December 2015 Briefs

The U-Curve

Mawrters in Midlife

By Elizabeth Mosier ’84

“When I was at Bryn Mawr, imagining my future life as an actor, I couldn’t have imagined how hard it would be,” says Sabrina Seidner ’85. “It didn’t even occur to me that, if you’re female, one in 10 roles are for you.”

Thirty years later, her resumé recounts a long dramatic arc: New Actors Workshop certificate; Actor’s Equity, Screen Actors Guild, and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists memberships; roles on Chappelle’s Show and as Sandra Bullock’s stand-in in Two Weeks’ Notice; the chance to direct a staged reading of Miss Connections, a play she wrote. Along the way, Sabrina married, had a daughter, divorced, moved back to New York, got a real estate broker’s license, and published Revolution, the first novel in her dystopian trilogy, The Scent of Roses. Now remarried and a stepmother, she’s an associate broker at Nest Seekers International, selling apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Though close friends in the arts continue to cast her, acting is by necessity a smaller part of her life. “Having a kid in New York City isn’t cheap,” she explains. Describing a dilemma many Mawrters face at midlife, when long-held aspirations are as difficult to abandon as they are to maintain, she says, “Something had to give.”

The rising conflict in our life stories often contains a subtext of decline: what researchers who study life satisfaction describe as a happiness U-curve.1 But in life as in literature, conflict leads to crisis—and, often, crisis clears a path for change.

For Cynthia Chalker, M.S.S., M.L.S.P. ’98, a diversity educator in private colleges and secondary schools, high-blood pressure signaled that the good work she’d done for 18 years wasn’t good for her. In her most recent position, she was devoted to her students and their families, but frustrated, too; she often felt as if she were performing Kabuki, as an increased need for discussion of race, gender, and sexual identity collided with a shrinking budget and insubstantial institutional support. “I’m about to turn 50, with 15 good years left to work,” she says. “I had to ask myself what I’m good at—and how close I could get to doing what I really want to do.”

At midlife, she had enough years behind her to find patterns in her past: again and again, the advocacy and community organizing track of social work she’d chosen had led to jobs that honored her interest in counseling—and echoed her mother’s disapproval of psychotherapy. Today, newly married to her longtime partner and having recently launched their grown son, she’s free to complete her psychoanalytic training and practice therapy full-time. “I see a lot of college-aged students who need help coping and managing depression, which goes back to my own story at that age,” she says. Cynthia’s still advocating for people in transition—and also, for the first time, for herself.

When Kristy Weyhrich ’87 reached her nadir—unhappy at work, raising a challenging teenager, worried about her husband’s disillusionment with his law career—she considered ditching the graphic design business she’d built. She’d left a family-unfriendly firm to open her home-based W Design, but after a run of uninspiring client projects, she wanted out—or at least to work without clients.

She hired an all-women business coaching firm to figure out how to extract herself from her business and commit to Charm School, a stationery venture she’d started on the side. “Fortunately, they told me I needed to do a bit of thinking first,” she says. “I started by taking the [Gallup] StrengthsFinder test.” Her results—a talent profile including Achiever, Maximizer, Strategic, and Visionary—were at once illuminating and distressing, given her plan to pursue a new solitary career. “I realized that, though I consider myself an empowered feminist, I’d allowed my supervisor [at the firm where she’d worked for nine years] to crush me for so long that I’d lost faith in what I’d always known: that I should be leading a team. I couldn’t believe I’d let someone else determine my path.”

Taking inventory at a turning point helped Kristy change her relationship to her work. “I have new insight into what differentiates me as a designer, so I can proactively go after the kind of work I want to do,” she says. She plans to expand and, revising her experience, to hire women who for various reasons temporarily stepped off the career track. “It just goes to show you that it’s never too late to reassess,” she says.

The most satisfying stories conclude in ways that are both inevitable and surprising: the would-be loner who rediscovers she’s a leader, the social worker who cuts institutional ties to gain personal authority, the actor who learns that performing isn’t a short-term gig but a lifetime role. There’s good news from the bottom of the U-Curve: perspective helps us reset our futures, and even reconcile what we do with who we are.

The U-Curve is a regular column that takes on questions of life satisfaction, middle age, and the U-curved shape of happiness.