I was standing in my kitchen five years ago making lasagna, when the music of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite came wafting out of the radio. Suddenly I felt an overwhelming longing for my first love. Not for a boy, as you might imagine. No, my first love was ballet. When I was a child, my life revolved around it: I spent several hours every day practicing inside the studio and out, my ballerina persona always on display. I walked like a dancer (back perfectly straight, head up, feet turned out). I wore my hair like a dancer (pulled back in a high bun). I even watched TV like a dancer: sitting in the splits that ripped my hamstrings into the requisite pliability. As I grew up and moved into my adult life, however, I left ballet behind. So what was I doing 25 years later, attempting pirouettes in my kitchen? What was drawing me back now? Was this a healthy thing, or just a momentary wave of nostalgia?
As I was soon to learn, I was hardly the only middle-aged woman whose first love was beckoning her back. While growing up, most girls have a first, and usually quite passionate, love. Some were devoted to tennis, singing, writing or doll collecting. They all were passionate, their first loves demanding the investment of countless hours week after week, year after year. But the girls grew up, they abandoned that precocious first love – or so they thought. Decades later, it turns out for so many of us, that first crush has merely been lying dormant, waiting to be awakened.
The joy of baking
When Nancy Aichholz was a little girl, she begged her parents for an Easy Bake Oven. “I had always looked forward to Saturday mornings, ” Aichholz recalls. “My dad would patiently make eggs and pancakes with me all in my Easy Bake. I loved to be in the kitchen, and I cooked and baked a lot during high school, even taking over when my mother was ill for three weeks. I didn't have time for cooking or baking in college, but once I graduated and moved into my own apartment, I got back into it, although with a family and a demanding job running the consumer marketing department for Chiquita Banana, there wasn't any time for 'creative baking.'"
Then, a few years ago, when her kids were 11 and 14 and she was laid up from foot surgery, Aichholz found herself with a lot of time on her hands to think about what she wanted to do with her life. "The memory of baking with my dad popped into my head,” she says. As soon as she was able to stand, she pulled out her mixing bowls and pans and started experimenting with her favorite carrot cake, the one recipe she always came back to. “My friends were always begging me to make this cake so I knew it was good, but I figured I could make it even better.”
Aichholz spent the next year perfecting the recipe, and with encouragement from family and friends launched her baking company, which she called Nancakes. Today she sells her carrot cakes to groceries and hopes to start an ecommerce business in 2012. “If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would be happily baking today, I would have told them they were nuts," she says. "And yet here I am, right back where I started, in the kitchen.”
Back in the saddle
From the minute Lindy Holt pulled on her first pair of jodhpurs and riding boots at age 4, she was hooked. She loved the ritual of arriving early to the stable 20 miles outside Cincinnati, saddling up her horse then going for a ride and practicing for local competitions. But she was just as happy spending the day indoors, braiding horses' tails, cleaning tack and communing with own horse, Finian. “I always felt my horse understood me better than anyone else,” she says. “I could tell him anything. I struggled in school, but riding and being with my horse made me feel better about myself.”
Holt continued to ride until she met the man she eventually married, who made it a condition of their engagement that she'd sell her horse. Reluctantly she agreed, and they wed. But as a young mother of three children, she was too busy to even think about spending time at a stable. Years passed, and one day, when her kids were grown and she was divorced, Holt did two things to get her life back on track: she started riding again and got herself into therapy. During one session, the therapist asked, "What used to make you happy?" And Holt had an epiphany. "Funny how one little question can change the outcome of your life!" she marvels today. So she made the momentous decision to realize her dream of owning her own horse farm, and moved her kids and the few horses she owned to Bellbuckle, Tenn., a small town in the middle of Tennessee walker–horse country. “I figured I was on my own now and could do what I wanted to do," she says. "I knew I wanted to be around horses, and just as much, horse people, so I went out on a limb and bought a farm that I named Full Moon. I was finally ready to get serious about competing with my own horse, Grandy."
