Amanda Wheal, 58, was a teacher for three decades before retiring from the profession in 2020. Inspired by her brother, she decided to follow a completely different career path and become a wedding celebrant.
She discusses the challenges of taking on an entirely new job in your fifties, for our business advice series CEO Secrets.
Why did you change track?
I loved teaching, working with kids and changing lives. It was very rewarding but towards the end of my career I was a bit disenchanted. I grew tired of the bureaucracy and box-ticking and felt the creativity had gone. Sometimes I used to look out the window in the classroom and watch the cars go past, wondering what other people are doing. I was thinking: 'There's a whole world out there, and I've been doing this for so long'.
I confessed this to my brother, who was quite a free-spirit of the seventies. He said: "Amanda, you can do it, you know there's lots of skills that you've got that people don't have."
The thing that triggered the change for me was my brother's death: it was my first real bereavement. I'd been doing things on autopilot, like clearing his flat, keeping myself distracted and people thought I was coping very well. But I was absolutely dreading the funeral.
My dad suggested we have a celebration, with a celebrant conducting the ceremony. I'd never heard of that role before.
Preparing the eulogy I got to know the celebrant and got on well with him. He was very supportive and down to earth. The ceremony was amazing. Suddenly I thought I'd like to do that for other people. It was an impulse and it was like my brother's legacy to me.
What types of weddings have you taken part in?
My most recent wedding was a pirate-themed ceremony at a marina in Harlow, Essex. It took me out of my comfort zone. The couple loved sailing. I had to ham it up and I don't normally even like dressing-up parties.
I was nervous at first, which doesn't usually happen to me, but then I found myself really getting into it and loved it. They'd made a stage for me on the prow of the boat. When I was rehearsing for that one, my neighbours must have thought I was mad!
I've done weddings, funerals and vow renewals, but the majority of my work is weddings.
Most of the weddings I do are more traditional. I don't judge. I just help the couples achieve the personalised ceremony they want. I meet the couples several weeks or even months before the event to get to know them and start planning things. I also officiate at the ceremony.
Why are more people using celebrants?
Celebrants are often chosen by couples who want a personalised, non-religious ceremony - people renewing their vows, or people who are marrying from two different faiths. In England and Wales a registrar still needs to officiate during part of the wedding, for it to be legally binding. This element is usually performed separately.
Was the transition from teaching to weddings hard?
The one thing you might not realise is all the transferable skills you have - your employer might not even appreciate them.
In my case from teaching it was public speaking, practised in school assemblies standing in front of 300 teenagers every week. I also had people and project management skills, and the ability to listen - actively rather than passively - through the pastoral roles I had at school, or parents' evenings.
But with teaching every hour, every holiday was dictated, every deadline was set by someone else. Now I have to be self-disciplined.
I'm making a bit of money through the business, though not much yet.
How did the pandemic affect your new career?
I suppose in some ways it was a blessing in disguise, since you couldn't do weddings at first - it gave me time to network, build up my contacts and lay the groundwork for my new business. I've done 15 weddings so far, and have 15 more booked-in. There is a big backlog now since restrictions have lifted, so there is work out there.
Have you faced ageism as an entrepreneur?
First of all, I don't act my age. I kayak, I'm into electronic dance music and I go to music festivals.
You might think people will be ageist when you start a business and you are over 50. And people do say, 'Oh, that's crazy, that's incredible!' But actually, people are really curious to find out your story, your journey and why you started a business. There are very supportive people out there who just want to guide and help you.
Any advice for others?
When you start a business in retirement, you might be surprised, but in fact one of the things you need to think about is managing your energy. You wake up every morning just buzzing and have lots of adrenalin and are learning new things, getting a new lease of life. But you have to manage your emotions. Not every day brings good things.
But I love this job, every minute and every aspect of it, from meeting the couples to the creative side of researching and writing the material for the ceremonies.
I stay in touch with all the couples and they are all special to me. Sometimes I have to pinch myself, I'm now living my best life.
You can find more stories about entrepreneurship here in our CEO Secrets series