Episode 104: Starting Over

Show transcript:

 Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, you start your adult life believing that having a career is wrong …and then everything changes…

“The first week of my divorce, I had $40 in the bank and I cried when I set up the utilities in my own house because I had never imagined I could do that. It was the funniest little things to realize that I was a grown up.”

Coming up, leaving one life behind and starting a career in your mid-30s.

A couple of years ago I heard from a listener Salt Lake City, Utah called Brooke Lark. Her email was memorable for a bunch of reasons but mainly because of the colorful way she wrote.

At one point she said,

“When you're raised believing the only thing you're meant to do is have babies, that education is selfish (and career is even more selfish), waking up outside of religion and realizing you've got to swim up stream (with a boatload of kids in tow) is beyond terrifying.”

Recently I asked her to expand on that.

“I was raised in a very conservative religion and left and right, hook, line and sinker, believed that the only thing I should be doing with myself is being a stay-at-home, birthing as many children as God would allow. I dove into that really readily. I was 19 and married. I remember at my 10-year reunion being really proud that I had had four children, which was the most that anyone had. So you know, I was on this, like, dogma treadmill to winning heaven.”

 Brooke was raised Mormon. And unlike Pat Jones in the last show, who is also Mormon, Brooke had a strict religious upbringing. She says she knows Mormon women who have always worked, but that never felt like an option for her.

“There is no denying the fact that if you are a young girl growing up in the Church and you listen to the lessons, you will come away feeling like, "Okay, I understand that it is my job to be a mother and to care for children. I should sacrifice my life for these endeavors and for my husband so that he can be a caretaker and so certainly, you could interpret that, and different personalities do. I have Mormon friends who have a phD and Mormon friends who have traveled the world and never been married. But the large majority of the dogma and the religion does encourage a woman to stay at home. You do grow up believing that your place is in the home. And anything that would better yourself is something you put second.”

She certainly believed that. She’s the oldest of six daughters.

“Everything in our home and our lives was built around the community of church and family. You’re very immersed in the culture and the culture and your community and your family is an extension of those ideas that you learn in church. Interestingly enough, my mom actually left the church when I was 16, which was a huge taboo, and that made me dive in even deeper because then I felt that it was my responsibility to be very righteous and to bring her back to live in a way that I showed her that she was making the wrong choice.”

AM-T: “ Ah, how interesting…”

“I know. I wish I could go back to that 16-year-old girl and say, ‘It's not your job to save your mother.’" [laughs]

But even though she’s laughing now, her mother leaving the church was huge – because she didn’t just leave the church, she left her family. She had had an affair, and Brooke says leaving that relationship and facing up again to the daily grind of kids and housework… 

“She just didn’t care because she couldn’t do it any more. I mean, she had not been educated and she had six young girls. She was overwhelmed. The promises made in church where not her promises. She felt a duty to just leave and she did. She just up and left one day and turned over all of her parental rights to my father.”

Things did not go well after that. The family was scattered, and some of Brooke’s sisters still bear huge psychological scars. She feels lucky that she was almost out of the house when it happened.

And as Brooke says was a righteous girl. She decided she was going to be the ultimate support to her husband, the best mother she could be. She met her husband at Brigham Young University – founded and owned by the Mormon church. She married at 19 and within a couple of years she had her first child, a boy. Once they both graduated, her husband got a job working for the Mormon church in Colorado Springs.

‘So we weren't just members of the Church. Our entire lives was Church and we would travel and speak to youth every summer in a program called EFY, and it was a very active part of my identity to push against people who did not want children, who would consider not having children.”

After her son was born Brooke went on to have a daughter and then twins, a boy and a girl. And one day when she was pregnant with the twins she came across this old column by Ann Landers, the advice columnist. Landers had polled readers to ask if they knew then what they knew now, would they still have had kids? A majority said no. And Brooke was furious. She wrote to Ann Landers lambasting her and her readers, saying how selfish these people were, how children were the best thing in the whole world…and how sad it was that anyone could think differently…

“I was so in love with my children and the opportunity of being a mother. And I think, in part, is because that's all I had. I was not allowed to let that experience be anything but fully fulfilling. And so on most levels it was.”

