The Year I Turned 40: Reaching Midlife During End Times

Having a midlife crisis during the pandemic changed everything.

Woman riding her bicycle during sunrise at the Washington monument MerinoPhotos, Eric Dekker, VPanteon | Canva

This story was written in September 2020.

Today, I turn 40. It may come as a surprise that I’ve been looking forward to turning 40 for quite a while. For about five years, in fact, ever since I gave birth to my second (and last) child. After 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, I returned to work, and as I stumbled around in the fog of early motherhood, I dreamed of a day when both my children would be able to walk, by themselves, to the same public elementary school.


That day was supposed to arrive in September, just weeks before my 40th birthday. I was going to achieve “parental nirvana” — a brief window of time in which my children would be old enough to dress themselves and walk themselves to school, but not yet old enough to roll their eyes at me and refuse my hugs.

In the year leading up to my 40th birthday, I had three solo trips planned, both personal and work-related, which would represent a cumulative total of 10 days away from my children.

That was more than I’d spent away from them in the past nine years. I love my children, but I was really looking forward to those 10 days.


Then, on March 13, 2020, life as we knew it unraveled.

Over the course of 12 hours, it was announced that:

  • Both my children’s schools would be closing for two impossible weeks.
  • Everything I had planned was now canceled.
  • Maybe we were all going to die.

As the Canceling of All the Plans commenced, the four books I had checked out from the library for my solo plane trip to Boston lay forgotten, gathering dust on some obscure shelf, where they still lie today. I had spent so much time imagining that solo plane flight — six glorious hours each way in which I didn’t have to work, clean anything, cook anything, talk to anybody, or entertain children. Canceling that flight was the hardest part of it all.

Before COVID-19, parents in our country already had to hack so much to balance work and family. I’m not talking about balance as in, “How can I work and still have time to do arts and crafts with my children?” but rather, “How can I work and manage to bathe my children more than once a week?”

Parenting for families in our frenzied, work-obsessed culture is rarely about quality time and teachable moments. It’s far more often about meeting basic needs and getting through each day — particularly so for working mothers, who are always juggling at least a dozen metaphorical balls. (Sometimes, I wish those balls were real. Then at least I could show off my juggling skills on YouTube.)


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In one sense, the pandemic dashed all my hopes and dreams for my 40th year of life.

No solo plane trips, no parental nirvana, no reclaiming of an identity I had lost track of somewhere along the way.

But it also saved me.

I was really, really tired. This might have been what we call “burnout,” a condition in which Americans seem to take a unique, perverse pleasure. I might also have been approaching what we call a “midlife crisis.”

I was coming to terms with the fact that a Google search of my maiden name yielded far more impressive results than a search of my married name, and all the hard, hard work I had put in since having children was unseen and unappreciated by pretty much everybody, including major search engines.


Then suddenly, just like that, I was no longer commuting to and from downtown, no longer coordinating two school drop-offs and pick-ups every day, and my husband was temporarily out of work. When 5PM rolled around, I no longer dashed madly to my bike, pedaled furiously home, dashed madly to the car, gunned it to my son’s preschool (where he was always the last to be picked up), dashed madly back to the car, gunned it to my daughter’s after-care program (where she was always the last to be picked up), dashed madly back to the car, gunned it home, and dashed madly to the house, where we would try to cram dinner and bedtime routines into the two precious hours we had left in the day.

Now, I sauntered upstairs and allowed myself 30 glorious minutes on the porch, while the kids colored, played Legos, and rode their scooters up and down the sidewalk.

I realized that the pandemic, in a strange way, was not only saving my sanity but also saving their childhood.

Those were the early days when people still cheered for healthcare workers at 7PM and multi-billion dollar companies assured us that “we’re all in this together.” Intermingled with the fear and anxiety was a certain headiness, a feeling of time slowing, a desire to talk to neighbors we had only previously nodded to in passing, and maybe even to sing with them in the street.

But then, COVID-19 wouldn’t go away. Those two impossible weeks that my children’s schools were closed stretched into six. Then it became clear that they wouldn’t be going back for the year. Then we learned summer camp was a no-go. Then it was back to virtual school in September.


We had to take our parental hacking skills to a new level. When my husband was summoned back to work (outside the home), I was faced with the no-win prospect of simultaneously caring for my children, managing my daughter’s virtual classes, and working from home — which even at my newly reduced 32-hour per week schedule was only just barely viable. Some parents have been doing this since March, and are still doing it. I did it for a month and realized we needed a plan B.

It was childcare that saved me, as childcare always has.

