midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “graduation”

Career Change at 50 ‘Can Be a Perilous Thing’

Altering a career course at fifty can be a perilous thing, and many people, if not most, do not traipse merrily down that path. The luckiest among us find their work fulfilling, and cannot imagine why they would leave. Others would follow their passions if they could, but college tuition, the mortgage, and the care of parents or children or both buckle them into their present work…Still others are simply scared – with good reason, because the job market does not necessarily embrace mid-career transitions.

— Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Life Reimagined

I embarked on a path to a new career at 48. It was more like entering a maze – I couldn’t see what was around the next corner, let alone envision arriving at the destination. I had doubts about whether I would have the fortitude to finish, and whether I actually even wanted to make a dramatic change and start over so late in my professional life.

I had established several decades of skills and experience as a journalist and public relations professional – fields that wouldn’t earn me a cup of coffee in the new career I was pursuing. I wasn’t just transferring and adjusting skills, as I did when I made the leap from journalism to PR. I was doing a total makeover, learning a new way of being.

“The brain likes its habits…and hates change,” Bradley Hagerty quotes a Harvard Medical School professor. “The brain despises conflict: It reasons that I may be happier over there, CareerChange_TwoPathsbut I am earning a good paycheck here, and in general it resolves this cognitive dissonance in favor of the familiar. At the bottom of every dilemma is fear.”

To make the change I sought – becoming a mental health counselor/therapist – I had no choice but to return to school for a marathon master’s degree venture, and ultimately confront the fear of the unfamiliar and the insecurity of the lower earnings commensurate with starting anew.

At first, I merely dipped my toe in the water by applying to a program and enrolling in the first of 22 required courses. I nearly dropped out after breaking my leg before completing my first course and losing motivation, feeling overwhelmed by the long road ahead. I overcame ambivalence and registered for a second course a few days before the next semester began. From there, it was a step-by-step progression that would have registered in the hundreds on a Fitbit.

After 5 ½ years of classes and internships and another five months of bureaucratic license- application process, I have been hired for my first professional job as a licensed counselor at age 54. As Bradley Hagerty writes in her book about midlife, it has not been a merry traipse, though it has been rewarding nonetheless – the sense of striving and accomplishment, the satisfaction of learning and growing, the excitement of pursuing something new and meaningful that will contribute toward others.

“The role of people in their second half of life is not to build up for themselves, but to begin to give away their time, energy and talents,” Bradley Hagerty writes.

There have been costs accompanying the benefits. I left my job two years ago, largely because it was incompatible with the latter stages of the master’s degree program, where I had to serve internships for four semesters. That plunged me from making a comfortable living to pay for a mortgage, two college tuitions and care of children – just as Bradley Hagerty identified – to an itinerant work life in the Gig Economy, working lower-paying temporary, part-time and seasonal jobs. Breaking even on the monthly household budget, much less saving for retirement, went out the window.

Psychologically and emotionally, I felt unmoored. After all, what kind of responsible, mature man in his 50s would be working the same summer job alongside college students as a tennis teacher? Wasn’t I supposed to be at the peak of my earning power – indeed, the job I left provided me the highest salary I had ever made – instead of making the same hourly wages I earned in my 20s? All this so I could enter a new career at the bottom rung in a profession where beginning pay is notoriously low. Just to drive home the point that I’m a rookie, my license for my first two years identifies me as “Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern.”

Was I scared, as Bradley Hagerty suggests many midlife career deliberators rightly are, “because the job market does not necessarily embrace mid-career transitions?”

No…at least not so much to be deterred. I was more scared about looking back in a decade still with a yearning to try something new and realizing with regret that I missed my window. Once midlife careens on the backside toward older age, it becomes even harder to reinvent the self.

I also was entering a job market where there is a growing need, where men are relatively scarce and therefore actually valued for their gender perspective and traits, and where the accumulation of life experience and wisdom that comes with age is an advantage in helping other people with their problems – unlike some other professions, where older workers become dinosaurs because they can’t keep up with technology, trends, new methods and the requisite energy to stay on top. Or they are paid at the high end of the salary range, making them expendable in favor of hungry and more footloose up-and-comers.