But about ten years ago something began to shift. Brooke was still happy with her lot, but household finances were a little tight. Then she met this other Mormon mum through her kids’ school, and the two of them started meeting up every week.  

“Well one day over tea she said you know these people, women, are making money off of these blog things…and I said really, do you think I could make $500 a month? Because we did not have money to send the kids to basketball and I had wanted to send them to soccer and basketball. And she said, well I heard that Design Mom makes $30,000 a month.

Brooke had barely read a blog in her life. She was raised to be industrious. She thought online stuff was basically a waste of time. But she really wanted that extra money for the kids. And she loved baking and coming up with recipes…

“I went home, I had no idea what I was doing. Put up a Blogspot—it was horrible looking. The worst name ever. It was called Conversations with a Cupcake because I had no concept of branding or marketing. This was so far from my world that I ever expected to live in. But I had this goal to make $500 a month so the first 6 months I kind of figured out oh, ok I understand how to connect to the community. So I was able to get promoted on several other blogs. And a company called and they offered me $500 every month, just to put, like we’d do a couple of special posts just for them and they’d put their ad on my side bar. So that was a huge win.”

Money began coming in. She was pleased about that and delighted to have this creative outlet, something for herself. She connected with a highly successful blogger at one point, offered to bake her a cake, and was featured on her blog – and that brought Brooke thousands more readers. And as she got more successful, her world began to change. She began to travel a little, to blogging conventions. About six years ago she went to a convention in Arizona and met a group of bloggers she really liked…

“One day we were sitting at a wine bar and I've never been to a wine bar in my life because Mormons are supposed to avoid alcohol at all levels. So I was sitting there and everyone around me was drinking. I was drinking water sitting next to this man who had been flown in for this event. He was so lovely and so dear, and around me, everyone is drinking. I then had this strange feeling, which in Mormonism, we would say is the spirits. There was such a beautiful connection and humanity at that table and nobody was in a hurry. I had never experienced this before. In Mormonism, you are always busy. You're always running from place to place, event to event; meeting to meeting. Here we were and then this man next to me mentioned to me that he was gay. My world cracked open. I could not understand how you could feel nice and kind feelings sitting around a wine bar with people drinking, sitting next to a gay guy that you've now decided that you really like.”

Brooke had been raised in the church to think being gay was decidedly wrong. A sin. That it was something a person should deny, or get fixed.

“So I went home and thought I have to re-think some of the things that I am thinking because this new world that I am starting to understand doesn't fit with the things I am told about how the world really is. And that was the beginning; 9 months later, I resigned from the Church.”

Brooke’s husband was having his own crisis of faith, though for different reasons, and the two of them ended up leaving the church together. 

But losing their community and stepping into a whole new world in their mid-30s – it was a challenge. And at the same time, their relationship was changing.

So Brooke was happy with her new, expanded life before her, but her husband was struggling with what to do next. They had lost the religion they’d shared, the church he’d worked for – but Brooke had her creative outlet, the blog that was actually paying her pretty well at this point.

“I was making about $2,000 a month with my blog, which is more than I ever...When I first started, I was hoping to make $500 a month, so to suddenly get to this point where I was making 2 to 3 thousand dollars a month, I just felt epically wealthy.”

She told her husband she could cover the bills until he found another job.

“And so that was the plan. I would work hard, take a couple of side-hustles and just make it through. Because at that point I wasn’t even thinking, “This could be a career.” I wouldn’t even give myself a name that that could be attached to a career. I just had a little blog.”

But earning her own income was beginning to affect her outlook on life…

“As I started to gain more success, I started to gain more confidence. That made me feel more comfortable drawing boundaries or saying, "this is what I need or this is what I like or this is what I want." Our relationship was just fully unprepared for that kind of equality. We did not go into that marriage being equal partners. We went into the marriage with me as the supporter.” I was the rib. I was Eve and he was Adam. Maybe that was several little cracks in the foundation.

