I recently went on a women’s empowerment cruise, invited by my daughter who was one of the featured speakers. Somehow color-within-the-lines, better-safe-than-scary me had raised a gutsy child who was talking about risk taking and imposter syndrome. The other young women on the daily panels were founders and CEOs in finance and fitness, the environment and entertainment, wellness and women’s health. These beautiful women struck out on their own and learned to survive failure as they reframed their mistakes. I was in awe…and a little jealous of their bravery. Had I missed the boat?
They explained that if what they were told they were “supposed to do” was not part of their belief system, they weren’t supposed to do it. Their work wasn’t a job or a career… it was a realized dream. To have such faith in yourself at such a young age and follow through with the courage of your convictions…sigh. It was like a perfect fusion of Barbieland and the real world.
I wondered how many of their moms felt as I did about their self-assured, dauntless daughters. When I was their age the only thing bold about me was my perm and insanely blue eyeshadow. In my 30s I was completely other-directed, hesitant and doubtful when change was a choice. Like many in my generation I had to see what awaited around the corner before I felt comfortable making a decision. My daughter’s advice to those deflated when comparing themselves to the roaring success stories on social media was “keep your eyes on your own paper.” Wise words. I try to follow them at 9:00 every morning being the gray-haired lady working out at the gym.
Sitting in that audience, I wondered if I were their age today whether everything out-of-the-box would still seem as scary. Then I realized most of these women had a safety net my friends and I didn’t have… us as parents encouraging them to have goals that trumped being safe and secure. We instilled in them the knowledge that although making brave choices generates anxiety, it’s survivable and so worth the risk. My parents’ fears of the uncertain were contagious; hopefully our confidence in our daughters’ resilience is too.
It took decades before I considered that a road not taken even existed for me. By the time I read Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room in 1977 I was thirty, married with two daughters, lived in a lovely house in the suburbs, and because I didn’t “have” to work, left my job teaching in the city. The script I faithfully followed my entire life abruptly ended there, leaving the rest of my days without the next chapter. The book described a nudgy dissatisfaction that arose when you thought you got what you wanted and now you’re done. Still I chose to stay put. If I didn’t move, I wouldn’t get lost. It took a few years till boredom and a touch of panic pushed me into making the first real decisions of my prescribed bubble-wrapped life.
Anais Nin said that “life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” My world grew richer with every gamble. I took a continuing education creative writing class. Wrote nine books, six of which got published. (I would include how many rejections I received in those years but you wouldn’t believe me.) Got columns in two Long Island publications that lasted for 20 years. Then at 55 found a new love…teaching memoir writing.
With quiet strength through widowhood, divorce, and unspeakable loss, relentless caretaking, financial disasters, betrayal and cancer, my friends handle life’s curveballs with optimism and grace. Their courage is the quiet kind, resolving at the end of each day to try again tomorrow. That tired cliché… growing old is not for sissies… is true. Being young isn’t either. To hang in there at any stage is to be brave.
“When you’re trying something out of the box, people inside the box think you’re nuts. Inside the box everything is scary.” Stockton Rush, designer of the ill-fated Titan. I get that that’s a macabre example of a person illustrating confidence but its message rings true. I was beyond proud to be on that cruise. Although the tests of our resilience have different timetables, those extraordinary young women and their mothers all passed. Its message gave me a perspective on my life that probably applies to yours as well. Having what it takes to go where it’s less comfortable is already in you. And worth the trip.