I wish someone would have told me that it’s okay that you can’t have it all at the same time. I tend to strive to do it all, which ultimately ends in burnout. Rest has become something I’m growing more comfortable with. I know my limits better now than I did before, and as I age I’m learning when pressing forward will serve me better than sitting back because of doubt or fear. I’m thinking about what the next chapter holds for me, and some new things are just as inspiring as they are scary — but if I don’t go for it, I’ll know I’ll regret it.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jen Babakhan.
Jen Babakhan is an author and freelance writer living in California with her husband and two young sons. She is the author of Detoured: The Messy, Grace-Filled Journey From Working Professional to Stay-at-Home Mom and her freelance work has been featured in various national news outlets.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up as an only child for most of my life — my younger brother didn’t come along until I was nearly 11. That meant that much of my time was spent finding ways to entertain myself in an otherwise adult-only household. I loved to read more than anything else, and found it incredible that I could be transported to other places and times in an instant through books. Both of my parents worked long hours at jobs they didn’t always enjoy, and yet they instilled in me the belief that if I worked hard enough I could do whatever I wanted. I took that belief to heart and never once doubted that if I really wanted to do something in life, I could work hard and achieve it. Looking back, I suppose I could have used a little less confidence in my ability to do anything and be anything, but in the end it served me well.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There have been several times in my life that I didn’t think I deserved the opportunities I’ve been given — especially if they were life-long dreams, like my dream of becoming a teacher. At the time, there were very few teaching positions available and landing a job seemed impossible. Then, later on when I wanted to publish a book for women who like me, had left careers to stay home with their kids, I felt the same way. The publishing industry was packed with women like myself who dreamed of having a book with their name on the cover.
One day while driving to the grocery store, my perspective shifted. I was at an intersection at a red light, and the phrase, “Why not me?” danced through my head. It changed everything. I realized in an instant that everyone else who achieved their own goals had at some point been where I was. That’s become a sort of mantra in my mind when things seem impossible. “Why not me?”
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
I have an ability to get and be quiet with myself and God. It’s allowed me to listen — truly listen — to what I’m supposed to do next. During my lowest moments in life when the next steps seem unclear or cloudy, the ability to sort of tune in to the ultimate will and plan for my life has been priceless. Sometimes it comes quickly and I instantly know my next step. Others it’s a slow realization that takes a bit to simmer before it’s a fully-formed path to pursue. When I realized I was meant to leave my marketing job to teach, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was giving a presentation and felt so at home in that moment, that I knew I wasn’t meant to be in the corporate world at all. I went home, prayed about it, and felt sure that it was my next step, and enrolled in a credential program almost immediately.
I’m incredibly focused (most of the time). Even when something feels unattainable, I’ll do all of the research I can about bridging the divide between myself and the goal, and then bit by bit, I’ll reach it. When I first began writing professionally, I never dreamed I would end up freelancing for Reader’s Digest. I applied when I saw a call for writers, and a sweet editor gave me a shot. It was such a confidence boost. When I felt like the next step was to write a book for women who struggled with the transition to staying home with their kids, and all of the unexpected emotion that comes with it, I was overwhelmed by what I would need to do. The first hurdle was writing the book, then convincing an agent it was worthy of publishing, and finally, hoping that a publisher agreed. Step by step, I did it — and I believe it was one of the most incredible ways that God and I co-created something together, outside of my children.
