Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Thinking the unthinkable--and even doing it!

Fourteen women sit crowded around my dining room table, trying to put into words the fears and the excitement, the relishing and the regrets, the risks and the rewards of leaving lifelong careers.
We are the first big generation of women to burnish our identities through our jobs; to juggle and struggle up the ladder yet still find ways to raise children.  We make (or made) our own money and spend it how we want to. We may have partners and make compromises for family, but we also love our work-world lives.
Now many of us are seeking (or will soon be seeking) new paths.
A child psychologist who still works full time worries how her day will be structured: "I don't think I could plan what I would do every day."
An ex-therapist rattles off all the things she now does: book club, stock club, a non-profit dining group that raises money for various organizations, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. And then says, "I still do feel defensive that I don't bring in an income, which is why I went through the list of all the other things I do."
Others --perhaps a few years deeper into the process --have found ways of letting go of the guilt and the need for a business card.
"It's like someone sprinkled Miracle Grow on me and I started to bloom," says a woman who pioneered a breast-feeding initiative at Pennsylvania Hospital and for many years ran it. It took her a few years but she feels she’s arrived at a different place – one of open doors and adventures, a place where she feels “more personally accomplished.”  One day, she's trekking to an eco-farm in Costa Rica. The next, she's doing a "Tuesday with Morrie," helping a dying friend write his life story. 
“Think of yourself as a goldfish,” she counsels the group.  “We’re fighting to swim upstream to be whatever we once were. What if we turned around and flowed downstream?”
A woman who until three years ago worked in the Philadelphia schools admits that "all the things I worried about haven't happened. I don't feel I have to define myself by my career; I find things within myself."
Another ex-teacher says, "I liked my job and was good at it. Now I’m good at other things. I don't know if I'm making a great contribution but my family is proud of me."
But for myself, and many of the others – especially those still working --  there is confusion.  I’m six months out now and find myself dashing from one thing to another, imposing on myself the adrenaline-rushing deadlines of my journalism job, still bent on proving myself-- to no one but myself.
A former non-profit executive who would like to be an interim executive director but hasn't landed the job wonders whether she should shift her mindset. She feels like this is her identity, but without a job, is it her identity? "Life is fine, except I don't know what I'm doing." 
Another woman, who had a child late in life, remains busy teaching Russian  and volunteering but it is her part time job that is her calling card. "I can go to any party and say, 'I teach communications at the Wharton School.' "
And so the stories went, as each explained why she had come to this meeting, organized around the book,  Project Renewment, which has sprouted groups around the country like this one.  (See my previous blog on Helen Dennis, who together with with Bernice Bratter,  launched the idea.)
For those still deep in careers, there is more fear than excitement about leaving the job. (I sweated the decision for 10 years).
A woman who works full time counseling college students, says she feels like she's "had her head in the sand," not wanting to think about the future. "I'm in real denial about my age."
A Penn scientist isn't sure a needed grant will be approved. "If I'm laid off, it wouldn't be terrible. If I stay, it's ok, too." But ringing in her ears is her late father's disappointment in retirement: "It's really hard if the most important thing in your life is to play golf or tennis," he would say. As a single woman, she also worries about being alone, jobless. "I don't have someone to travel with or pay the bills." On the other hand, she's a Reiki (energy healing) Master and knows "that's an avenue I want to go down." 
A speech pathologist is grappling with The Decision as well. "Every day I change my mind. I have mixed feelings about who I am as a professional. I've reached a level of expertise in my field and love what I do." Among her worries: control over her own money, a subject on which she and her husband don't see eye to eye. "He says, 'You can retire, but you'll have to cut back [on spending].  He's good but the money thing makes me nervous."
A retired business woman: "What I miss most is the paycheck. Having the earning power makes me feel more accomplished and successful." At the same time, she says, "I feel entitled not to work and feel lucky I don't have to. Working out of choice rather than out of need is a huge difference.”
Curious that so much of our egos are tied up in the money. Frankly, this was not an impoverished group. Most of the 14 women have savings, pensions, are getting Social Security or expect to and have spouses with incomes.
They recognize that "there's a whole world of people working to pay the rent and put food on the table. How lucky we are to be able to choose."
Hovering over or under the table were the ghosts of our mothers, still whispering in our ears. All these years later, some of the women are still working desperately to NOT be their mothers. The notion of reversing course, stepping out of careers and coming home to cook and clean feels antithetical to their entire lives. 
And then there’s guilt, says a woman with no thought of leaving her big job running a large Y in Northeast Philadelphia.
"Nagging in the back of my mind are my mother's words, "No idle hands... how will you repair the world going forward?"

1 comment:

Wendy Lee said...

While I not yet retired and still need to earn for a while before I start drawing my monthly social security, I can envision the day when I will be doing more things without financial compensation. From many of the volunteer jobs I've done or simply my participation in the citizen sport of activism, I have always felt an enormous sense of accomplishment and self-worth even though no paycheck was involved. Those of us women who are privileged to have more than we need (even if we are not the "one percent") can think about how we can give back to the society that allowed us to get to where we don't have to be in the position of worrying about either paying the rent or buying food. Furthermore, for those of us who are fortunate enough to have grandchildren at this point, there is usually something we can do to help make our children's parenting responsibilities a bit lighter while enjoying our grandkids from close or afar.
I have come to the place, now that I am almost 65, where I realize that in certain areas it is difficult to determine that enough is enough. When do we know if we have "enough" money? When do we know if we worked long and hard "enough"? If we're not going to ease up and relax a bit now while continuing to help out with other people who need it, then when exactly are we going to do it?
There is no "one size fits all" and I would most certainly have been a true outlier in the group you wrote about but there is something potentially exhilarating to me about losing some of the old labels of my identity and creating new ones. I remain a feminist,but being a mother of adult children and a grandmother of one is probably more important to me at this moment than anything in the realm of my career.