MJ MARGGRAFF

Meet Later Mom: MJ Marggraff

Feature in MotherhoodLater.com

MJ Marggraff

RELATIONSHIP STATUS:  Married

RESIDENCE:  Lafayette, California

CHILDREN’S NAMES/AGES:  Blake, 23 years old; Annie, 21 years old

Since childhood, I have been fascinated with airplanes, flight, and space. But my enthusiasm to fly was not something shared by my parents, who were terrified air travelers. When I was young, I mentioned my interests, but was encouraged to pursue “more sensible” and traditional careers instead. Through the years as I grew up, I worked “sensibly” for great corporations and though I was content, was not doing what I really loved.

After leaving my corporate job to spend more time at home with my children, then 8 and 10 years old, my life as a SAHM had become a circus of ongoing PTA meetings and carpooling. Each hour of my planning book was full, and each day very busy, but it was far from exciting.

Then one day something happened that changed my life completely—my planning book disappeared. I couldn’t find it. My daily life was disrupted. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I was lost without it. Of course, there were plenty of new planning books at the bookstore—get a new one, I thought, go back to what is expected and familiar, but I hesitated. It was a safe option. But in truth, I didn’t want to return to what had become rote, routine, and uninspiring. Refill it with the old schedule or rewrite my life with my childhood dream? This became the turning point in my life, when at 45, I made a major course correction: to do what I had always loved and follow my dream. During that first lesson in the air, about twelve years ago, I knew where I belonged. It was the beginning of an incredible adventure that would change my life more than I could have imagined, and I’ve never looked back.

Since that time, I became a commercial pilot and flight instructor and discovered something very powerful: doing what you love opens other amazing doors. The doors to space opened. I began as a flight support representative for a sub-orbital spaceflight company. Today, I am a project leader and creator of an experiment soon to take place in space. The experiment, called ‘Space Games’, is going up to the International Space Station where astronauts will test inventions by student teams interested in space, and use a new technology, the zero gravity 3-D printer on board the Station. I am excited to be helping to introduce the next generation to the new space age.

I wrote my story of how I learned to fly, my family’s reaction to my new life, and my friends who stood by my side and going through their own midlife madness, in my latest book: ‘Finding the Wow–How Dreams Take Flight at Midlife’ (Big Table Publishing, Boston; available May 4, 2016, from Amazon books.) Please visit my book page at: www.findingthewow.com

MJ with husband Jim and kids Blake and Annie.

What was your road to parenthood like?  I always wanted to be a mom, but it took years longer than I expected. I made maternity look like a survival show, with difficulties due to preeclampsia. Ironic isn’t it? We try so hard not to get pregnant for so long, then when we want to, have trouble with it. My son was born early at 3 pounds, 12 oz., and was in infant care for weeks. Just thinking of those scary weeks still makes me shudder. I had another pregnancy afterward, my daughter was full-term, and we had much less drama with her arrival.

Is there one project in your career thus far that you are most proud of, and why?  I became a flight student at midlife. But it was a new challenge in many ways: I was the only female in my class of guys who were half my age and who each looked like Tom Cruise with cool pilot’s glasses and leather jackets. There I was, with a tan cotton jacket and reading glasses. I looked like a housemother who crashed a fraternity party. I was proud that I stuck with it and didn’t quit! (But thought about it.) It gave me my first experience of feeling like the outsider, but in time learned how to stand up for myself.

Finding the WOW, How Dreams Take Flight at Midlife by MJ Marggraff

Do you consider yourself a role model for women in their 50s?  I am so grateful for the chance to follow my dream. What I hope others will see is that they too have the capacity to follow theirs. It’s never too late. You must do what you love. In midlife, we realize how precious life is, and that we can’t keep putting off our dreams for later because later can sometimes come sooner than we’d like.

How does being a mom influence your work?  I love to see children enthused and positive about the future. It was what inspired me to create a way to connect real space projects and find the students who could invent them, then have our astronauts carry out their inventions on the International Space Station. The project is called Space Games and is in test phase, but may be available to many thousands more pre-college students in the future. I think this goes back to my early years as a new mom when my fondest delight was to show my own children the world: new spring leaves, earthworms up after a rain, and many hours of building everything with Legos. Being a mom made me understand the importance of a question that begins with: “What if…” It influences my work today. I encourage that phrase for everyone. It’s full of promise and hope.

What was your motivation to write your book FINDING THE WOW?  What do you hope readers will take away from it? ‘Finding the Wow–How Dreams Take Flight at Midlife’, is about how, as a 45-year-old mom, I decided to follow my childhood dream, overcome my fears, and learn to fly. It was a time when my close friends, the Chicks in Charge, and I faced our biggest changes yet in our lives.

