By Susan Manning
Carolyn Heilbrun, a feminist author, wisely said that when thinking of your future, it is helpful to remember your past and “follow your threads.” I decided to learn about becoming a conscious elder because I was overwhelmed with the decision I had made to retire at the end of my next academic year. I have had a fulfilling work life since I was twenty, first in public mental health and eventually in academia as a professor of social work. Work and education have been very important to me my whole adult life. It was in my work that I earned respect, developed self-esteem, and found strengths that made a difference in the lives of others – students, colleagues, clients, and others.
Education “saved my life.” I sometimes share my story with others by saying, “I was a teenage migrant worker.” It is a provocative way to convey a very rocky beginning and to downplay the losses and damage accrued when I, at 15, dropped out of school, married a teenager (17) who was not educated, and traveled across the southwest, living from hand to mouth. In the process, I gave birth to three children by the time I was 18 years old. I was lucky to have a mother who valued education and who worked during my childhood. Following her model, over my adult life I earned a GED on my way to a Ph.D. Education provided the foundation for all of the steps of my work life. Needless to say, I could not comprehend a life without work and the roles that come with it. Who was I if not a therapist, a teacher, a researcher, an author?
I started the first day of the conscious elder workshop with my intention for the week – to decide what I wanted to do in retirement. And no wonder, because everyone who heard about my decision to retire asked, “What are you going to do?” Many individual and group exercises later, I was thinking more about what was most important for this last stage of development. I stopped thinking about what to do and began considering the harder work of who I was and wanted to be. I realized this was time to re-group and a space to re-balance; I needed to find the connection to my earlier self. As I prepared for the solo experience – 24 hours of alone time in the desert, me and my tent – I felt anxiety grow; “What would I do with the time?”
Alone in the desert, with nothing to do but remember, feel, think, and try to make sense of my chaotic past, I had a transformation, at least in insight. I mapped my life in my journal (something to do) and realized emotionally what I had always known intellectually – the meaning of the losses of normal adolescent development, the lack of an orderly transition from childhood to adulthood, the loss of models to learn self-discipline. I realized that the underlying shame I had felt my whole life had enormous consequences on my self-esteem and way of being in the world. My childhood characteristics of being smart and a “smart aleck,” of gregariousness (my mother said I had “St. Vitus Dance,” whatever that is), mischievousness and curiosity had been overwhelmed by loss, shame, stigma, guilt and the trauma of my teenage experience. My unexamined solution – I have been a caretaker my whole adult life.
I like being a caretaker, and I am good at it. My strengths in that area have helped me to be successful in all areas of my work life. However, serious thinking about that role helped me to see the link of caretaking to my feelings of shame. It sometimes has been a way to “hold” people to me, not believing I am worthy of relationship unless “doing for” others. I also have had difficulty with self-care and self-discipline. Others’ needs have taken precedence. The structures of work have helped to keep those limitations hidden.
Now I must address all of the facets of caretaking – for myself and others – through a different lens. I don’t intend to “throw the baby out with the bath water,” but want to be able in this next life challenge to serve others in many ways. To do that, I have to be different; I have to take better care of myself. I have to learn how to use my time in new and unfamiliar ways, without structures that are applied externally from work requirements. I have to connect to my earlier sense of self so that I can use that creative freedom and energy as a “conscious elder” who is useful to others and self. I have to focus on who I want to be.
Susan S. Manning is a Professor Emerita, Graduate School of Social Work, University of Denver and a retreat leader for the Center for Conscious Eldering. She values a strengths approach to life stage development and the power of our stories to help us move forward in our lives. Susan may be reached at Smanning44@aol.com