midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

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Midlife and Crisis: An Uneasy Relationship

This essay is the introduction to my new book, All That’s Gone and Still Remains: Reflections of a Man at Midlife, based on the Midlife Dude blog.

Midlife gets a bad rap. What else can be concluded when “midlife” is practically married to “crisis?” Two peas in a pod they are, “midlife” and “crisis.” But are they really well matched?

Canadian psychologist Elliott Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis” in 1965, concluding in a study that creative geniuses underwent changes of style or declines in productivity in their mid-to-late-30s. The term gained traction in popular culture by the 1970s, describing the time of life roughly between ages 40 and 65 when adults become attuned to their own mortality, concerned with leaving a mark before dying, and reflective about whether their first half of life has been meaningful.MidlifeCrisisGuyWithCar

But the term has snowballed from its origins documenting the imaginative processes of artists and poets in an obscure, dry journal of psychoanalysis to represent everything cataclysmic that seemingly afflicts the middle-aged trying desperately to ignore failed dreams and roll back the merciless tide of aging in a culture fixated on youth. Author Gail Sheehy cemented the gloomy view of midlife in her landmark 1976 bestselling book, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, referring to decades of life as the “Forlorn Forties” and “Resigned Fifties.”

Time to Ditch Wife for Bombshell?

“Midlife crisis” is more typically applied to males, at least when couched in a derogatory manner signifying an unofficial malady. “Midlife crisis” has come to denote the man who ditches his long-devoted, slightly wrinkling and graying wife for the platinum blonde bombshell 20 years his junior in his office; trades in his practical suburban family vehicle for the candy-apple red Porsche roadster; and transforms from dull and predictable to flamboyant and impulsive, fueled by a surge of drugging and boozing in a pathetic effort to recapture the carefree, raucous days of yore.

For women, the term “midlife crisis” generally carries an undertone that is more forgiving and socially validating, one tilted more toward liberation than debauchery. Sure, some midlife women succumb to vain attempts to recapture youth through medical and cosmetic procedures, or irresponsibly abandon a family to engage in self-indulgent, feel-good, self-destructive behaviors. The 40s decade certainly seems a marker of heightened vulnerability and confusion, as the beauty of youth wanes, marriages grow stale and risk of divorce increase, and children become more independent and leave, diminishing what many women regard as a primary raison d’etre.

Yet, midlife is characterized more as a time of renewal, rebirth and exploration for women. It is seen as an opportunity to shed an old self that may have been contorted to meet societal, cultural and parental expectations and transform into a more authentic, independent, self-accepting, self-confident being, and to reclaim aspects of personality and passions lost along the way. Midlife is viewed as a period of re-evaluation and adjustment, of increased wisdom, strengths, experience and vitality, when old dreams that no longer inspire are abandoned and more genuine desires and talents take hold, a process known as self-actualization, or becoming more fully oneself. Rather than a “crisis” producing angst, depression and dissatisfaction, psychotherapist and author Stephanie Marston declared that  the women she chronicled in her book, If Not Now, When? Reclaiming Ourselves at Midlife, characterized midlife as “one of the best times of their lives.”

What’s the Crisis?

Social science researchers have varied widely on whether any identifiable phenomenon that could be labeled as “midlife crisis” exists; numerous studies have shown midlife is not characterized by pervasive crises. Certainly, there are no commonly defined symptoms and nothing resembling a midlife disorder appears in the Bible of mental health, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Count renowned psychologist Daniel Levinson, author of the 1978 seminal book, Seasons of a Man’s Life, among the true believers. Following a group of working men for 10 years, Levinson developed a theory that delineated adulthood as a series of stages and transitions, each with a developmental task or crisis to resolve to advance to the next with a sense of well-being. Unlike some other researchers who rejected the concept of a “midlife crisis,” Levinson determined that 80 percent of the men he interviewed found the midlife transition a tumultuous struggle and psychologically painful. He bluntly described the existential predicament men face at midlife in Seasons: “Adults hope that life begins at 40 – but the great anxiety is that it ends there…It is terrifying to go through middle age in the shadow of death…and it is a self-defeating illusion to live it in the shadow of youth…”

I believe the stereotypical male version of a “midlife crisis” is overblown, hyperbole, a caricature. In reality, I contend a man’s “midlife crisis” more closely resembles the woman’s experience of re-evaluation, greater self-knowledge and wisdom – at least among those adults who aren’t withering in place – than the stereotypical jerk wearing shiny new bling glinting through an open shirt, cruising in an eye-popping Corvette convertible, ditzy blonde under his arm, toupee blowing in the wind.