Altering a career course at 50 certainly can be a perilous thing. There’s no guarantee the job market will unfurl a welcome mat for a midlife career changer or that the changer will be successful, however success is measured. I’ve managed to get through the front door; now I’ll find out for myself whether the new house I’m entering truly is my dream home.

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Intersection of Beginning and Ending

For the second straight day, I couldn’t get my mother on the phone and got no reply to my messages. The last time I called from work and left a message, I got a sick feeling. I knew something was wrong.

I called my wife Amy and told her to meet me at my mother’s apartment building, where we had struggled to move her a year earlier during a period of my mother’s physical health decline and struggle with a mental health disorder. At midlife, roles had reversed and we had become my mother’s caretakers and support system.

When we got no response to our knock on the door, dread came over me. We entered and found her dead on the bathroom floor, cause of death unknown. Though she had been experiencing health problems, they were more the nagging kind than life-threatening—until they were even more than that, suddenly.

It was a tragic start to a political campaign. Only five days earlier, I had registered in dontknockfront-cover_6283732Maryland’s capital of Annapolis as a Democratic candidate for state delegate. I had never told my mother I was considering running—our relationship had been strained during her time of unpredictable and volatile mental health, exacerbated by her stubborn nature and rebellious streak. I didn’t want to mention a political run until I was fully committed to entering the race and felt she was on firmer ground. I had planned to let her know I was in the race the next time I saw her. I never got that opportunity. I felt terrible I had never shared the news.

The profile story on my candidacy in the Baltimore Sun with an October 8, 2013 dateline coincidentally hit the newsstands the same day that Amy and I found my mother dead. That day, I was going to proudly present the article to my mother, my biggest supporter, as I broke the news to her about my candidacy.

I wrote about my mother’s political influence on me and the impact of her death on my nascent campaign in Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics:

I credit my mother Sandra Sachs, a diehard liberal Democrat from Boston who had a fascination with the Massachusetts Kennedy clan, a devotion to other charismatic pols and a penchant for volunteering for campaigns, for getting me interested in politics…

The Sun article provided me a nice opening salvo. Now I just had to back it up with real action. That is, as soon as I could plan a memorial service for my mother, meet and make plans with funeral directors, coordinate with out-of-town family, untangle her financial affairs, launch the bureaucratic estate settlement process with the Register of Wills, negotiate with her landlord, make repairs to her apartment, sell her furniture on Craigslist, and move all her other belongings out of her apartment within three weeks. Not the ideal way or frame of mind to launch a campaign.

So the first month of my campaign was put virtually on hold while I dealt with my mother’s affairs and coped with the sudden loss emotionally. In a spiritual way, I felt Sandra Sachs with me during the campaign, watching over me as I traveled door-to-door and marched with people who were struggling day-to-day. It occurred to me that maybe it was fate that I was running at all. It was my mother who loved politics and took pride in identifying herself as a Democrat, the party of inclusion and champion of the vulnerable, with her roots as the daughter of Eastern European immigrants who settled in the gritty outskirts of Boston and who lived a hardscrabble, working-class life. She would have been proud, I thought, looking down. No one from my family had ever run for political office before. The Kennedys we were not.

My mother’s keen interest in politics landed her on Capitol Hill as a staffer for U.S. Senators Bill Bradley (D-NJ), who ran for president in 2000, and Daniel Moynihan (D-NY), no small feat for a woman who spent her initial post-college years in the 1960s into the 1970s raising kids, and then battled back from debilitating depression to gain a foothold in the workforce.

At one candidates’ forum in particular, at a large residential retirement community outside of Baltimore, I felt my mother’s presence with me. I eschewed my usual stump speech in favor of an effort to connect with the seniors on an emotional and personal level, as excerpted from Don’t Knock, He’s Dead:

“I have a good idea of the issues you have faced and your current challenges,” I told the Charlestown [Retirement Community] residents, “but not because I read it or heard a policy wonk or a politician talk about them. I know from personal experience, from trying to help my mother with problems the last couple of years of her life before she died, when her health was going downhill.”

I told them about my mother’s challenges with downsizing and finding appropriate housing; exploring assisted living facilities; searching for viable transportation when she couldn’t drive; navigating a poorly coordinated, frustrating health care system; determining finances; and finding social outlets.

