As it turns out, my 35th year has been a soul-searching one for me. Every year of the past 13 has been chaos, survival mode, just-keep-swimming-mode; I graduated college, lived on my own for a bit, got married to my college sweetheart, and made a home from scratch in three different cities – all within a year. Two major moves and my first career happened that year.
The next year brought a surprise pregnancy, the purchase of our first home, immediately followed by the loss of my husband’s job, which was closely followed by the loss of my job. That was a scary season of uncertainty, layered on top of a still-new marriage, impending parenthood, and living in a new town where I knew almost no one. Survival mode.
Being a new mom the following year was terrifying. Bonding with my son did not come easily, and it was not the euphoric emotional experience that everyone said it would be. “Once you’re a mother, you’ll understand.” “Your whole world changes when you become a mother, and you feel a love you could never before imagine.” Not for me. My own insecurities and fears, coupled with my son’s undiagnosed special needs, fed my anxieties and feelings of not being enough. Being still so freshly out of college – where friends were everywhere, and supportive – I struggled to make friends and cultivate relationships. Money was a constant worry, and I still don’t know how we would have gotten by without anonymous bags of groceries that occasionally showed up on our porch.
The following year I was a 26 year old mother to a toddler, with a baby on the way, working an opposite schedule to my husband so that one of us could be with our son at all times. And then came our beautiful new baby. We were exhausted. It’s all a blur.
The month I turned 27, I had a health crisis that terrified me, and I was convinced that I wasn’t going to make it. The thought of leaving my precious boys and husband caused so much anxiety for me that I had breakdown. It’s a very difficult period to talk about, so I won’t here, but if you’re struggling through a similar season, I’m here. I made it out, and I would love to get coffee with you and share that part of my story. Don’t try to do it alone; it’s too much to carry.
That was also the year I took my photography to the professional level (I KNOW). I had no business trying to launch a career while dealing with a health crisis, a breakdown, and two kids under 2 (in the middle of the biggest recession in recent memory) – but oh well. I’ve never been one to take the easy way out. I started out with a $300 digital Pentax camera, and an elderly PC laptop. That’s it. No business cards, no website. Just word of mouth. Kids, don’t be like your Auntie Em.
My 28th year was a bit calmer. I was getting healthier in mind and body, settling in more to motherhood. I still changed a LOT of diapers, and photographed a lot of very cheap sessions. I finally had a website, and a small but loyal client base. I changed the name of my business to Emily Lapish Photography out of a feeling that I was finally ready to not hide behind a generic business name; I was ready to put my name on my work and own it. I had one or two really good friends, and a church we loved. Money was still a constant source of stress. Just keep swimming. Oh, and SURPRISE! I was pregnant again, against all physical odds. Charlie is still the most stubborn and unexpected person I know.
Year 29 brought a new baby, a better work/life balance, a big shift in the way I did business and what types of sessions I shot. I photographed more of what I loved and said no to things outside my wheelhouse. I developed more confidence in my work and in myself as an artist. It was insane (INSANE) having three rambunctious boys 5 and under AND run a full time business with no nanny/daycare/sitter. But our family did what we always do: we adjusted, we went with the flow, and we kept our heads above water by the grace of God and good friends. I will forever be grateful to our church small group who rallied around us and held us up all those years. We would have been sunk without them.
Year 30 can be summed up thusly: ongoing medical crises (injuries, illnesses, ER visits, practically living at the chiropractor) galore. More financial strain. My husband’s job changed into a work-from-home position – covering the Asian markets, which meant working from 10pm-6am. From home. In a tiny house where the rest of us were trying to sleep. Keeping three tiny kids quiet during the day so he could sleep was a fun challenge.
The following year we decided to sell our home, which we had ridiculously outgrown, and move into something with a little more space. Long story short: we made offers on 5 different houses and lost out on every one. Outcome? We said, forget it, let’s just move to Chattanooga. Three months later, we did.