I never take life too seriously, and I try to treat everyone like a good friend I’ve known forever. If there’s humor to be found in a situation (and there almost always is) I’ll find a way to pull it out and make those around me laugh. I’ve interviewed so many people through the years for my freelance work, and every time I’m struck by how people are just people, no matter how famous or important they are. There was one interview in particular, that still makes me laugh when I think about it. I was interviewing a multiple Emmy-award winning journalist for a major news network who has close connections to presidents and the Pope. I felt a bit out of my league, but he was so genuine and down-to-earth I was completely at ease. Our dog was a puppy at the time, and during the interview, he managed to unroll an entire roll of toilet paper through the house while my son began asking for help in the bathroom. Here I was, on the phone with this incredible journalist, and I was on the other end of the call chasing a puppy and trying to help my toddler. It felt like the epitome of the struggle for mothers working from home. You know who doesn’t care that you’re on the phone with a big deal? A three year old and a puppy.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
When I was in college I changed my major three times, and the funny thing is, that each one relates to something I did after graduation. I began with a major in elementary education, and then got cold feet. I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach for the rest of my life — what if I got bored? And to a nineteen-year-old, a boring life feels like the worst thing possible. So I became an English major, thinking that I would use it to teach or write. I took a few classes and quickly discovered that English literature felt too narrow of a focus. I wanted something with more options. A friend convinced me to change my major yet again, to Communication Studies with a concentration in public relations and mass media. The coursework was interesting and exciting — it felt like I could really use it in the real world.
After graduating, I worked in marketing for an international non-profit organization. I loved traveling around the nation and meeting new people in new locales. It felt glamorous until the shine wore off. During that time I began volunteering to teach elementary students about the business world. When I was in front of the classroom, it felt like home again. I knew I had to follow my childhood dream of teaching. I went to nightschool to earn my teaching credential, and when it was time to give my notice it felt like a real leap of faith to give up my career to start student teaching. My boss at the time wasn’t supportive of my new career aspiration, but I knew it was a move I was meant to make.
During the recession of 2007 and extensive budget cuts, public education was suffering. Finding a job felt like a needle in a haystack but by the grace of God I was offered a teaching contract to teach third grade. I’ll never forget the feeling of setting up my very own classroom, and the first day of school. It felt like a dream come true and I loved every bit of it. Four years into teaching, my husband and I decided to start a family, and I planned to return to teaching after maternity leave. When it didn’t happen as I planned, and I resigned from my beloved career instead of returning after the birth of my son, it felt like everything was falling apart. It was actually falling into place, I just couldn’t see it.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
Motherhood changed me in just about every way a person can be changed. For awhile after birth I experienced post partum anxiety and depression, and I felt lost. Without my teaching career to identify with anymore, I wasn’t sure who I was. If I wasn’t a teacher, then who was I? It took a lot of time and eventually, after the birth of my second son, I realized the one thing I’ve always loved to do is write. I often joke that as a child, when the other kids in my class would moan as the teacher assigned an essay, I would be the one sharpening my pencil and silently celebrating. I began to blog again, and wrote about the little events in life I found funny. The light in my eyes began to return as I became reacquainted with what brought me joy. It was just for me, but others found it entertaining too, which gave me confidence.
I began to think maybe I could write professionally, and applied to be a ghostwriter and editor for a small company. I got the job and enjoyed it immensely, even though I was making next to nothing. It felt amazing to have something just for me again. That led to applying for other freelance work, and eventually writing for Reader’s Digest. Interviewing people and getting to share their stories with the world is always such an honor — it never gets old.
It was during this same time that I decided to write the birth stories of both of my sons, and as I wrote them (typically in the middle of the night and nursing while I typed them into the notes app of my phone), I discovered I had so much more to say than I first thought. Those early writings became the basis for Detoured. As I continued writing the book, I learned all I could about the publishing industry. I went to a writing conference and met with agents.
I knew if the book got published it had the potential to help so many women who experienced what I did when I left my career. I felt so alone after, and then ashamed that I missed working when I was able to be home with my son — something so many women want to do. I wanted to write a book that spoke to that middle place of uncertainty, and encouraged women there.