I wasn’t aiming for sympathy, but nevertheless several of the attendees and my fellow candidates offered me condolences and said my speech was heartfelt afterwards. Once again, I didn’t know if my speech had earned me any votes, but I was proud that it was memorable.

Nearly four years later, following a dinner celebrating my daughter Rebecca’s graduation May 20, 2017 from the University of Maryland, Rebecca told me she was sad that Nana – my mother – wasn’t there to celebrate with us. Another prideful campaign sadly missed. Whenever Maryland plays the University of Michigan, often now that Maryland is in Michigan’s athletic conference, Rebecca said she’ll think of her grandmother, who took great pride in transcending her poor, neurotic family in working class Malden, Massachusetts to arrive at a beacon of rah-rah American collegiate life in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and who ingrained the “Go Blue!” Michigan chant in her grandkids.

And I’ll always think of my mother when I recall my run for politics, one of her other great loves.

Facing the Music

As my daughter Rebecca and I were discussing her sociology class on adolescence, she tangentially announced, “You and mom did a good job raising me.”

Surprised by an out-of-the-blue compliment, I asked, “What makes you say that?”

Rebecca explained that she does not view herself as materialistic, implying instead that she values experiences and relationships above things. We provided for her needs and many wants, but we didn’t overindulge, and didn’t replace our caring, attention and adam-reb_foyeweddingpresence with materials, she was saying.

As a 21-year-old sociology major graduating from the University of Maryland in four days, she has learned about inequality, justice, race, poverty, privilege, human development and other similar topics, helping her become more insightful and introspective about her own life, and more astute about distinctions among individuals and communities.

I was happy to hear Rebecca praise our parenting, since her mom and I broke up when she was 9. My biggest fear about our divorce was that it would cause emotional and psychological problems for Rebecca and younger brother Daniel.

“So we did a lot of things right,” I said, fishing for more praise.

“Yeah, but not everything,” she said, adding the inevitable disclaimer.

“What didn’t we do so well?”

“There were things I haven’t talked to you about.”

We were headed to an Easter celebration, so there wasn’t time, and it wasn’t the right time, to get below the surface. But I kept the conversation in my memory, committed to return to it.

I did that last weekend, inviting Rebecca to have an open discussion with me as a young adult, reflecting on her experiences as a pre-teen and teenager, the positive and the negative, the gratifying and the disappointing, the supportive and the hurtful.

That conversation, I recognize, will require certain things of me, to be constructive rather than destructive or dismissive: I’ll want to approach it as a listener, not a talker, and with an open-minded, non-judgmental, non-defensive attitude. Because I know my temptation, like any parent told in retrospect they weren’t as magnificent as they believed, will be to explain or justify or rationalize or correct the record, which would only serve to shut down Rebecca, diminish openness, trust and honesty and invalidate her experiences and feelings. My current training in counseling should help me control such urges.

I would like to give Rebecca the chance to have an open forum with me without fear of reprisal or disengagement. I believe it’s important to transition into our adult relationship with everything in the open, past issues revealed and understood, nothing left unsaid, as the foundation for our future interactions and communications. It’s the key to an emotionally healthy, genuine father-daughter relationship.

I don’t know what she will say to me. I don’t know if I’ll be surprised. I don’t know what emotions it will trigger. But I want to hear it. I know I had good intentions throughout her childhood, and did my best as a father. But I also know I made mistakes. And I know the fact of divorce created situations and triggered emotions that were difficult, or perhaps impossible, to manage without having an impact on the kids.

Facing the music about my role and impact as a divorced (and remarried) father in my daughter’s life will increase my awareness and, I hope, strengthen my ability to relate to Rebecca. It’s worth whatever discomfort or ego deflation it may cause me.

Sweating it out to the End

I was sitting in the sauna after a swim, trying to meditate (and lose a pound), when the thought hit me (a welcome thought, nevertheless showing I don’t know how to meditate): the only thing separating me from graduation with a clinical mental health counseling master’s degree was one more paper, the fourth chapter of a final project.