Midlife Challenges

Midlife requires leaps of faith, acceptance and tolerance of uncertainty. We encounter the realization that our careers may have hit a ceiling, and re-evaluate whether the work at which we might have labored for decades provides meaning or nourishes our soul anymore, or ever did. We pause to question whether the race for success, advancement and achievement, as defined in young adulthood, is worth chasing anymore. If we haven’t already experienced job loss through no fault of our own, we are prime targets for downsizing and early retirement packages because of our age and salaries. We have to run ever faster to avoid becoming obsolete in the face of rapid societal and technological changes, the province of the young.

We grapple with the financial pressures of mortgages, college tuitions, accumulated debt, material acquisitions, increasing health care costs and looming retirement. We question whether our marriages are satisfying or have gone flat, whether the grass may be greener. We groom our children and ultimately set them free – except those suffering from Failure to Launch Syndrome — experiencing some sense of loss entering the childless phase. We may be sandwiched, caring for ailing parents while parenting our own kids. Mounting midlife challenges can be associated with high levels of stress, anxiety and sadness, which can lead to unhealthy lifestyles, deterioration of physical and mental health and acceleration of aging.

Through it all, we face choices, the biggest of which is whether we will transition at this crossroad toward reimagining and reinvigorating a life with new possibilities, purpose and contributions through continued growth and development, or whether we will hunker down, circle the wagons, kick like a mule, pull the covers tight, switch on autopilot and hang on mightily to the status quo, resigned to becoming a member of the walking dead until the nursing home comes calling.

Giving Back vs. Giving Up

Psychologist Erik Erickson captured this dichotomous phase of life in his preeminent Stages of Psychosocial Development theory, identifying midlife as the period of Generativity vs. Stagnation. Adults entering their second half of life would either help guide the next generation through socially valuable work, creativity, productivity and loving relationships, or would stagnate in a pool of self-centeredness and ineffectiveness. Those who do not associate change with growth but rather with loss, being passed by or failing are destined to weigh on Erickson’s Stagnation side of the scale.

I have dealt with many of midlife’s rites of passage. I have lost jobs multiple times; changed careers, requiring a return to school and sacrificing years of experience and money to start over in an occupation that stirred my soul; moved to experience a new environment and culture; divorced and remarried; faced the challenges of parenting teen-aged kids and watched them leave home for independent lives; cared for an ailing mother, and lost her; observed a colleague succumb to the ravages of alcohol and depression; experienced a major health setback and long rehabilitation; and strived for self-fulfilling goals involving creative expression. I believe I’m heading down Erickson’s path of Generativity; if I wasn’t, I imagine my life would be crushingly bland and I would be miserable.

These essays, compiled upon my entry into and over the course of a clinical mental health counseling graduate program from my late 40s to mid-50s, provide commentary from a personal perspective on these and other midlife issues, and seek to relate my experiences broadly to others going through similar midlife transitional phases and events. These writings reflect the opportunities and challenges, risks and rewards, hopes and fears, and triumphs and setbacks I’ve experienced and observed in midlife.

In tone, the essays are inspirational, triumphant, motivational, hopeful, wistful, prideful, contemplative,  inquisitive, wondrous, melancholic, depressing, upsetting, mournful, resigned, disappointed, critical, self-questioning – in short, the kaleidoscope that the midlife passage presents to our minds, hearts and souls.

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The Bailout

In my short time as a counselor, I’ve encountered parents who profess virtual powerlessness in the face of the behavior and choices of their young adult and mature adult children, from their late teens to late 20s.

The child rules the roost, while the parents, frayed, demoralized and depressed, submit to the child’s willful and controlling ways. I feel for the parents and their conundrum. It must be a weighty burden to worry ceaselessly about your child, indulge the illusion BailoutStampthat one can control their child’s fate, bail out the child at every turn, and feel eternally responsible for the child’s life choices and outcomes.