Once the book was contracted, it felt like everything was coming full-circle. The loss of my teaching career, the rediscovery of my love of writing, the confidence I gained while freelancing — it all made sense and played a very specific role in preparing me for my journey as a new author. I was now where I was meant to be — even if it was a long and winding road to get there.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
Deciding to pursue a professional writing career felt like a logical next step, albeit a terrifying one. My late mother always told me I was meant to write, and I would brush it off, inwardly thinking that maybe I didn’t have what it took. Life is so short. For me, it comes down to a simple question I ask myself: Will I regret it if I don’t try this? If the answer is yes, then I move forward, knowing that even if I fail, at least I tried.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
Writing a book may as well have been climbing Everest for me in the beginning. The word count felt insurmountable, but as I wrote I came to see that I did in fact, have a lot to say. Writing feels like a natural gifting that I have, but when it comes to using that skill professionally, it can feel really vulnerable. For me, that may have been the biggest challenge — the belief that my writing was good enough for someone to spend their hard-earned money on. It still feels surreal that I wrote a book and it’s on book shelves that aren’t my own! Hearing from readers has been the biggest gift to come from the publishing process, hands-down. When a woman writes to me and says, “Your book changed my life.” It’s everything, absolutely everything. My words have value, and learning that was a struggle at first.
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.
Detoured released in 2019 and it was the most exciting achievement of my professional life. When I was in college I used to camp out in Barnes & Noble and read for hours, so to see my book on those shelves was beyond comprehension. My mom passed away shortly after the book came out, and I’m so grateful she lived to see it become a reality. It is one of those sweet gifts from God that I’ll never get over.
These days, especially with the pandemic, I’m continuing to get the word out about the book since so many women are leaving the workforce to be home. I’m working on a freelance project and thinking, once again, about my next steps. This time around it feels different, because I have confidence in knowing that I have what it takes to write material that impacts others. That has always been at the heart of my joy for writing — seeing that my words can cause laughter, or a feeling of being known or seen. Sometimes readers will tag me on social media, with a photo of the book or a quote, and it honestly makes my day. All of the work to get this thing out into the world is worth it in that moment.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My mom never lost hope that I would at some point use my gift for writing on a bigger scale. At every point along the way, when I would mention a job I wanted to apply for, or what I was thinking about trying next, she would say, “I still think you should be a writer.” I was always like, “Yeah yeah Mom, you have to say that, you’re my mom.” In the end though, she was right. She saw a possibility for me that I struggled to see for years. I’m trying to pay that forward now with my own two boys, to encourage them in their natural talents, and let them know that anything really is possible. I think my mom would say that’s the best thank you for all she did to guide me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
I’ve been blessed to work on the Reader’s Digest Nicest Places contest the past couple of summers, and it’s been a delight. The contest focuses on quite literally, the nicest places across the nation and highlights the best of humanity here. I spend hours researching the kindest people in the US and then have the pleasure of interviewing them, and it always leaves me feeling like we have so much more in common than we know. I wish this was something everyone could do: speak to people from every walk of life, in every state. I think we would be much more unified if we did.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
I feel like at the beginning of every new attempt in my life, I doubt myself. There’s always this point of, “Wait — what I am I thinking? Can I really do this?” And then I’ll come back to that same question of, “If I don’t do it, what will I feel?” Once I get past the initial fear-based response of doubt, I push forward with the philosophy that life is short, and we all have work to do while we’re here. I want to make sure I’m doing what I was put here to do, even if that looks different than it used to.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
First it started with my immediate family, of course. My boys were tiny at the time, so really it was me talking to my husband, Ed, about it. It began as more of a random thought I’d speak out loud, “I’m thinking of pursuing the writing thing…” He was only ever supportive. When I mentioned that I wanted to write the book, his response was lightning fast and simple. He said, “Do it.” He never wavered in his support of me, and I think that’s what love looks like in action — recognizing what makes your partner come alive, and doing what it takes to help them. He would take the kids out on the weekends so I could have huge chunks of writing time, and always asked what he could do to help. When it came to extending that initial support system, I started mentioning it to other family members. My parents, close friends, aunts and uncles…each time I was met with nothing but encouragement and not a hint of doubt. That may have been one of the sweetest results of this entire life-shift, to see that these people who have seen me through these different chapters are truly with me in it all, every step of the way.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
At the time that I began freelancing, it felt really scary. Who did I think I was to pursue this new thing with little kids at home? I had to ease myself into it. So I started with what I knew: writing about parenthood. My days were filled with dishes and diapers, so finding the time to pitch articles wasn’t the easiest thing. I would often search for writing jobs or create pitches as I nursed my son, and hoped there weren’t too many typos. Like anything else, what begins as unknown and fear-inducing, eventually becomes familiar and comfortable. It’s just a matter of acknowledging that it’s going to feel awkward for a bit, and knowing you’ll get through it.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- I wish someone would have told me that publishing is SLOOOOW. Sometimes it takes months for an article to publish or with a book, years before something is published. By the time the book is out, you’ve already forgotten some of what you’ve said. I’ve had readers tell me certain quotes meant a lot to them, and I’m like, “Oh yeah, I did write that!”