In the heat, I felt a surge of accomplishment, the dripping sweat an appropriate metaphor for the 5 ½-year graduate school and internship marathon. I reflected on all that had happened during that time – a broken leg requiring surgery and a year of

DSC00056 (2)

These grads, including my son Daniel (left), are younger than me, but I’ll be celebrating the same experience soon.

recovery; turning 50; my mother dying; leaving a seven-year job under contentious and demoralizing circumstances; both of my kids leaving for college – and felt amazed I had arrived at this moment. I had nearly dropped out after the first of my 22 classes and three internships, the path seemed so complicated and daunting.

 

So other than giving myself a pat on the back for perseverance, what can my experience say about sweating it out for a goal at midlife that perhaps could resonate with others?

  • Personal growth and development keeps life interesting. I feel more alive and engaged with new challenges and goals to pursue, and restless when I feel stagnated and mired in routine.
  • It’s never too late to learn new things or set new goals. Changing careers is another matter entirely that involves issues of practicality, responsibility, risk and sacrifice. But those complexities shouldn’t preclude exploration.
  • Moving forward on faith can work out, and could be a necessity for progress. Sometimes pushing through doubts is the only way forward. I still don’t know how my whole counseling endeavor ultimately will work out, but I have faith that it will. Needing a guarantee on an outcome may preclude the journey.
  • Find a way. Don’t let something that seems too hard stop you, if you can creatively discover ways to make it work, even just one step at a time, especially if you believe you might live with regret for giving up on a goal or dream too easily. I feared living with regret, which helped propel me to continue grinding ahead. Sometimes “a way” may seem impossible, but perhaps as likely self-imposed limits make it seem so.
  • Pursuing something new, whether a hobby, pastime, education or career, can bring you into contact with a new community that can enrich your life. The people I’ve met through my graduate program have provided community, enhancing my life and helping me learn.

I’m sure hoping this new counseling gig works out. I entered the Loyola University-Maryland Pastoral Counseling program at age 48. Back then, I couldn’t imagine getting to the end, which has now arrived at age 54. I’m excited to see where it leads. At the least, it will open up a whole new range of opportunities and a greater chance to self-direct my career – possibly in the form of my own business and other entrepreneurial endeavors – as I head into its latter stages. I’m feeling now all the sweat I’ve poured into it has been worthwhile.

[In a serendipitous coincidence, my graduation is the same day as my daughter Rebecca’s graduation from the University of Maryland. Read about my decision of whose big day to attend.]

(Not) A Chip off the Old Block

Academically, my son Daniel doesn’t take after me – except for the fact that we have each attended college. And in today’s increasingly specialized and technological economy and job market, I’d say that’s good for him.

As a freshman computer science major and bioinformatics minor, Daniel is taking a heavy dose of computer programming, biology, statistics and math. I predict he will separate DanAdam2_PotomacHallhimself from the masses who hold college degrees, which no longer guarantee entry into the professional world, by going the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) route and will find himself in demand in the job market. No post-college Parental Unit Domicile (PUD) basement-dwelling likely or necessary for him!

I, on the other hand, took an occasional math or science course three decades ago at my liberal arts college – only enough to meet the requirements to graduate – and overdosed on philosophy, history, political science, economics and English courses, emerging with a smorgasbord-style International Relations degree that led to nothing in particular.

But in that era, being a generalist with a broad liberal arts education could still work as a professional launching pad for many occupations. It’s not that it can’t work today, but it just appears harder.

Industries can be more selective in hiring graduates who more closely fit the profile for their jobs based on their degrees, internship experiences and technical and industry-specific knowledge. Those without more targeted, specialized and immediately marketable degrees will flood the “generalist” markets, like education, communications, sales, fundraising and social services, creating the immense competition that has left many college graduates on the sidelines.

While teaching tennis at an beach resort last summer in the midst of my career transition to counseling, I talked with a doctor at Minnesota’s renowned Mayo Clinic after a tennis clinic. His wife also was a physician. He had two kids in college, and explained his parenting philosophy about his kids’ college education. He did not take a laissez faire approach, like many parents who allow their kids to “find themselves” – or not – by experimenting and dabbling with a variety of subjects with no clear idea of where they were heading. Guessing and floundering, and possibly wasting time and money, was not acceptable, he emphasized. If his kids were going to attend college, he demanded that they have “skin in the game” and demonstrate a well-thought out plan outlining what they would study, and how their field of study would lead to a career path and jobs immediately after college, based on real-world economic and occupational data. Otherwise, the parental money pipeline would be disconnected.