And then the bigger issue came when we stepped out of Mormonism. It is very difficult when everything had a structure before, and everything had an answer and there were very specific roles. You don't have to use a part of your brain that you have to use when suddenly you have to decide what is right based on simply the information that I am gathering for myself.”

She says her husband had thrived within the structure of the Mormon church…

“Where he was being told, ‘This is how you are good, and you check these boxes." And so it became difficult for him outside of Mormonism to flourish because there were no rules that he could check boxes. For me, it was everything that my personality needed, was finally, I could follow every whim and figure out everything all by myself. That just became a very dramatic shift where we were essentially two different people. It's really hard to overcome that when you are first of all, not living under the rules that you had agreed to in the beginning, and now you are not even the same people anymore.”

A year after they left the church, they agreed to divorce. 

Her ex still hadn’t found permanent work and at that point she realized, it’s down to me – blogging, and writing about food, has to become a career. Something she had never wanted or thought she’d have. She had always been supported. The responsibility was daunting. She was terrified.  

“The first week of my divorce, I had $40 in the bank and I cried when I set up the utilities in my own house because I had never imagined I could do that. It was the funniest little things to realize that I was a grown up. When I got off the phone, and the utilities woman said, “Thank you, Mrs. McLay.” It was so strange to have people talk to me as a grown up. So that week, I had $40 in my account. I did not know if I could pay all my bills. We had just started running forward and I would reach out and try to hustle gigs.”

Her own blog had become a springboard for other work. Corporate work. She had begun to be approached by big food companies to blog for them, and she just kept inquiring about more work.  

“And the following two years later, I had $40,000 paid off in debt and $30,000 in my account, so I know I’ve been incredibly lucky to not only be able to take care of my children, but also rebuild very quickly.”

Her ex-husband pays for their health insurance through his new job. He also pays for contacts and glasses for the kids and he kicks in for some school supplies too. But it’s mostly Brooke who keeps the show on the road. The complete opposite of her old life.

She still has scary moments. One day her biggest client pulled back and she had that thought, ‘It’s all over, I may never get another gig’ – we’re all going to the homeless shelter. But she calmed down, started getting in touch with other companies, and began to create more income streams. Now she does everything from food photography to writing to brand consulting. She says the last several years have been quite a learning curve, very uncomfortable at times. But talking to other women about their work has been a big help.

“I have become obsessed to the max with asking people, how did you come to be where you are in your current job?  And it’s been incredibly revealing and refreshing to find out a lot of people end up taking risks and are starting and reinventing and ending up in careers they never would have imagined or hadn’t been trained for and just kind of fell into. So it was several years of asking and asking people, why are you doing the job and what is your training, what is your schooling? before I understood that a lot of us feel a little impostor syndrome. And listening to The Broad Experience, it has been so hugely important to me to listen to the way you talk about work and women and I realize that so many of the issues I deal with aren’t exclusively because I was a 35-year-old woman suddenly cast out of a conservative religion into a world I didn’t recognize or know…it’s a lot of it because I’m just a woman in a world where we’re all still trying to figure ourselves out and see what works andhow to fit together children and family and home. So understanding a lot of people end up in their careers by surprise was an important part of me saying OK, I can claim this is my own.”

And she’s proud of what she’s achieved. Not only keeping her family afloat, but being able to save as well.

“In fact just yesterday I closed on a house that I will be buying by myself. I am the second woman, in every single generation of my entire family, I’m the first one to graduate from college and the first one to buy a house. So it felt like a very, very big deal to have gone from thinking I could only be a stay at home mom, to completely re-inventing, and in 5 years it feels kind of crazy, but I’m grateful.”

 And after not dating since she was a teenager, she plunged back into that world too, and met someone. Her boyfriend now lives with her and the kids. He’s an outdoors type, works as a creative director for a bike company.

“He was never Mormon, never wanted children, had no children, and of course in Utah there’s just a plethora of women to date all of whom have many, many children. So it’s become a funny thing, my world of only women with 4 to 9 children with his world of outdoor friends, none of whom have children.”