At the core of this feeling of parental helplessness is confusion over protecting a child – from danger, failure, mistakes, homelessness or even projected death – versus enabling behavior that avoids individual responsibility and experiencing consequences. Intentions may be good; results are not. Such smothering and shielding behavior on the part of parents contributes to the arresting of the child’s growth and development. Twenty-five-year-olds essentially are frozen at 15, having learned how to game one or both parents to their advantage and escape accountability. The longer the pattern continues and the parent remains the bailer, the less motivation the child has to change.

Sometimes, one parent contends, their spouse is to blame for their own helplessness, because the spouse is over-protective and unable to let go. One parent claims to try endlessly to set their stunted child free, but the other parent overrules them, shuts them down and continues down the same corrosive path, as the spurned parent becomes relegated to anemic bystander, tilting at windmills. But this is just an excuse to forgive the method the child uses to manipulate the parents to get what they want, just like the child learned as a little kid. While the parents will blame the child – “He just refuses to get a job, what can you do?!” “I can’t believe how she talks to her mother! She has no respect!” – the parents are the ones who fail to unite themselves and stick to any set of boundaries, rules or principles that would render their child’s behavior ineffective and counterproductive.

Fear, guilt and a desire to control immobilize the parent from allowing their child to make their own choices, accept responsibility, experience consequences, learn from mistakes and live their own lives. The result is a pattern of co-dependency that is difficult to break. The child never breaks away from at least one parent, while the other parent may become a spare part, suffering in self-imposed silence or virtual exile. The child depends on the parent to coddle and protect, providing safe haven from having to grow up and contend with an uncertain and uncaring world, from taking a risk, from self-determination. The parent depends on the child’s feigned incompetence and irresponsibility to feel needed, helpful and good about himself/herself, to validate their duty as a parent by doing “anything” for their child, to fulfill the role of protector and savior.

Adults in their 20s who are capable of living independently are essentially rewarded for their “failure to launch.” They don’t need a job because their basic financial needs – shelter, food, electricity, water, health care – are provided, as are wants such as cable TV and a car. So they don’t bother to seek one; holding a job would require taking individual responsibility. They don’t attend school because they have no motivation to set goals. They live at their parents’ home because it’s a safer bet – all the accountability is heaped on the parents — and easier. The unavoidable hassles and conflicts with the parents and turmoil in the household are just part of the bargain. They bum money as needed, claiming it is for one purpose while in some cases the parents providing the money know all along it is for drugs or alcohol, and resent giving in, but give in they ultimately do to maintain the dependent relationship.

Young adults living with their parents is a prevalent U.S. social trend: The U.S. Census Bureau found that more than one-third of people aged 18 to 34 lived under their parents’ roof in 2015; 10 years earlier, the percentage was about one-fourth. Nearly 9 of 10 who had lived with their parents in 2014 still did a year later. Indicating a rise in parental bailouts, the survey ominously found that 1 in 4 young adults aged 25 to 34 living in their parents’ home neither attended school nor worked.

I am grateful and proud that my kids are heading toward independent lives, on schedule. My 22-year-old daughter graduated college and is teaching in France. My 19-year-old son is attending college, majoring in computer science, and working part-time for UPS in logistics. If one of them holed up in my basement and refused to crawl out into their own life, I can’t be sure what I would do. I would hope I wouldn’t cave in and cater to dysfunction, irresponsibility and manipulation, but until you walk in someone else’s shoes…Thankfully, I don’t think my kids will give me the chance to wear those shoes.

One school of therapy posits that all human motivation is intentional, that all behavior is purposeful. Human behavior seeks to shape the world to satisfy at least one human need. For adults who have failed to launch, that need often is self-preservation. The anxiety and doubt of relying on oneself breeds dependence and escape from responsibility. Their behavior sends the message that the world is a scary place that expects something from us; the goal is to remain safe and preserve ego. If you don’t attempt, you can’t fail. Parents who are too willing to satisfy the need become the enablers, the practitioners of the bailout, who perpetuate their adult children’s prolonged adolescence.

Ramblin’ Man

For the second time in my adult life, I loaded all my possessions I could fit in a compact car and traveled more than 500 miles to a new city in a new state to begin a new career and concomitantly, a new life.

Two small differences were that the first time, I drove a Honda Civic from Washington, D.C. to Florida; the second time, a Toyota Corolla from Maryland to South Carolina.AdamCarPackedForSC

A bigger difference is that the first time I was 22 and just starting out in life, the future stretched out before me like the unending Eastern Seaboard expanse of Interstate 95 that I trekked to Florida, with few obligations or attachments. If the world wasn’t yet exactly my oyster, I had what seemed an eternity to search for pearls.