It made sense to me. And immediately after my discussion with the doctor, I was struck by pangs of guilt: My daughter Rebecca was about to enter her senior year of college as a liberal arts major – sociology and French minor – and I had never really had that practical conversation with her about the real-world application of her college pursuits. I was the laissez faire parent!

That’s not necessarily a bad approach. There’s value in allowing your kids to make their own decisions, find their interests and passions on their own, and take responsibility for the outcomes. Parents foisting their own interests, desires and fears upon their kids to either force or influence them to take a certain path rarely works – at least not over the long haul – and typically ends in resentment. But I still felt remiss about possibly leaving Rebecca unprepared for a world that can be callous and crush souls.

So I called Rebecca that August day, knowing that merely mentioning the idea of developing a plan for her post-college life early in her senior year could ratchet up her stress level. She assured me that she was considering various ideas and researching careers, and that she wasn’t approaching her pending graduation flippantly.

That was enough for me. I could check off the Parental Duty box next to “Advise Child of Importance of College Choices.” I’ve never been a hard-ass parent. I have confidence Rebecca will find her way, just like I do with Daniel. And even though their career paths will be different, I’m glad both will be making their decisions based on what they want to do, not based on my ideas of what they should do or on pursuing a path based on fear that they won’t succeed. Because they will succeed if they have the desire and interest.

There are no strings attached to my investment in their college educations. I’ll guide where I can and when and if I’m asked. Otherwise, they’re on their own, and I know that’s the way they want it.

Daddy-Daughter Day

adam-reb_foyeweddingWhat are the odds that a father and a daughter would graduate from different universities on the same day?

Infinitesimal. But that is what’s destined to take place for me and my daughter Rebecca on May 20, 2017, barring unforeseen circumstances.

We’re each about to start our final semesters. I’ll be graduating from the clinical mental health counseling master’s program at Loyola University-Maryland after a five-and-a-half-year marathon, while Rebecca will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Maryland.

It will be a proud day for the Sachs family. Unfortunately, though, I’ll have to make a choice, because the graduation ceremonies conflict. The choice is really no choice at all. As much as I would like to participate in my graduation to savor my accomplishment and sacrifice – and it really has been that, involving a career change, job loss, precipitous drop in income, scrambling to patch together part-time, temporary and seasonal employment, large tuition bills, attending evening classes after work, securing and working at two internships that have tested me, and a long-term commitment to finish rather than quit when feeling overwhelmed – the obvious choice is to attend my daughter’s graduation.

It’s not that I’m selfless. I’m not. I think a lot about myself. I’m all about me, a lot of the time. I’m not a huge giver. I might not give you the shirt off my back. But May 20 will be Rebecca’s time. It will be enough for me to know what I accomplished and that I persevered through obstacles, as much as I would like to share that moment with grad school colleagues who have done the same.

It will be more important to me that Rebecca knows and remembers that I was there, and to celebrate her achievement. I have tried to do that throughout her 21 years. There’s a quote you might know, often attributed to director Woody Allen, that “90 percent of life is showing up.” But apparently what Allen really said was, “80 percent of success is showing up.” So if I multiply a .90 show-up rate by a .80 success rate, I have a 72 percent chance of success by showing up at Rebecca’s graduation. I’ll take those odds.

Showing up always been a high priority for me as a parent, and a college graduation is no time to slack off. That simple feat – being present — was made more challenging over the years since I separated from Rebecca’s mother when she was only 9, but it was never an excuse.

We had hoped our graduations would be on different days on the same weekend. How cool would it be to attend each other’s graduations on successive days? I would like Rebecca to see a palpable example that learning, growth, striving and change can happen throughout a lifetime, by observing me graduate. But it wasn’t to be.

So I will do what I know in my gut is right and what all good parents should do – no awards or kudos needed – and put my child first.

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