September 2015 Articles

The U-Curve



Mawrters in Midlife

By Elizabeth Mosier ’84

At our Bryn Mawr graduation rehearsal, some good soul from the CDO handed out a map: CAREER DEVELOPMENT STAGES, plotting our paths by decade on a legal-sized sheet. 20s: Make initial career choices. 30s: Build family and career. 40s: Make more permanent commitments. 50s: Review life. As we lined up in alpha order by discipline, we squinted to see our future selves. Like most of my classmates, I couldn’t imagine our 10th reunion, let alone the long trip from commencement to the bottom of what researchers who study life satisfaction describe as a happiness U-curve. Though we hoped for a steady rise, many of us have experienced an almost imperceptible fall—from happily hectic to sadly stressed—as career pressures, kids, and crises piled on, progressing along with us to the half-century mark.

But with age comes wisdom; finally, we understand the subtext of that old timeline, the blank space beneath it challenging us to CHART YOUR OWN. Indeed. Integrity calibrates the Mawrter’s compass and, for some of us, the looming midlife review prompts a joyful return to endeavors we love.

“I’m going back to things that make me come alive, that are heartfelt as opposed to head felt,” says Lori Perine ’80. In college, she followed a stable path to support her musical aspirations, majoring in mathematics while singing with various campus groups and the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. After an intense post-graduate interlude of teaching math while preparing to enter an operatic training program, Lori realized she didn’t have the money or time to invest in a career as a world-class opera singer. She hadn’t spent her 20s plugging into the requisite vocal mentorship system; instead, she’d pursued advanced degrees in energy management and policy, and worked on World Bank projects with a “tangible impact on the wellbeing of people on the planet.” Still, she continued to sing in choirs while building a career in technology policy—until suppressing her big voice caused vocal dysfunction. “For the first half of my life, it was important that I fit in, personally and professionally,” she says. “Finally, I had to let my voice soar.”

Training again and performing solo, Lori creates community by organizing ukelele jams, leading meditation at senior centers, and facilitating mindful parenting retreats. Her contemplative practice inspires her vocal one, a journey manifest in her increased authority as she lays a new track for new times. “All around me, I see musicians who are not following a specific mold or genre,” she says. “Using social media, one can self-publish and self-promote to build an entire career performing and recording outside the old institutional structures.”

An about-face in midlife can compel a useful reckoning, says Victoria Tamas ’84, who “flunked a teaching internship” after earning a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and working in nonprofit social service agencies. Raised “in a rough neighborhood at the edge of Yonkers that touches the Bronx,” Vicky was upset when her supervisors mistook her compassion for an impoverished student for educational elitism, leaving her unsupported—and temporarily unmoored. “It’s important to make peace with your narrative even if the pivotal points seem to be failures and not choices,” she says. “Now that I’m older, I realize my life arc didn’t start with my birth but with my Hungarian refugee parents, who came to this country after the revolution in 1956. My earliest impression of how to make things better was watching my mother go to night school and paint the walls of our drecky apartment. As a kid, I knew two things about myself: that education was important and that I wanted to be an artist.”

Vicky lost that narrative thread for a time but found it again in a clay studio shortly after her career crisis. To her surprise, her passion for making pottery—unvisited since college, when a paper she wrote on the history of convents and women’s empowerment shaped her thoughts on art-making as a form of prayer—was still intact. Currently developing a web-based business to sell her porcelain wine goblets, Seder plates and Chanukiahs, she says, “There’s something so goddess-y about throwing pots. I remain optimistic about healing the world through one’s work, no matter what the job is.”

Like other alumnae, Ashley Opalka ’98 was pulled in conflicting directions by her many interests and trapped by a perceived obligation to make use of her innate talents. A gifted singer who majored in archaeology and classical studies, she says, “I made missteps in my 20s because I didn’t have the courage to do what I really wanted to do. Both my parents were teachers, and I’ve always felt that nothing is more important, but for years I took an easier road.”

Any road seems risky when visibility is limited; for Ashley, as for many of us, mistakes corrected her course. “I learned a lot from my first marriage about what I want and don’t want,” she says. Happily remarried, she’s empowered to make choices—not to have children, not to own a home or car—that seem unconventional to some. Our alma mater encouraged her “not to compromise on the important things,” she says; after several false starts in vocal performance and higher education administration, she’s found her way to work that matches her childhood vision. Most Mawrteresque: her bookshelf, packed with telling texts on grammar and usage, was the map that directed her to her position as a middle school teacher at the Philadelphia School. “I just want to be happy doing something meaningful,” she says, “and I’ve always been happiest in school.”

The lift we perceive in midlife, U-curve theorists propose, comes in part from abandoning unmet aspirations that no longer fit, losses we feel with less regret as our time horizons shorten. Along the way—as I’ve discovered in 30 years of recruiting, teaching, and writing about Bryn Mawr women—our fellow alumnae serve as our lanterns and our most reliable guides.