I’ve worked my entire life—and had a lot of luck on my side—to get everything I always wanted: a dream job, an amazing husband, two kids and a not-so-starter home. But a few years into my dream life, I began to feel not-so-dreamy.
I realized that I had no more items on my to-do list. The only thing left to do was to work, to clean the house and to take my kids to their activities. Day after day after day.
I was in the midst of a big life rut.
I know I’m not alone.
“Working with parents who are feeling bored, stuck or stagnant at this stage of life is something I have seen time and time again,” says Joyce Marter, licensed clinical professional counselor and founder of Urban Balance. “It’s as if many of us know what we want to do with ourselves until midlife and then somehow the path becomes less clear and defined.”
Melissa LaHann, the 38-year-old founder of the business LatchPal by Happy Fig, went through the same experience.
She celebrated 14 years of marriage, has a 1-year-old and a 5-year-old and even started her own thriving business. She should be totally happy, sailing through life.
“I was finding myself in a low-energy place,” LaHann says. “I felt like life was starting to feel routine.”
There’s no clear-cut psychological diagnosis for life rut, but dysthymia comes close: it’s similar to depression, and symptoms include low energy, low mood and loss of motivation. It often lasts years and goes undiagnosed because there’s nothing truly wrong.
The key is to acknowledge that you’re in a rut, says Jane Scudder, a certified leadership, personal development and career transition coach.
“It’s my opinion and observation that ruts are often caused by lack of a bigger vision and lack of awareness that we are slipping into monotony,” she says. “A key step to getting out of this is to acknowledge that we’re in one, and also explore what is keeping us in this spot.”
Is it lack of a vision?
Is it uncertainty of what to do next?
LaHann started thinking about what motivated and energized her.
“I love my family, but a big part of my life is my business,” LaHann says, a sentiment that may go against the grain at a time when moms are often told that their number one focus should be on their family. “I started brainstorming with other friends in the industry who got me excited about fun ways I could further my product—it’s what I needed.”
Work isn’t the solution for everyone’s life ruts, however.
The difficult part is figuring out what part of your life needs to be rebooted.
“If you had a magic wand, what would you want?” she asks. Don’t set your own ceilings with self-limiting beliefs.
Marter suggests thinking about going back to school, changing careers, starting a new hobby or picking up an old one or trying new things like kickboxing, aerial yoga or pottery.
Goals like these are important, Scudder says.
Big, long-term goals—as well as short-term goals—really help with ruts, she says.
The longer-term goals revive a vision to ensure you’re moving forward with your life in a meaningful direction. These can be really overwhelming in terms of progress, however, which is why smaller, short-term goals are key as well.
“For instance, you might hold a vision and longer-term goal of recommitting yourself to your relationship or marriage after having children,” she says, explaining that this won’t happen overnight. “But what can happen overnight is asking your partner more questions tomorrow, having a conversation not about your children or simply telling your partner you want to work on these things.”
Doing service work can also help you see outside of yourself. One of Marter’s clients was dealing with multiple career and relationship issues, so she volunteered in Haiti for a week. When she returned, she said, ‘“I have no problems,’” Marter says. “Volunteer work can put things into perspective.”
Refreshing your relationship can also help, she says.
Even if you’ve been together for years, you can still discover new things about each other by sharing new experiences like a cooking class or a scuba class.
“Make new friends, travel, redecorate the house even if it’s on a DIY budget,” Marter says. “Make a concerted effort to spice things up in the bedroom.”
Starting a routine of talking for just 20 minutes daily about anything other than the kids or financial and household responsibilities will do wonders, she says.
Rebuilding your self-esteem is also important, especially if you’ve been living your life for your spouse, your kids or your job.
Get a haircut, work with a personal trainer or make over your home, Marter suggests.
“If your home is feeling blah, consider a new coat of paint, some new throw pillows, planting a garden or creating a new space in your home for self-care like reading, yoga and meditation,” she says.
Still stuck? Identify a mentor or a hero for your next life phase, Marter says.
When Marter’s children were young, she had a friend who was an empty nester.
“I admired how she is always engaged in life and forever learned and growing,” Marter says.
Her friend went back to graduate school when her children were older. She painted at her art studio, showed her work in galleries, took movie classes with her husband, traveled with her friends and eventually enjoyed being a grandmother.
“This helps me envision my path, knowing that exciting and new things are possible,” Marter says.
You just have to look for them.
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Chicago Parent. Read the rest of the issue.