They say it takes a village, but instead of villages, we build isolated houses, inhabited by isolated families, whose extended family members are scattered across the country in isolated houses of their own. We have a smattering of friends and neighbors, who sometimes text us back. But our children, our elderly, our sick, and yes, even our own burnt-out selves, still need care.


I went back to work 10 weeks after my first daughter was born, and for the next 16 months, my husband served as her weekday care provider. Was I happy about leaving at 7AM after a night that could be best described as a series of restless naps? No. Was I happy about returning at 6PM, exhausted, with my breasts on the verge of bursting because I couldn’t find time between meetings for a third pumping session? No.

But I’ll admit, there was a certain sense of weightlessness I felt after creeping down our dark hallway, delicately opening the front door of our condo, and slipping into the hallway outside. My rule was that if my daughter woke up and started fussing after I closed the front door, she was no longer my responsibility. If she stirred while I was creeping down the hallway, or coaxing the front door open, then I would attend to her.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see my nearly newborn baby in the morning; it was just that the goodbye was more painful after making contact. Not   to mention that I would also be late for work. I preferred to sneak out of my own home.

As I rode my bike down the National Mall, the Washington Monument glowing orange as it caught the rising sun, I felt the world stretching out before me. My husband, I knew, would spend the day in our 600 square-foot condo, warming bottles, buckling and unbuckling straps, desperately trying to coax our sleep-defiant baby down for a nap so he could get a moment of peace. Then we would swap roles on the weekend so he could go to school. It takes a village, but for those first 18 months, we only had each other.


When our youngest child was born, my husband was in school full-time, and I had a family to support. I’d had a career somewhere along the way, but I could no longer make sense of it. Work had become about surviving and sustaining, not growing and thriving.

Ironically, supporting my family meant that the time I had to spend with said family was hectic and sparse. On Monday mornings, when my son was just barely no longer a newborn, the window seat in our dining room was lined end to end with all the various things that would have to be transferred to our car and then transferred to the various places where each of us would proceed to spend our days. It looked like we were packing for a week-long vacation.

There was my breast pump, of course, stocked with bottles and microwaveable bags for sanitizing the dirty bottles. There was a small cooler for transporting the milk. There was a diaper bag for the baby, stocked with clean diapers, frozen milk, and multiple changes of clothes. Then a bag for my three-year-old with a “just in case” change of clothes. A grocery bag with my lunch for the week, since my brain simply didn’t have the space to remember to bring lunch every day, nor did my bank account have the funds necessary to purchase it, having been thoroughly depleted during my unpaid 12-week maternity leave.

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There was my purse, which was still filled with banana peels, crayon stubs, empty Tupperware containers, and other weekend refuse. My teenage stepson’s backpack, which I didn’t dare look inside. I presumed it contained books and binders, but it also belonged to a 16-year-old boy who once admitted to peeing in a coffee mug because the bathroom was occupied. He then admitted to keeping that same coffee mug, still full of urine, in his closet for the better part of a month. Next to his backpack were also two thermoses, which to my knowledge had never held urine, steaming with fresh coffee.

There was the ritual Lining Up of All the Things, then the ritual Taking All the Things to the Car, followed by the ritual Strapping In of The Babies and Children. By the time I dropped off my stepson, reminding myself that one day my own children would also be capable of unbuckling their own seatbelts, opening their own car doors, and walking their own two feet from the car to their educational establishment, I could almost taste the coffee steaming in the cupholder beside me.

But first, there was the drive to daycare, then the ritual Unstrapping of The Babies and Children, followed by the ritual Schlepping of The Bags While Carrying a Baby and Corralling a Three-Year-Old, followed by the ritual Removal of Shoes and Outerwear. Then there was the ritual Obligatory Small Talk with our daycare provider, who always looked even more exhausted than I felt. And no wonder — whereas I was about to retreat to my car, crank up NPR, and drive alone for 30 minutes to an office devoid of crumbs, screams, and sticky surfaces, she was about to spend the day not only with my two children but also with her two children and two other children, all between the ages of three months and four years old. Four of those children would depart at 5 p.m. later that day, but two would remain in her care, refusing to eat dinner, refusing to go to bed, and refusing to let her close the bathroom door so she could poop in peace.

In my current situation, there were a lot of people I envied — for instance, people who slept — but our daycare provider was not one of them. She was my haphazard attempt at a village, and she needed her own village, too.


Fast forward to 2020, when my children were finally both capable of unbuckling their own seatbelts and opening their own car doors.

This time around, it was another in-home daycare provider who saved us. She had cared for our son before he started preschool, and for both our children for several summers, not to mention the dozens of other days throughout the year when schools are closed but offices are not. In the fall of 2020, she found herself managing online classes for four children, in four grades and three school districts, while also watching our son and two toddlers.

