The moment when you are no longer considered a “professional woman” can be a troubling change in your life. What does being a Retired Professional Woman even mean? It is a designation by our society for the day after we stop working outside the home. Does that happen to a man? I don’t think in the same way. I don’t think we ever refer to a man who has stopped working as no longer a professional man. But for a woman, to stop working is a major change of identify as seen by our culture, and, therefore, often, by us.
Not sure if this is true? Imagine meeting someone whom you know is retired. Very typically we might ask her, “What did your husband do?” If we meet the husband and we know his wife also is not working, how often would we ask, “What did your wife do?” I think more often we’d say something “jokey” like, “How is your wife surviving with you home all the time?”
For those of you who have been a “professional woman” for most or all of your adult life, how does it feel to stop being one of those? For some I think “terrifying” is not too strong a word. If you’re not a professional woman, what are you? You may be a mother or a wife or a sister. But that’s never been all you are. A very large part of who and what you have been is a professional woman. And now you’re not, or perhaps soon you won’t be.
A Vivid Memory
I remember years ago when I didn’t receive tenure at the college where I’d been teaching for 5 years. The fact that no one received tenure that year did not assuage my deep disappointment at MY not receiving tenure. The night after I’d spent the day cleaning out my office and taking everything home, I was eating at a restaurant with a group of people whom I didn’t know very well. The man sitting next to me looked at me and asked, “What do you do?” I was just ready to say, “Well, I have been teaching at. . . . . .” And I stopped myself just before I began that sentence. I took a deep breath, and I said, “I’m unemployed.” To my amazement, the world did not explode, and the restaurant did not fall down. And he said “Oh,” and proceeded to tell me what he did. And I realized he didn’t CARE what I did. I don’t mean he was self-centered and immune to others’ feelings, I mean he really just didn’t care. We continued to have a lovely conversation for the rest of the evening.
What I remember most profoundly about that event was the overwhelming sense of freedom I had after I started breathing again. I realized that all I was, was me, Sara. And that was enough in that moment. Whew. What a relief! My entire life I had been smart and successful, etc, etc. And now, suddenly, I was just me. And it felt wonderful. I could do anything I damn well pleased. And so I collected unemployment and lived off my savings for a while until I figured out what I wanted. . .WANTED. . .to do next.
For all of you professional women who don’t have the gift (sic) of, in essence, being fired from the only profession you’ve ever known, what can you do to capture that deep sense of freedom and of “enoughness?” If I knew the answer to that, I’d be a very rich woman, but here are two suggestions for now:
1.If you don’t currently have a meditation practice, get one.
There are many places you can go to learn a meditation technique of your choice. If you don’t’ even know where to start, Google MBSR, which stands for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a technique developed by John Kabat Zinn who did his work at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. For a more spiritual approach, Google Vipassana Meditation, and find a center near you that teaches meditation. If you are part of a religious community, ask the person in charge if there is any training in meditation.
Why do I think this is so important? The best information available to you about “what’s next?” isn’t outside of you waiting to get in. It’s inside you waiting to be listened to. So, it’s important to get very quiet and focused on your “inner being,” or however you think of that, and listen. . . and listen some more until there’s something to “hear.” It may take a while, as the message says when you’re updating your computer.
2. Sit down with a pencil and paper (don’t do this on your laptop) and write down all the things you’ve done well over the years starting with when you were a little girl.
Don’t leave anything out no matter how insignificant it seems to you at this point in time. And don’t rush. You may need many different sittings to complete this list. When you’re all finished, and not before, go back and check the three things you’re proudest of. These may not necessarily be the “biggest deal” things as judged by the world, just as judged by you. (One of the things I’m proudest of is the raft my friend Peggy Strome and I built when we were about 10 or 11 years old. It started out as a tree house, but having finally gotten it up into a tree, we decided it would be a better raft. We attached two inner tubes and made a paddle. When my father got home from work, he took us to the creek. We got on and paddled it!)
When you’re sure you’re done with your list, look back over all the things you’ve accomplished in your life! You’re not just a great marketing executive or sales representative or teacher or assistant or doctor or whatever. You’re a multifaceted, amazing woman with an incredible collection of skills and experiences!
And here’s the really important thing right now. . . you’re at a point in your life when YOU can decide which of all those gifts you WANT to hone and take into the world in whatever way would be meaningful to you at this point in your life. At 55 (or beyond) you very possibly have a good 30 years to do what will give you a deep sense of satisfaction and be immeasurably important to others.
What’s your next step as a Retired Professional Woman? You may need some help in taking it. Consider asking a good friend to listen to you explore all this. Who knows? She may be feeling the same way. Or you might ask a coach like myself to help you. Whatever you choose, take some action toward finding your way to a happy and satisfying next period of your life.
Dr. Sara Hart is a lifelong advocate for social change and an inspirational, motivating speaker. She is passionate about Prime Spark, an idea that became a movement to change the way our culture sees and treats senior women. As a speaker, she provides controversial, cutting-edge ideas in an interactive setting. Sara founded Hartcom, a consulting company, over 20 years ago, focusing on leadership development, coaching, and team building. She also coaches women who know things need to be different in our society and who value the support of a coach and a like-minded community. You can schedule a time to talk to Sara about whether or not coaching with her would be something you want to do at this point in your life. Interested in our new Discovery Group? Sign up for a Discovery Call to learn more!