This time, I was 54, acutely aware of entering the latter stages of my career and wanting to make it inspired, with long-standing financial, material, family, friendship and community ties from nearly three decades in the Baltimore-Washington region. Quite simply, there was more riding on my decision – more people to potentially disappoint or who would disapprove; more things to give up; a sense of security and stability that comes with comfort and familiarity to be shattered; greater doubts and fears about starting anew in midlife to be conquered.

Moving is never easy, especially when relocating as far away as I have, from Maryland to the Charleston area of South Carolina, far enough to truly be gone. I feel like I’ve made a highly unconventional decision to upend my life at this midlife stage, gone against the grain. Indeed, demographic studies and surveys say I have.

While the United States is widely viewed as a land of boundless geographic mobility, with its heritage of explorers braving the Wild West frontiers and searching for their fortune in gold, the truth is, many Americans never venture more than a half-hour from their hometowns to live. Most Americans, especially from certain demographic groups, are stayers, not movers.

  • A 2015 University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study found that the typical adult – half the population — lives within 18 miles of his or her mother, and only 20 percent live more than a few hours’ drive from their parents. The study showed that over the last few decades, Americans are staying put at higher rates, with multiple generations remaining close to relatives for financial and logistical support. Those with college educations and higher incomes are more likely to live farther from their parents.
  • A 2015 Allstate/National JournalHeartland Monitor poll determined that more than half of respondents lived in close proximity to where they grew up. The percentage of stayers was highest for people from rural areas and small towns. Nearly half of all respondents had lived in the same area for 21 years or more. The pull to stay put is strong: Less than half of the respondents who believed that their hometown regions were on the downswing economically nevertheless said that the possibility of a move was not likely for them.
  • A 2008 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 40 percent of Americans had never left the hometown region in which they were born, and 57 percent had never lived in a state other than the state in which they were born. Those who moved most often cited greater economic opportunity; the main influencers for stayers were family, established connections, and a sense of belonging.

Anecdotally, it seemed to me that people in my demographic group – college educated suburban or urban dwellers — moved around in early adulthood as they established careers, sought better opportunities, climbed work and social ladders and started families. But once they entered that next stage, middle adulthood, they seemed to stay put for decades until retirement, in their 60s or 70s, or beyond.

Beyond the pull of family, connections, familiarity and a sense of belonging, a big reason few people move in midlife is that it’s just plain hard, especially emotionally. It’s a gamble, as much as one tries to predict and reduce the risk through analysis, projection and planning. I’m experiencing that now, just completing the first two weeks in my adopted new South Carolina hometown. Everything is new; nothing is known. I can’t sit back and wait for things to happen; I have to make them happen. It takes energy, effort and openness. It requires being outgoing, to meet new people, forge relationships with work colleagues and get involved in things I like to do. It involves learning and adapting to a new culture – as my boss jokes:  “get used to guns and fried chicken.”

It can be lonely – extremely lonely. I relocated to a region where I have no friends or family. Some may call this decision a mistake, a dumb move, a misguided effort to search for where “the grass is greener.”

I certainly have misgivings. I have given up a lot, and that weighs on me. I still don’t know how some things will turn out because of my decision. I almost abandoned the idea of moving many times, but an urge wouldn’t let me. I made a gut decision based on seeking a change of environment after 30 years; an opportunity where I would perhaps be a larger fish in a smaller pond in my new counseling career, thus increasing business prospects; and a place that offered a lifestyle and culture that I believed I would enjoy potentially for the rest of my working life and thereafter. The short-term adjustment challenges would have long-term benefits in quality of life and career satisfaction, I gambled. Still, it was hard to pull the trigger and yank up stakes.

But the angst is counterbalanced by the excitement, renewal, opportunity and sense of adventure that comes with starting fresh in a new place. It’s a chance to recharge batteries and create something from scratch, to expand my universe and experiences, to grow and learn and build confidence, to stretch beyond the known and test myself.

For me, with memories of pulling into my retired distant relatives’ house in Longboat Key, Florida in the dark after a 20-hour journey to start a new life as a 22-year-old sportswriter still vivid in my mind, those affirmatives made it worth going back to the future.

