This is my truth.
I have lived most of my life unconsciously, without an awareness or understanding of who I was—my deepest values, my natural gifts, or my reason for being. I just went through the motions of life, making decisions based on feelings—mostly fear. Fear of failure, fear of judgment, fear of embarrassment, fear of rejection, fear of being alone.
I chose my college because my older brother was there and I was scared of leaving home at a very immature 17. After graduation, I went into retailing, got an MBA, and then worked in Corporate America—not out of a love for business, but simply not knowing what else to do. At no point on this 12-year journey did I seek to understand myself and to assess what I really wanted in my life.
I paid a heavy price for that lack of awareness. I struggled with low self-esteem, eating disorders, anxiety, perfectionism, and impostor syndrome. I married young (afraid of being alone), and painfully divorced two years later.
So it was no surprise, after marrying my husband Peter at 31, and finally getting pregnant after battling infertility, that I eagerly quit my marketing job. To be honest, I think raising our twin daughters was the first time I felt a real sense of purpose in my life, a real knowing that this was what I was meant to do. But the fear still plagued me. I believed that if only I could be a perfect mom, my kids would turn out to be perfectly happy. I was desperately afraid that they would suffer my own crippling insecurity and anxiety. No matter how many books I read, lectures I attended, activities I organized for my girls, crafts I made myself do with them, I still felt it was not enough.
It took my daughters saying, quite literally, “enough,” for me to finally take a hard look at my life. They were entering high school—we’d just moved back into the city of Chicago—and they were pushing back on me, fed up with my controlling parenting, and eager for independence. The truth is, I was tired. Tired of living in fear, tired of never being good enough, tired of feeling like a failure, tired of putting everyone else first. Something had to change.
But, nearing age 50, I was truly lost. My whole identity had been wrapped up in being the perfect mom. Without that, who was I? What was I supposed to do? Did I have anything of value to offer the world? On top of that, I felt all alone. I’d left my community of girlfriends behind in the suburbs after our move and was struggling to find my tribe in the city. I was used to putting up a strong façade, and was too embarrassed to share my “first world” problems.
It took several years of hard, honest work—therapy, exploration, trial and error—for me to find myself for the first time in my life. I had to face some tough questions and come to terms with my past in order to embrace a new, more hopeful future. In the process, I learned who I am—my values, passions, and gifts. I finally realized the toxic impact of my perfectionism, and the power of vulnerability, and vowed to accept myself, flaws and all. I learned who my girlfriends are, and who is better left behind. I discovered the power of action in the face of fear, of taking risks, of getting outside my comfort zone. I found my courage (read my essay, “My Fuck You Fifties,” on Huffington Post).
Don’t get me wrong, my journey of self-acceptance is nowhere near complete, and likely never will be. I am a work in progress, every day. I am learning to be perfectly imperfect.
Today, at 52, I am a life coach and writer. When my girls were pushing me away, and I was opening up with other women about my loss of identity—as a mother, wife, and community volunteer—I learned just how many other middle-aged women were struggling with similar issues. Maybe women like you? I also met amazing women who had survived the midlife transition and were thriving in their second half. Women like: Gretchen, who became an advocate for therapeutic drug policies in her 50s, after her sons became addicted to heroin; Bonnie, who lost her job along with her marriage at 48, and launched a professional organizing business; Sally, who found love later in life and was able to realize her dream of becoming a mother, at 51; Kristine, who at 61 channeled her grief after her mother’s passing into making (then selling) porcelain art; Nan, who got on a bike to get in shape and became a competitive cyclist in her 50s; Jean, who at 60 wrote a memoir about caring for her parents, who were both diagnosed with Alzheimer’s on the same day; Lisa, who fell in love with a woman at 51. And so many more!
Eager to share their stories—we all have one—I launched my blog, Next Act For Women. This online community showcases women who have reinvented in midlife and beyond: They contribute their stories of successes, along with the bumps in the road, and share advice and resources; they help us learn from each other as we strive to discover and live out our own next act; they remind us that it’s never too late to find yourself and find renewed purpose in life.
My interview subjects’ courage has emboldened me to seek out my own reinvention: I am now a Certified Life Coach and Energy Leadership Index Master Practitioner, trained through the Institute for Excellence in Professional Coaching. I am honored to challenge and empower women as they embark on their own search for meaning and journeys of reinvention. Read more about my coaching here and my workshops here.
On a lighter note, here are some FUN FACTS about me…
- I jumped out of a plane at age 50—loved the adrenaline rush of the freefall but then felt super nauseous once the parachute opened
- I have a huge sweet tooth and indulge in chocolate daily
- My name, Hélène, is French for Helene. To pronounce it, you say the two letters L and N in a row: L-N, with the emphasis on the N (I was raised in Paris until the age of 13)
- My celebrity crush is Idris Elba
- I continue to use paper calendars and am a big fan of Letts of London ones. I have these calendars going back to 1997!
- I belong to an Estrogen Poker Group—yes, just what it sounds like, ladies playing cards! (I lose my $20 every time)
- I’m a huge fan of Terry Gross and her National Public Radio show “Fresh Air”
- My favorite TV shows are Scandal, Veep, and Law & Order SVU
- I am an avid reader of psychology and behavioral economics books—I always have a stack of nonfiction books on my nightstand awaiting their turn!
- I was once mistaken for a “motivational dancer” at a friend’s 50th Birthday party—I do love to dance!
- If you doubt the power of hugs, watch my favorite all-time video here, to one of my favorite songs too! I cry every time.