Deciding on a career change in your thirties is no easy task. It means starting on the bottom rung of the ladder again and working your way up just as everyone you know is forging ahead with their careers, renting bi er houses and flats, and starting their own families.
My social media newsfeed had become an endless stream of baby photos and new family firsts. First kid, first smile, first family car, first house... It seemed to me that I was falling behind and that I had somehow failed at being an adult. When an ex-boyfriend died suddenly, it made me re-evaluate my life. My achievements seemed meagre, I had lost sight of my ambitions and I realised that I was deeply unhappy. I knew I was capable of much more than my half-hearted efforts thus far. Something had to be done.
To enact sweeping life changes, sacrifices had to be made. I’d have to completely upend my life, lean into the fear of change and embark on a journey that would lift me up out of the mire of unsated aspirations. I thought long and hard about exactly what I wanted to get out of life. It was then that I had an epiphany of sorts, through the identification of an aspect of my character that I had hitherto taken for granted; the need to care for others and to make the world around me a little bit better. But this stepchange meant I also had to go back to university. I was lucky enough to be among the last students to get an NHS bursary, but it was still impossible to accept a place on the course without also returning home to live with my parents.
I felt as though I had come full circle. Mum and dad had taught us how to fend for ourselves, teaching us how to cook, bake and do laundry - the building blocks of an independent life in the crucial developmental years of childhood and adolescence. As you grow up and leave home, these lessons act as foundations, upon which you establish your own ideas about how things should and should not be done.
Compromising my independence did not seem like an attractive option. I had spent years making my own mistakes and building upon little triumphs, and while I was unhappy with the direction of my life, I was fiercely proud of my ability to look after myself. While I was grateful to my parents for taking me in, I feared that they might see me as the same person who had left home and treat me accordingly. I was also frightened that I might like being back home too much and get so comfy that I may never leave, diminishing my already fragile self-respect completely.
Soon after moving back home, my dad’s health began to deteriorate. He was suffering from a neurological condition originating from an acquired brain injury after a fall from a ladder many years before. For the first time, I realised the extent to which not only I had changed as a person, but that to which my parents had changed as well.
I had always seen my dad as a big strong ox of a Yorkshireman who could turn his hand to anything practical, from building furniture, to plumbing, to rewiring a house. My enduring memory of my dad from when I was growing up was him taking the stabilisers off my blue bike and letting me ride down the cul-de-sac for the first time.
Mum had always been the ultra-organised driving force in the family, the lynchpin around which the rest of us were tethered. She was the one to whom my brother and I would go when we needed something soothed or sorted. From broken glasses, falling off walls and out of trees, and horseplay gone wrong to making sense of job applications and advice about life, we always depended on her.
In the intervening years, we had all progressed as people, and their view of me had changed accordingly. Through this new dynamic, my view of myself began to alter, too. I would listen to myself talking and realise that not only did I know what I was talking about, but I had confidence in my own words. The traits I had inherited from both of my parents had begun to pay dividends for all of us. My dad’s deft practicality and my mum’s problemsolving were a perfect fit for my degree in occupational therapy. Through learning about the discipline at university, I was then able to pass on my knowledge to them, so that they could keep doing the things that they loved and maintain a good quality of life.
My dad’s condition had impacted his life to the extent that he was almost housebound, causing his world to shrink to just four walls, my mum and the dog. Mum was feeling the pressure of being dad’s only source of contact with the outside world. She was grateful to have an ally to talk to as her plans for a long retirement with her husband of over forty years looked like they might be derailed. Our similar natures helped both of us as we put our heads together and planned for the future.
After months of preaching to them, I finally persuaded my parents to get an occupational therapy referral. Through this referral, help began to flood in from the health care services, providing dad with the kitchen and bathroom equipment, hearing aids and sensory training he so badly needed.
For the first time in my life, I had found a passion. While the hedonism of my teens and twenties had subtly segued into a passive listlessness in my early thirties, a new enthusiasm had taken me over as I hurtled towards forty - thanks in no small part to my burgeoning role in my family unit.
The assistance worked both ways. Undergraduate degrees can be tough. Deadlines and presentations put you under pressure and fill you with self-doubt. As a mature student, I lived for the first two years under the heavy cloud of impostor syndrome. I was convinced that any moment, someone would say that a mistake had been made and tell me to get out of the lecture hall: “It’s too late for you”.
My mum proof-read my assignments. She persuaded me to learn to drive - something I had never needed before, but was now vital as part of my course. She even bought me motorway lessons as a Christmas present.
The perceived sacrifice to gain my degree had turned into a chance to rebuild and reinvent myself. I had never seen myself as a family man - that had always my brother’s province. Now, however, I really am. They gave me a roof over my head when I most needed it, and I gave them the encouragement and advice they needed to make the most of what the health care system had to offer.
For the first time, I know how lucky I am. Not everyone has a family who would willingly take in their grown-up offspring while he sorts out his life and stresses over the word count of assignments, not to mention suffer endless rehearsals of presentations.
The situation won’t last forever, nor should it. I need my independence back. I need the chance to hand over my hard-earned money so I can rent a flat. I need rooms to decorate and my own plants to forget to feed. I need a big television on which to watch my Doctor Who DVDs. One day, maybe, I might meet a nice fella and ask him to move in with me. Then, it will be my turn to post all those firsts online. First date, first dog, first house…