Good Money

When I would tell people I got a new job to start a new career in another state and would be moving, one of the first questions they’d inevitably ask was, “How much will you be making?” Or, so as to be less crass, “Will you be making good money?”PileOfMoney

In our competitive, capitalist, consumerist society, it is only natural that money is the first thing that comes to mind when someone accepts a new position. To be sure, why would anyone choose to move more than 500 miles and three states away for a job if not to make good money?

I had three answers for that question, and all had validity:

  1. Yes, of course I would be making good money, because there’s no such thing as bad money.
  2. No, I wouldn’t be making good money, compared to the much better money I had made in previous jobs.
  3. None of your friggin’ business what kind of money!

The answer is not simple. My job as a therapist under a two-year provisional license pays considerably less than my previous positions in public relations. I am at the entry level in the mental health field, where salaries and pay, though variable depending upon many factors, are relatively low compared to many other professions.

However, my job pays considerably more annually than the series of Gig Economy counseling internships and part-time and temporary jobs I had pieced together for the final two years of my counseling master’s degree program after leaving my full-time job. So viewed from that perspective, my new job does pay good money, and I’m grateful for that.

In midlife, we evaluate what we’ve already done and what we’d like to do with our remaining years, which no longer seem infinite. Priorities change, as we shift from the achievement-oriented, ladder-climbing, self-focused goals of younger adulthood to an increased desire to make a contribution to others, pursue meaningful activities and leave a legacy. My change to a career in counseling reflects the internal re-evaluations of the midlife transitional period.

When you realign priorities and make a significant change, there will be sacrifices. For me, one of those was money – good money. I knew that consequence of my decision from the start, when I embarked on the graduate program nearly six years before actually entering the counseling field. But I ignored that inescapable fact at the time.

Now that my new level of pay is a reality, I’m adjusting my life and budget to match. I may not yet qualify as a full-fledged Minimalist, but I’ve moved closer to that end of the scale in my spending, decision-making and thinking.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of making money – good money – or pretend I don’t care. It certainly helps in many ways and I always endeavored to make good money – at least the best I could in any given circumstance. I’d certainly rather be well-off and feel secure than poor and living anxiously paycheck to paycheck. Wouldn’t everyone? Fortunately, I have some financial cushion, enough to allow me to overcome the financial anxieties of making a career change, but far below some golden threshold to claim money doesn’t really matter.

But making ever more good money – however one defines it — isn’t the end-all be-all path to an ever more glorious Shangri-La, as a 2010 Princeton University study concluded. The Princeton researchers found that no matter how much more than $75,000 per year that a person earned, their “degree of happiness,” or emotional well-being did not increase. It also found that, though earning less than $75,000 in and of itself did not cause people to feel more unhappy, it did magnify and intensify negative feelings from life problems they had.

Beyond the practical realities of how I spend and the reduced margin of discretionary money available to save or burn compared to my previous work life, I’ve had to make a humbling mental adjustment: Here I am, in my 50s, peak earning years, with two graduate degrees, making less than half of what I made at my last full-time job, and less than or equivalent to many workers with much less education or years of experience than I have. Yet, I would still contend I am making good money, not bad money.

I gain fulfillment and a sense of purpose and contribution from counseling people and helping them improve their lives. Work is stimulating, rewarding and challenging, which I couldn’t always claim before. I look forward to my future in this new profession, and its many opportunities for learning, growth and entrepreneurship.

For those reasons, I know I can take this to the bank: I am making good money, with the promise of better money to come. When you truly enjoy what you are doing for a living and apply yourself with a passion because of that, the money naturally tends to follow. Good money.

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.

Listening

A follow up to my post on Facing the Music (from May 17, 2017, re-posted below), describing my invitation to have an authentic conversation with my young adult daughter Rebecca to hear her perspective on growing up in a family of divorce and the mistakes or oversights I may have made during those crucial years of development:

Time was running short, but I didn’t want to be a typical “all talk, no do” phony dad. I made my overture for an honest conversation just before I went to the beach for three months to teach tennis. Now I had less than two weeks back home until Rebecca traveled to France for a school year to teach English, and she was busy preparing and doing things with friends and family.