A major move, kids starting school, selling a house, buying a house, renting a house until we could move in to the new one, moving my business across two states, building a new client base, finding a new church and a new community….that year was a blur.
Year 32: Work work work work hustle hustle hustle build build build build. It was time to build the studio and we did most of the work ourselves. So. much. work. In the midst of this, we looked at each other and said, “I really think what we need right now is to take in more kids.” Because, obviously.
Year 33: Licensed foster home, open for business. Our beautiful teenage daughter and her toddler daughter moved in. Our lives would never be the same. For legal and emotional reasons I can’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that year was the most sharply poignant, beautiful, chaotic, heartbreaking, stressful, life-giving year of my life. Upshot: we wanted it to go on forever. After nearly a year as a happy family of 7, the courts decided otherwise and our family was fractured.
Year 34: Two failed adoptions, right on the heels of the loss of our daughter. I’m not ready to discuss this time of my life, not yet. Some wounds take longer to heal. Last year was all about working for healing. Creating space for grief and wholeness. Jealously carving out the time and togetherness that our core family needed. Survival.
Year 35: It’s the year of reflection. There’s no great crisis (knock on wood), no huge life change. We’re finally in a good place in marriage, finances, and life; the kids are all older and independent — and it’s hard to adjust to. I’ve been living in crisis mode so long, sometimes I have to remind myself (over and over again, while breathing deeply) that there is no great threat to my family, no catastrophe in progress. I can relax. My brain hasn’t gotten the memo yet, but it will in time. Living on high alert for an extended season takes its toll, and the theme I’m living with right now is “trust the process.” Healing takes time.
So here’s what I’ve learned so far:
- Be kind to yourself. I can’t stress this enough. You will never feel like “enough” or that you’ve arrived – so stop making that your goal. You – the you that you are right now – are enough. There’s no need to perform, or to apologize for your life not looking like everyone else’s. Do what you believe is right for your family/self/life, and screw what everyone else says. Case in point: we don’t make plans on the weekends. We just don’t. Life is nuts, and right now our little family needs each other, and needs margin. So we stay spontaneous, and hang out, and forget about deadlines and agendas. It’s counter cultural, and it garners me some weird side-eye when I tell people, but it is what it is.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. Kids will be kids, kids will break the possessions you treasure most, hard times will come, ER visits are nearly unavoidable – but at the end of the day, if you’re all together, you’ve succeeded. Parenting is 2 parts love and 2 parts just keeping everyone alive. Everything else is just icing on the cake. It just doesn’t matter much.
- You will gain weight. There’s no way around it. You will also probably lose weight. If so, cool. But spending your time obsessing over these two processes only makes you hate yourself. Here’s my advice: don’t count calories or carbs or fat grams. GET TO KNOW YOUR BODY. Know what it needs, and give it what it needs. If you’re getting the nutrients you need, you are WINNING. Who cares about the rest. You’re not getting any awards for being the skinniest person on the block – but if your body is healthy and functioning well and getting what it needs, you’re going to be happier, get more out of life, and have more to give the people you love.
- Wear shorts even if you hate your legs. Your legs are fine. They get you where you’re going, which makes them badass powerhouses that deserve some ventilation.
- People are going to think whatever they want about you, and you can’t stop them. So who cares. Seriously, be yourself and forget the haters. Wear red lipstick to yoga class. Don’t own a pair of heels if you don’t want to. Keep that exotic stamp collection if it makes you happy. Rethink your worldview if it’s time to do soul searching. You do you, and I 100% mean that.
- No means no. If your heart says no, it’s a no. Stick to it. And if someone tries to shame you for your no, or argue with your no, it’s a pretty clear sign they don’t have your best interests at heart.
I really can’t wait to see what more I’ve learned in another ten years. I’ll let you know when I do.
Emily Lapish is a lifestyle photographer in Chattanooga, TN specializing in all things family-related. She spends her time
fending off wild animals raising three boys with her husband, and enjoys long walks through Target while cradling a hazelnut latte.
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