first met, I told him to turn down the steady, pensionable job he’d been offered in yet another bank and go out on his own as a gardener. He told me to write the book. Then stupidly, as some might say, and even though money was an object, we did it anyway, vowing not to give up until we’d made it happen.
They say that we all have two lives and that the second begins when we realise we only have one. Almost five years later and with plenty of sacrifices, Malcolm has a successful gardening business, Getagardener.ie, with imminent plans to expand. As for me, I’ve just published my fifth book, Unfollow Me. It hasn’t been an easy journey. Raising two teens and a preteen whilst working harder than we ever had in our lives and keeping the wolf from the door has proved challenging. A healthy savings account and countless trips to a career coach might have helped, but sometimes the time is right to follow a dream even when it couldn’t seem worse.
Head-down has become our motto. We worry only about today, and we try to shut out negativity. Yes, we received plenty of unsolicited advice, waded through opinions and encountered a healthy sprinkling of job snobbery. “Gardening? Really?” And “Do you know how hard it is to make it as a writer?”
I read somewhere recently that some people fear change. More specifically, they fear other people making significant changes to their lives as it can make them question their own. Of course, change can be difficult, but it’s also necessary. The older we get, the shorter life becomes. It really does become a case of now or never. We chose now. In adversity, we uncovered true fulfillment in our day-to-day lives.
I met my husband when I was 16 years old. Back then and perhaps until recently, I believed success meant a big house, nice cars, and more Gucci handbags than I could carry, but not anymore. To me, success means happiness and being true to yourself. I’ve accepted that there are plenty of material things I may never own or places I might never see, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Sitting with him every Friday evening over less horrible wine, chatting about where I am with a book or where he is with plans for his business, there’s a fire in us that I never knew existed until we hit our second act.
As for our children, when it comes to their future careers, I tell them only one thing — do what makes you happy. The rest will follow. Instead of chasing money, chase dreams. Almost as many people tell me they have a book in them as say they couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting still and writing. I always say the same to the first group: just write the book. And to the second, I tell them I couldn’t think of anything better, especially when the path I travelled to get here was long.
Nowadays, that same path is lined with an abundance of flowers that I still can’t pronounce, power-washed to within an inch of life, and lovingly tended with a contented smile at the other end. That path is the epitome of living.
Unfollow Me by Judith Cuffe is out now from Poolbeg Books
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