There seems never a good time to have difficult, uncomfortable and potentially distressing conversations. They’re easily avoided, and that’s what many people do, DiscussionTimeburying the hurt, anger, disappointment, sadness or other negative emotions until one day they boil over and surface in a torrent, providing release for the emotional-baggage carrier and a knockdown punch for the recipient of the pent-up emotions, unaware of the depth and intensity of feelings. I’ve been on both the unleashing and receiving ends of the bubbling emotional volcanos, and it’s never pretty.

A few days before Rebecca jetted off, we found ourselves together at home, and I broached the topic. Understandably, Rebecca was ambivalent about getting into an emotional conversation about past wounds and frustrations before embarking on an adventure of a lifetime. But she started talking, and I listened and asked questions.

I can’t reveal the content of what we discussed about our relationship and family life, and the complications and challenges Rebecca faced as a child, along with her younger brother, whose parents separated 12 years ago when she was 9 and ultimately divorced. It’s too private.

But I can say that at certain times I could have handled things better, that I was caught up in myself, that I made some mistakes, and that I was sometimes unaware of – or didn’t want to acknowledge – how much the kids observed, heard, knew or perceived, even at relatively young ages. Listening to Rebecca’s perspective and looking back, I can say how challenging it was for me to balance the needs, feelings, happiness, stability and security of my kids with my own needs, desires and emotions, and to try to lean toward selfless rather than selfish.

Divorce and eventual remarriage created some circumstances that ultimately were going to cause some distress for Rebecca individually and in our relationship, no matter what I did or said. The complexities of a marriage breakup and the constantly evolving aftermath can’t be fully grasped by a child, whose experience can be like that of a pinball ricocheting within a constrained environment. I experienced the pinball game as a child, and certainly didn’t understand everything that was going on with my divorced parents, and now so has Rebecca.

The beauty of our conversation was that Rebecca was able to tell me some things about what transpired from her perspective, what she experienced and how she felt honestly, and I was able to listen while squelching the default tendency to be defensive or critical.

We got through it with our relationship intact and expressions of love for each other. I’m hoping our conversation helps set a foundation for our future adult relationship, one in which we can be open and honest with each other without fear that we will be jeopardizing our relationship by revealing our feelings and with knowledge that we love each other unconditionally regardless of any conflicts, hurt feelings or differences that can be addressed and resolved.

So many relationships between fathers and adult children barely break the surface because of the dread of churning what lies beneath and what digging will uncover, or because of an inability, unwillingness or lack of desire to go deeper. Stoicism and emotional avoidance are drilled into males. I don’t want that type of relationship with my kids as they grow into adulthood. I want them to know and understand me, with all my attributes and faults, as I do them. I want us to be able to know and share our emotional selves. The only way to do that is to be emotionally available and vulnerable to them, and to show that I care about and want to know how they feel, and can handle it when they lay it on me.

One takeaway from our conversation is that whatever mistakes I made as Rebecca was growing up, I believe that she accepts my apologies, forgives my transgressions, acknowledges that I have tried to be a good and caring father and doesn’t expect me to be perfect. Our conversation was a good start toward setting the standard and expectation of our relationship for the future. I’m glad we each took the risk of having it instead of avoiding it.

Facing the Music (Midlife Dude Blog Post from May 17, 2017)

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 presence 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.

She’s Leaving on a Jet Plane: No Failure to Launch

My daughter literally has launched herself into adulthood.

The cornerstone job as a parent is to help your kids launch themselves successfully into adulthood by fostering their independence, confidence, self-identity, decision-making ability, sense of responsibility and motivation – traits which they have to develop themselves but over which parents have a big influence.

I’m proud and excited to see my 21-year-old daughter Rebecca exhibiting these traits. She has jetted off for Toulon, France, on the Mediterranean coast, for an eight-month RebInFranceassignment teaching English in two French middle schools, her first professional job after graduating college. This will be her second tour abroad, following a semester in college in which she studied at the University of Lyon in Lyon, France, and traveled throughout Europe.

Rebecca landed in Toulon September 18, 2017, not knowing anyone, same as when she ventured to Lyon in a study group comprised of American students from across the country. She was anxious and excited, the eagerness and thrill of the adventure, opportunity, unknown and challenge far outweighing any fears and doubts. I congratulate Rebecca on her adventurous spirit and desire to explore the world.