I hope it will inspire and motivate others to dream big and not let fear rule their lives. In my book, I show my vulnerabilities too – especially my fears. For example, my solo flights as a student pilot with limited hours in the sky were filled with terror and wonder. On my first long distance solo flight, I was terrified when all when all my directions I had so carefully made for the flight blew away when I opened the air vents, and wondered with panic how I would land the airplane. But learning to fly taught me more than how to fly – it taught me how to manage fear, a very useful life lesson. The stories in ‘Finding the Wow’ show how I did that. One key thing is, it’s not about being fearless, but going forward prepared for what may come. That’s goes for flying, and it goes for life.   

Do you think it’s tough for women to balance parenting, a personal life and professional pursuits?  And, if so, how do you achieve balance?  I do think it’s very tough, especially if you want it all to be perfect. As soon as I let go of wanting it all to be perfect, it was just fine. Messy house? Okay. As far as I know, we all survived when a few dust balls grew large under our beds and some stains on our jeans never came out; we just made the dust balls into pets with names and the made stains a new fashion statement. Balance is what makes sense to each mom and for each family.

What do you see as the positives and challenges of having a child at age 35 or over?  Both of my children came into my life after 35. That gave me time in my career and, as it turned out, time to practice becoming a parent. For my work, I designed and taught innovative classes on teamwork and conflict management to engineers, scientists, and their managers. What a training ground for parenthood! Corporate work pays a lot better than parenthood and after extended years of working, it’s hard to change from an earner to a SAHM and not see a paycheck for it. I cut back gradually on my corporate hours, but there went the stock options. Once I was out altogether, I wondered if I could ever return again to do anything; would I be hired in my forties or fifties? A younger mom might not grapple with age as much if she wants to return to work.

What do your kids think of your work? They love that I went up to the skies to follow my dreams. They now know it’s hard work to become something new because they’re experiencing that challenge in college. As an instructor, I gave my daughter some of her first lessons, but she didn’t love flying as I do. I told her that she should do it only if she loved it, and not for me. When I flew with my family, my son was not a big fan of being in the air, but was happy for me. We each have our own passions, and that’s what really matters.

Has anything about being a mother surprised you?   If so, what?   What do you love the most about it, and what is the most challenging? Raising children allowed me to participate in the world of their young imaginations—the best part of childhood. Annie loved fairies and her imagination went wild with the antics of these invisible (for me anyway) creatures. Some were bullies too, and together we talked about how they needed to be dismissed from the fairy kingdom until they behaved better. One of the most challenging things is when you see your child not fitting in with the usual interests; my son wanted to talk science with kids who wanted to do sports. He was left out of the sports games many times. His dad and I encouraged him to do science projects. In high school he earned the global Intel Science and Engineering Award in 2011 for treatment of cancer. (He’s still not great at sports!)

What do you most want to teach your kids?  What have you learned from them thus far?  The most important things to teach my children, and other students who I lead  or give a presentation to are: 1) Do what you love and not just what you’re good at; don’t compromise, 2) Do what is hard even if you might not get a great grade; expect setbacks and go forward, and 3) choose inspiring friends. I’ve learned how to be a careful listener from my children; they both need different things from me. If I had ten kids I’m sure they’d each be different. Latel,y I’ve learned a lot about how the younger generation connects through social media, and it’s very exciting. They’re a lot more versatile at it, so I often call them at college to ask how to do things online.

Most of all, I’ve learned how deep love really is for a mother with a child. When I see another mother suffer because her child is at risk, I feel it too.

Where do you turn for support as a mom? How important is to connect with mom peers?  My close friends, the Chicks in Charge, and I changed our directions and priorities at midlife, making some of the biggest changes we had ever made. I couldn’t have succeeded as a new pilot without them. They were there for me emotionally, providing a safe place to be myself and air my doubts. Motherhood Later…Than Sooner is such a place too. For some ‘later’ women, like in my case, parents are no longer living when we become parents, so having the support from others is critically important. We have each other to reach out to.

What words of wisdom would you most like to share with others contemplating becoming a parent, particularly if they’re 35 or older?  My worst day as a parent raising children is even better than my best day as a manager at the office. (But a great flying day may beat both!)

When you became a mom, did your own mother or father share any particular sentiments or advice that really resonated?  Or do you recall anything from your own upbringing that really stuck with you that you’d like to pass on to your kids or other parents?   Sadly, my parents had passed away long before my children were born. But before my mother died, she asked me, then a rising professional: “Will you keep working if you become a mother one day?” She was aware she would not be around much longer nor for her grandchildren-to-be. “They grow up so fast,” she whispered. “Probably not,” I lied, to keep her satisfied. But how could she know how hard I had worked to rise up that corporate ladder, to get to where I was, to get paid so well? Give that up? I didn’t think so, but spared her my thoughts.

After my first child was born, I decided I could cut back on my office hours so I could spend more time with our son. The income was missed. But I was so happy to be around to share his days, and then those of his sister two years later. They grow up so fast.