I’ll admit — I feel almost guilty about how manageable my life has suddenly become, particularly when I know how much other parents are struggling.

After 19 years of 40– to 50-hour weeks, the 36 hours I’m working now feels … luxurious. Particularly because they are quiet, focused hours, away from shrieks, squeals, and endless interruptions. I can sign off around 3 p.m. and walk to pick up my children and we can talk about superpowers and popsicle flavors and that “stupid corona” on the way home. My kids can play outside while I prep dinner.

When my husband gets home from work, we all sit down to eat, as we always have, but the meal is now something to be savored, not plowed through. (My daughter and I usually plow through it anyway because we share hearty appetites and have a tendency to consume our food too quickly.) There is even time for an after-dinner stroll. I wave to my neighbors, and we make small talk, trying (and often failing) to make sense of things. After bedtime, I sit with my husband on the porch, where we drink a beer while trying (and often failing) to make sense of things. On Thursday nights, I gather with my women neighbors in my backyard, where we drink too much wine, trying (and often failing) to make sense of things.


Can we enjoy the present without making sense of it? There is guilt, yes, but there is something else. I’m not sure exactly how to process these kernels of happiness while the world seems to be falling apart around us.

This has been a year rife with contradictions and psychic pain.



Everywhere, people are dying of a virus we could have controlled. My children lost their schools and friends, virtually overnight, and my daughter now learns by staring into a screen. Wildfires are tearing through our state, burning homes and choking the air with smoke. My Black husband and brown children have had to proclaim their right to matter, while police officers, federal agents, and white supremacists who proclaim otherwise brutalize protesters on the front lines. Mothers are dropping out of the workforce because their children are “their problem” and no one is stepping up to help.

Whether it’s COVID, or wildfire smoke, or tear gas, or unrelenting stress, or a knee on the neck, everywhere we are fighting to breathe.


And even as we gasp for breath, we cannot manage to unite around a simple, common goal — to save ourselves. We may be only six feet apart, but the divides are too many and too deep.

Interspersed with the precious moments, of which there are many, I battle with feelings of bottomless despair. I’m coming to terms with the reality that I just might be raising my children during end times, and I don’t know what to do about it. When, I wonder, did we lose sight of the common good?

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I don’t want to romanticize the past, rife as it’s been with violence, injustice, and human cruelty. But it seems there was a time when the raising of our children and caring for our communities was considered a collective effort, an important one, not a hasty, underfunded afterthought in the mad scramble of life.

Instead, the work has been relegated to underpaid and underappreciated caregivers, mostly women, and mostly women of color. Both these women and the women who struggle to find these caregivers, to afford these caregivers, to cart their children (or their parents) around to various places of care, barely have enough time and energy to take care of themselves, let alone their families, let alone their communities, let alone the world.

Meanwhile, the white men in power are busy making a mess of everything. It’s a mess far more dizzying than the tangle of clothes and books and stuffed animals and plastic superheroes that I have to wade through to wake up my kids in the morning. And just like my five-year-old son, who spends Saturday morning wailing that “it’s too much to clean up,” we will soon, too soon, find ourselves on the precipice of the mess, wringing our hands, realizing that it’s too much and it’s too late.

It’s my children who will suffer the most. Your children. Our children.


I don’t know how to reconcile these dark thoughts with my daily realities. Tears well in me as I write these words. Tears well in me often these days. And yet, even as I ponder the end of the world, I’m also thinking that the bathtub desperately needs to be scrubbed and that my son needs new sneakers.

During the brutal chaos of the year, I’ve found a way to persist. I’ve found my village, even as we’ve retreated further into our homes. I’ve found the gift of time, even when time is running out.

Today, on the dawn of my 40th birthday, I saw the sunrise. The sun was red and swollen against swirling pink clouds, and I couldn’t decide if it looked beautiful or ominous. Just weeks before, I’d seen the same sun burning a similar shade of red, though then it was obscured by a dusty haze of smoke against a quiet, orange sky. Then, I was praying for rain (I don’t normally pray), but the sun and smoke were unrelenting.

This morning, the air was crisp. The shadows of the trees cast sharp lines against grass that, after months of dry heat, had reclaimed its luminous shade of green. I inhaled and found I could take a full breath. Today, I decided, the sun was beautiful.


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Kerala Taylor is an award-winning writer and co-owner of a worker-owned marketing agency. Her weekly stories are dedicated to interrupting notions of what it means to be a mother, woman, worker, and wife. She writes on Medium and has recently launched a Substack publication Mom, Interrupted.