No Failure to Launch here, unlike Matthew McConaughey’s 30-something character in the 2006 movie of that title, who resisted leaving the comforts of the cushy life provided by his parents until they hatched a plan to finally get him to launch out on his own.

Psychology Today labeled “failure to launch” as a syndrome characterized by the “difficulties some young adults face when transitioning into the next phase of development—a stage which involves greater independence and responsibility.” Energy, desire and motivation are the necessary ingredients to fuel the launch and overcome fears and anxiety, and taking risks and actions comprise the launch process. Then, resilience and perseverance are required to overcome inevitable turbulence and continue progressing during this stage. Without those components, the post-adolescent risks becoming stuck and dependent.

Ultimately, says Psychology Today author and psychiatrist Robert Fischer, M.D., for a successful launch, a young adult “must tap into and identify a passion or passions, experience the joy that comes with expressing those passions, and have opportunities to share this joy with others.  There must be a conscious effort to cultivate not just the logic of the mind, but also the desires of the heart.”

I’m gratified that Rebecca is following her passion and desire by taking the risk and action to travel to France and to teach in foreign schools.

Rebecca is part of an age group that has been segmented recently from the broader adulthood category and coined “emerging adulthood” for its characteristics common to people in their late teens through their 20s. These are young people who feel like the knot in a tug-of-war rope, caught between breaking free of the challenges of adolescence yet often still maintaining close bonds with parents, family and the familiar trappings of youthful existence.

The psychologist who identified the new life-span development phase, Jeffrey Arnett, outlined five distinct features of emerging adulthood:

  • Identity exploration: Establishing one’s self-identity continues to evolve throughout the 20s, as young adults search for what brings satisfaction out of education, work, and relationships.
  • Instability: This group moves around a lot, among schools, jobs, locations and residences as they experiment with future paths, change their minds and directions and struggle to accumulate the resources to fuel their journeys.
  • Self-focus: Emerging adulthood is a time of intensive internal focus, as young adults explore their desires for work, living arrangements, experiences and relationships with a sense of broad possibilities and few encumbrances. It is an age when opportunities may seem limitless, before developments such as marriage, children, increased financial obligations and career choices inevitably pose constraints and redirect attention more outward.
  • Feeling in between: Emerging adults feel they are taking more responsibility for their own lives and decisions, yet still feel they have not completely broken free from some form of dependence and do not completely feel like an entirely self-sufficient, autonomous adult.
  • Age of possibilities: Optimism characterizes emerging adulthood. After taking a hard look at their parents’ lives, many believe they have a good chance to create a more rewarding and exciting life for themselves.

Another researcher sought to determine why some emerging adults thrive and why some struggle in establishing identities and independence. She found that the foundation for such progress or obstacles are established in childhood and adolescence, and are heavily influenced by parents striking the right balance between providing support, limits and structure, and encouraging kids to pursue independence and make their own decisions.

One type of family dysfunction that inhibits emerging adults from becoming independent is “enmeshment,” when family members’ emotional lives are so intertwined that children have difficulty separating, becoming their own person, and accepting responsibility for their choices and lives. This is a dynamic I have observed often in counseling.

The signs are clear that my daughter is becoming the captain of her own jet. I feel rewarded as a father that I have contributed to the foundation of her launching pad.

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

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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.]

15 Principles for Surviving and Executing a Career Transition

In two months I will complete a graduate degree in clinical mental health counseling that will have taken 5½ years to finish, enabling me to take final steps to executing a fairly drastic midlife career change from public relations. I had made a career change before, from journalism to public relations. Though still jarring, that transition was significantly more seamless than this one, requiring no additional education and using many of the same skills.

I have been seeking to derive more meaning and satisfaction from my career, as well as tCareerImagehe opportunity to self-direct my future, embrace an entrepreneurial spirit, contribute value to society and work flexibly, creatively, collaboratively and independently. I explored life-coaching, completing a series of training courses, but ultimately didn’t pursue it. But the idea of helping people with psychological, emotional and life challenges stuck with me.

It took me about three years of mulling the idea to apply to graduate school for counseling and another year after acceptance to enroll in my first class. Twenty-one classes and three internships later, I’m on the precipice of a career transition.