The colt she describes as "silly-acting but deeply talented" proved an even stronger competitor than she could have imagined, winning 75 blue ribbons in a single year, placing first two consecutive years in the three-gait event at the International Championships and second at the World Championships. To accommodate her nascent breeding operation, Holt bought two neighboring farms for a total of 160 acres. The workload was nearly 24/7 and she was exhausted and stressed to the max, but her payoff came every spring during foaling season, when she'd sleep out in the barn with the pregnant mares and deliver the babies herself. In this area, too, Grandy proved a champ, one year snagging the title of Tennessee Walker Horse sire of the year for producing more champion offspring than any other stallion.
Then tragedy struck. Thirteen years after she acquired him, Grandy got an eye infection and died in surgery. Holt was so devastated (it still brings tears to her eyes) that she sold the farm and moved to Florida. But, she says: “Now I know that horses are in my blood, and I’m sure at some point in my life, I will ride again. And now I finally have something to take Grandy's place: grandbabies!"
I hear a symphony …
Gail Rubenstein started taking violin lessons at age 9 largely because music had been important to her mother, and her mother wanted her to share that joy. Initially she balked, but once the Chicago youngster mastered the basics, she started to fall in love with her art. “I still remember how nervous and excited I was for my first recital,” Rubenstein says. “It was in a small concert hall at Northwestern University, and I got all dressed up.” She took lessons throughout her childhood and practiced regularly, and reached what she calls a pretty advanced level of playing. After graduation, however, she abandoned it. “Playing the violin wasn’t a cool thing to do anymore,” she says regretfully.
Years later – as a 40-year-old mom living in San Francisco – Rubenstein met a fellow who told her he played the violin for fun, and that sparked her curiosity. What would it be like to play simply because you wanted to? She made it her business to find out and arranged to study with a member of the San Francisco Symphony. That shaky first lesson rekindled her love of music and the violin. Now 60, Rubenstein performs in two concerts a year with the Holy Names University Orchestra in Oakland. At first she was relegated to the second section, but recently she was promoted to the far more challenging first section. “I feel like I am taking my playing to a whole new level,” she notes. “Having music in my adult years gives me great enjoyment and purpose. This is something that I do just for myself. It is a world all of my own.”
The dance of midlife
What causes a middle-aged woman – like me, Aichholz, Holt or Rubenstein – to return to a childhood love? Having more time is certainly a factor. As our kids become teenagers then leave the nest, their demands on us lessen. The hours we spent driving kids to soccer practice or helping with homework are suddenly available for other pursuits. It’s natural that we might consider filling our newly open hours with things we were good at and took pleasure in, but what motivates us to go back to something 20, 30 or more years later?
Fran Hendrick, a psychotherapist and the founder of the Self Development Place in Cincinnati, tells me that in her practice she often sees women trying to meet the expectations of their spouses, parents, children and communities, in effect trying to be everything to everyone. But, as Hendrick explains, “Often a crisis occurs – divorce, depression or an empty nest – and suddenly there is a painful realization of how much of their identity has been lost in this exhausting and endless struggle to please others. At some point they may lose patience for this and come to realize that passion and purpose burst into bloom once we begin to manifest our identity. With that simple but profound realization, reconnecting with the lost loves of childhood and precious aspects of self, begins to feel essential, even urgent."
For me, those strains of the Nutcracker were all it took to get me back into a leotard and tights. Stepping into a ballet studio after 25 years preparing to dance in front of strangers was a whole other thing. Would I remember anything? Would I make a fool of myself? Surprisingly, from somewhere in the deep recesses of my memory, it all came back to me: every plié, grand jeté, pirouette, arabesque. My mind recalled and my body responded. And for the past five years, I have been experiencing a joy in the ballet studio that I never want to lose again.
What about you? What was your childhood love? Have you reconnected with it yet?
Julie Shifman is the founder of Act Three (www.actthree.com), an organization that helps women across the country to lead their fullest lives. She is also a keynote speaker and the author of the soon-to-be released book Act Three: Creating the Life You Want After Your First Career and Full-Time Motherhood.