But it works.

Brooke says she never wanted to live in Utah – she had lived there for part of her childhood, and had no desire to go back to what she remembered as a very conservative place. She moved to Salt Lake City when her ex-husband re-located to look for work and they wanted to keep the family in one place. But in the years since she’s fallen in love with the place, its proximity to the mountains.

“So no I don’t see myself moving, in fact few places hold a draw for me, and not because my family is here but because I love the land here. I would like to see my children grow up in a place where they’re surrounded by more women that they can see. I think we’ve found a nice little niche but I’m aware that when they get out and about they’re largely surrounded by a culture where it’s very, very uncommon for women to work and it’s certainly uncommon for women to make equal amounts of money. I actually went on a date right after I moved here with a man, a business owner, who said, ‘oh I’ve always told everyone that women are the secret to success, you can pay them 60c on the dollar and they get more work than a man in a day.’ And I was so shocked by that but that’s true and it’s a pervading issue in the Utah mentality, is that women work, they work hard, and if you do pay them a little bit they’re so grateful they’ll work even harder for even less.”

That is not the message she wants her daughters to absorb.

Brooke says an important part of her new trajectory is being a good guide for her children. Her oldest son is now 19, and came out as gay a couple of years ago. Her older daughter is sixteen and her younger son and daughter are 14. She says her family teases her…

“That in a three year period I went from a mom who would drop the kids off at school and say, ‘Return with honor,’ which is a big Mormon thing.”

To a mum who has entirely different concerns…

 “And now you just drop us off and say, ‘don’t have kids!’ so there has definitely been some evolution, and the children have weathered it very well.” [laughs]

AM-T: “Huh…and you wouldn’t really tell your daughters not to have kids, would you?”

“I feel it is my duty – because I did not have a woman who was allowed to speak about what motherhood and womanhood really was – to help my children understand what choices they can’t make right now entail once they do make them. So I will tease them that I don’t want them to have kids but we talk about it a lot. It’s important to me that I’m very open with my children. My daughter is 16, she said I want to have all my eggs taken out…and I said well honey, I don’t know that you want to make your decision when you’re sixteen. And she said ‘you know mom, we’ve talked about this – I know I need to get financially prepared, get 100,000 dollars in the bank, get my schooling under my feet, I’m hoping to start a coffee truck...and I don’t know if I’ll have time to do all that before I want to have kids so maybe it’s just not gonna happen so I’m just getting the eggs gone’ Maybe it’s a little bit of overkill but I’ve gone from the only answer is have children, to if you do want to have children, if you want to discuss what it means to have a career or go to college or whatever your choices are, let’s openly discuss how that will affect your life and especially as a woman, let’s discuss how that will affect your options. Whatever the kids decide to do I give them my hugest blessing, but I hope I’m the kind of mom and the kind of woman that I never got growing up in a religion where the only thing you could say is motherhood is sacred and precious and wonderful, and it is, but not always, certainly not always.”

Brooke Lark. You can check out her work at cheekykitchen.com.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As ever I’m keen to hear from you. You can comment under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com or on the show’s Facebook page. Or you tweet me or email me.

This is a one-woman show – although I will say I am lucky enough to have a great intern working with me this spring. Zaynab Ubaid helped transcribe my interview with Brooke. But I have no producer, no engineer, it is just me creating and producing the show. If you can kick in to help support the podcast just go to paypal.me/thebroadexperience – and if you give 50 bucks you will receive the official Broad Experience T-shirt.

If you can’t give money please write a review on iTunes instead – some of you have, thank you so much, but the more there are the more chance there is of the show coming to other people’s notice.

Coming up on the next show…one of the most popular jobs for women today – as in the past – is the role of assistant…

“We have a phrase that we use in the office a lot. Which is ‘ambition worn lightly.’ And that’s exactly what you need to have as a PA. You need to have serious ambition but on behalf of the person you’re supporting, not on behalf of yourself.”

Tune in for that next time.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.