It hasn’t been easy. As I started my internships, I ran into a buzz saw at my PR job. It was miserable, and at the same time the best thing that could have happened. I couldn’t have done both well simultaneously, along with graduate classes. I would have burned out. I left my job, and the security blanket of a biweekly paycheck. That was 18 months ago. Since then, I’ve lived a much more itinerant, unpredictable and frugal existence, cobbling together temporary, seasonal and part-time jobs, and unpaid or low-paid internships.

In brief, these are 15 principles I’ve learned about making a significant career change, concepts that are valuable to consider while mulling a change or while bulldozing through the trenches:

  1. Long-Term Vision – A career transition won’t happen if you can’t envision a different future, if you are too overwhelmed by the daily grind and stressors to dream about a new life.
  2. Delay Gratification/Patience – Depending on how drastic the change and the amount of education and training required, the transition could be a long haul rather than a quick fix.
  3. Risk (Tolerance/Acceptance) – You will be giving up something known for something new, with no guarantee of breaking in, or even being proficient at or liking the new endeavor.
  4. Self-Knowledge – Become clear on what is most important to you, your values, how much risk you can tolerate, and how hard you are willing to work to make a change happen.
  5. Courage – You’ll have to be brave enough to take risks and step out of your comfort zone.
  6. Confidence/Self-Assuredness – Consider how you will handle other people in your life, including those closest to you and colleagues in your current occupation, questioning or casting aspersions on your decisions. How much would a wave of skepticism and criticism deter you or affect your thinking and beliefs?
  7. Identity – Leaving a profession, especially one you’ve worked at for years and in which you’ve achieved a certain level of expertise, status and success, can significantly alter how you identify yourself. Can your ego withstand such an identity loss, while building a new and different piece of your identity?
  8. Research/Network – It will be important to determine the costs and requirements (and barriers) to entry into a new profession, as well as occupational outlook, such as job growth and salary projections. Soak up all the information you can about your prospective new career while considering a transition and in the transitional phase by interviewing people in the field, networking with fellow career changers and professors, taking classes, attending conferences and reading industry journals.
  9. Commitment/Persistence – A half-hearted or uncertain effort will likely fail to result in lasting change, like my foray into coaching. The urge to give up may hit, especially early in the process. You’ll have to constantly re-evaluate your commitment, revisit why you embarked on the effort in the first place and resist inevitable doubts.
  10. Embrace Uncertainty/Unpredictability – Become comfortable with not knowing and embracing the journey as an adventure. View unpredictability as making life more exciting, stimulating and challenging. Here’s where faith and spirituality can come into play.
  11. Sacrifice – Be prepared to pay costs in terms of money, time, effort, perceived security and status (you may go from being expert to novice).
  12. Hustle/Scramble/Diversify – A career transition may not be seamless, moving directly from a job in one career to a job in another. There may be an intermediary period involving education, training, internships and the like. You may have to jump off the cliff during this period – leaving security behind – but with a parachute. You just won’t be able to be sure where you may drift or land along the way. You may have to be aggressive in patching together a living from various jobs that aren’t career jobs, but serve as a means to your end. You may have to call on skills you weren’t using in your current career, or adapt your skills to different positions that work within your new goals. For me, that meant working summers as a tennis teacher and applying writing and teaching skills as a university writing tutor.
  13. Flexibility – A flexible frame of mind complements the principles of identity and hustle. If you are not rigid in your identity, you can explore varied employment opportunities, living arrangements and lifestyles that can help you manage the transition. If you are open to a wide range of income-producing opportunities, you can minimize your reluctance to try new things – perhaps jobs you would have once considered beneath you — and ramp up your hustle to get them.
  14. Financial House – Your transition will be easier and less stressful if there is Order in the House, the Financial House. As much and as far ahead as possible, craft a financial plan for the transition. Build savings cushions and tuition accounts, if education is necessary. Consider becoming a minimalist in your lifestyle choices, to some degree. A transition likely will come with some financial pain, including possibly a precipitous income drop from your previous career once you start in a new occupation, but planning and frugality can mitigate the potential pitfalls.
  15. Negotiation – If you’re lucky, you’ll have a current employer who respects, or maybe even encourages and supports, your career-change endeavor (I wasn’t). If so, see how you can negotiate to get what you need – time, a flexible schedule, tuition assistance, remote work arrangement – while continuing to fulfill your employer’s needs. You may be able to hold onto your job and income much longer (I couldn’t), helping to bridge the transition.

 

 

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