first person

I Changed Everything. Now What?

An interstate move, two new jobs, and one serious relationship later, I’ve learned there are limits to starting over.

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos Getty Images

It was time for a change. Long past time. In late 2019, I was ten years into single mothering, cobbling together an income from part-time freelance gigs and living in a home that wasn’t mine. I’d been tired of it by the end of year one, but over the nine that followed, inertia set in. I decided my 40th birthday would change that. In a rare act of superstition, I made an actual wish, the earnest and closed-eyed kind, face hovering over a dozen small flames on a grocery-store sheet cake. I wished for my life to change. Radically. Dramatically. Make it nearly unfamiliar, I implored the God of Blown Candles. Make me new.

Over the next four months, I worked at that wish, undergoing a series of what we might now think of as “big pandemic life changes.” New job. New city. A home where I was the only leaseholder. In record time, I wrested control of the reins of my life, years after I lost them. But that victory looked much different than I had expected it to.

Attempting to be my own change agent was a new thing. My philosophy had always been, “Take what comes. Roll with the waves. Make the best of it.” Being too proactive didn’t make sense to me. If God laughed when we made plans, what was the point of making extensive and rigid ones? If the unforeseen was inevitable, what sense did it make to look too far ahead?

I had spent much of my life drifting until I hit dead ends. Staying in the relationship I started at 21 until I realized it wouldn’t survive the positive pregnancy test I took at 29. Moving into my nana’s spare bedroom and sharing the small space with my daughter and my mother for the next eight years. Convincing myself that staying there was the most viable option for me to provide safe housing and trusted child care on the unreliable income I earned as an adjunct instructor and writer. Though I’d once dreamed of a sustainable life as an artist, two rocky decades of adulthood had made me pragmatic to a fault.

The supposedly free-spirited nature of freelancing left me underpaid and overwhelmed. I wanted to start my 40s with firmly planted roots and a stable income — a mid-career salary befitting a woman entering middle age. I found an out-of-state job as a public-radio producer in February 2020 and prepared to begin my first full-time office position in 15 years. In mid-March, I moved five hours away from my mother and grandmother and signed a lease on the first apartment I’d ever lived in just with my child.

But that forward movement stalled almost immediately. I never found out what it would be like to work in an office; my new employer pivoted to remote work the week before my first day on the job. My daughter was unable to register at her new school before it closed down. And I had no way to acclimate to my new city, as all social gatherings were suddenly deemed unsafe.

I thought self-imposed isolation was the ultimate clarifier until quarantine came along. But it’s the extended, involuntary alone time that extracts the answers to questions we may never have otherwise asked. Questions like: What am I actually chasing? Do I really want it? Do I like who I am on this path? How can I change? I now know that, behind the closed doors of the homes around me, the neighbors I never got to meet face-to-face were taking stock of their own lives in much the same way I was.

But amid the swirl of fear and grief, vigilance and suspicion, there was also a sense of momentum. If the air itself was laced with risk, the stakes of risk-taking in our personal lives seemed lower by comparison.

Since I’d already done the heavy lifting of an interstate move, a career shift, and involuntary homeschooling, I thought, Why not add a potential new relationship to the mix? Two months after moving, I downloaded a dating app and, within a day, swiped right on someone who knew how to keep a text conversation going for hours and days on end. COVID made meetups precarious, but a few weeks into video calls and virtual movie nights, we went on our first in-person date. He brought two bouquets of flowers, one for me and one for my daughter, and drove us on a tour through the city we’d been calling home but had not yet learned to navigate. Soon, I leaped into what would become my first serious relationship since before my daughter was born. By August, I found myself living with a partner for the first time. We cooked together, took tentative, fully masked road trips together, and, when vaccines became available, booked our first and second appointments together.

For a while, I felt like I was hurtling through a time warp, compressing years of delayed milestones into a handful of months. There was power in realizing that I could set an intention and actualize it — even during a pandemic.

That heady sense of power was short-lived. Six months into living with my partner, his job called him back to the office, the first of many outside-world intrusions on the quiet life we made. We broke up at the end of a year. Then the job I moved cities for was unexpectedly eliminated. I was reassigned to another department at the company, but before long, I felt that sensation of helplessness that tends to accompany changes outside my control. I was still employed, still stable, but I was no longer doing what I set out to do. Even school finally reopening after many long months wasn’t the relief I thought it would be: Vaccines weren’t available for 10-year-olds, and my anxiety superseded my excitement.

My momentum slowed, but it didn’t wane entirely. One year into my new life, I stumbled across a listing for a dream job, one I never would’ve had the courage to apply for back home. Bolstered by the progress I’d made in the first year of my 40s, I interviewed for the position and landed it. It came with a senior title and doubled my salary.

For two months, I felt like I could command my future again. I was making purchases and plans that would’ve seemed impossible back when I couldn’t have reliably paid rent for my own apartment. Whatever next steps I was bold enough to imagine were ones I believed I could make.

Then I got word that my dream job was ending as quickly as I’d been hired. Again, I was fortunate enough to be moved to a new role within the company. And again, the role was different from the one I had sought out myself.

Even when your life is made new, even when you barely recognize it, circumstances can still shift in an instant. A single pivot can become an endless pirouette. Decisions must be made among options you didn’t quite choose. And that can make it challenging to choose anything at all. I take longer to make major moves now, having realized that running away from old choices is no different from rushing toward new ones. I weigh the costs more carefully, and temper my expectations. Imagining my next big midlife move isn’t as urgent or as magical as it was before. The process of fielding frequent wins and losses has been too dizzying.

In two months, I’ll turn 43. It’s still tempting to use my birthday wish for another radical shift in my personal life. But I won’t. I’ve yet to fully celebrate my last wish coming true. But through it, I’ve learned a little something about remaking a life. Perhaps most important: It’s possible. Change will always be both noun and verb; it is a thing that happens to us and also a thing we make happen. Stability is less of a reasonable expectation than an ideal or illusion. There is no limit on the number of times we can course-correct. Even if moving around doesn’t yield the results we anticipate, it’s bound to feel better than being unable to see the point of moving at all.

I Changed Everything. Now What?