- I wish someone would have told me to be more choosy about collaborations. I think early-on I was so antsy to make connections that I could have been wiser in my choices. Not everyone has your best interest at heart, but you learn from those experiences too. It’s also okay to walk away from something that looked like a great opportunity originally, but turns out to be the opposite. At one point I left a writing gig because it felt compromising to the direction I hoped to take my career. It felt risky, but ultimately it was the right choice.
- I wish someone would have told me that the angry emails from readers can be hurtful, but at the end of the day, kindness always wins. I’ve written articles that people didn’t like the title of (which freelancers typically have no control over), or something that was said. Sometimes they are constructive with their criticism, and other times not so much. It’s hard not to have a pearl-clutching reaction to every unkind word, but you do grow a thicker skin (and learn that you don’t need to respond to every email).
- I wish someone would have told me that the people with the most heart-breaking stories will stick with you and shape you. It’s always an honor to share someone else’s story, and I handle it as such. They’re being so vulnerable with you, and it’s sometimes hard not to break down during the interview when hearing all that they’ve experienced. I’ve interviewed terminal cancer patients, survivors of the Holocaust, and 9–11 survivors. Those are among the most tender of my interview memories because I knew I had to stay professional, but there were calls I hung up from and just couldn’t shake the heaviness. It’s worth it, though, because I have a depth of understanding that I didn’t before. All of those interviews have changed my perspective on many things that matter.
- I wish someone would have told me that it’s okay that you can’t have it all at the same time. I tend to strive to do it all, which ultimately ends in burnout. Rest has become something I’m growing more comfortable with. I know my limits better now than I did before, and as I age I’m learning when pressing forward will serve me better than sitting back because of doubt or fear. I’m thinking about what the next chapter holds for me, and some new things are just as inspiring as they are scary — but if I don’t go for it, I’ll know I’ll regret it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I keep thinking about Amanda Gorman’s incredible recitation of The Hill We Climb at the presidential inauguration. For that moment in time, we were all held spellbound by its beauty. We witnessed how art can transcend hopeless spaces. I would love to inspire a movement that transcends that space too, but with humor. So many videos go viral because they’re hilarious and people love to laugh. We need to laugh. And when we all find something funny together, it feels magical. I don’t know how that kind of movement would get off the ground — maybe instead of hello to start a conversation we tell knock-knock jokes? Who knows. Laughter is a medicine that heals and connects, though, of that I’m certain.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to meet Dr. Mayim Bialik, just to thank her. When Detoured was released, she endorsed the book to her followers. I was stunned. To be a first-time author and see her praise felt surreal. My phone was buzzing non-stop with texts from friends, and all of them were like, “BLOSSOM LIKES YOUR BOOK!” It was so much fun. She’s so incredibly intelligent and talented, not to mention kind. She’s a celebrity that has stayed true to herself in a way that is both apparent and admirable, and she’s hilarious. Who doesn’t love someone like that?
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I’m on Instagram and Twitter @JenBabakhan, and on Facebook @JenBabakhanAuthor. You can also find me at JenBabakhan.com.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!