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Aug 25

The Post-Mommy Abyss/By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC-S

When our youngest child, Sam, was a high school sophomore, I became superfluous. He got his driver’s license and the family’s battered old Toyota, and peeled off into the teenage cosmos. Jesse and Owen were away at college. I was left without a job.

While I had spent the child-rearing years doing volunteer work and working part-time in my husband’s photographic studio, I lacked my own, autonomous agenda. My primary agenda, as a mother, was supporting my family members’ agendas. Now I had to face myself. What was my agenda?

I’d been itchy for some time, wondering if my brain still worked. Years before, I had been a contender: a newspaper and magazine reporter with a real career. I wrote profiles of all kinds of people, coaxed the most recalcitrant subjects to talk, and fancied myself a practical psychologist. I traveled, lived in Miami and New York. Now here I was, an 18-year gap on my resume, in a city where 20-somethings ruled. I was old, technology-deficient.

What kind of career, I wondered, would offer autonomy, part-time opportunities, enough complexity to fuel my growth, minimal technology and meaningful work? I already knew the answer: psychotherapy. Once again, I’d be getting people’s stories, albeit with a different, more compassionate objective. I had fantasized about this for years. So I applied to grad school.

St. Edward’s University embraced me, swallowed me up. But Michael, my husband, protested. He was used to having me around; he wasn’t traveling much anymore. We had to forge a new dynamic. I forced myself to wake up at 5am and write my papers before my husband and son emerged. I sacrificed my favorite Netflix series at night to get all my reading done. I spent weekends hitting the books. But I relished every moment. I remembered how to study. And this time, I was laser-focused.

School was the easy part. Next came the dreaded national exam, the search for a supervisor who could sponsor me under her umbrella in private practice, and the whopping 3,000 internship hours I had to log. Finally, I had to find a place to work on my own.

That was a decade ago. My reinvention took a few years. Today, I work at the very tranquil Austin Counseling Center, five minutes from home. I share space with a good group of like-minded therapists. We occupy the floor above a classical music school, and hear only trilling piano notes as ambient noise. I bring my elderly Bichon to work as an unofficial therapy dog: a canine Xanax. I go home for lunch. I take Fridays off.

The best part? The children witnessed my new becoming. They are proud of me. And all three have settled here. We host family dinners on Sundays and otherwise try not to intrude. We are in the in-between: that nether-world between being parents and grandparents.

But we stand ready.