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Note from the editor
One of the most heartbreaking issues I’ve run into while working on CoveyClub is the constant discussion I have with women in their late 40s or early 50s who feel they have a target on their backs at work. It’s not just the usual office politics. It’s having seniority, being female, and therefore, most likely, having a large salary. Friends and new acquaintances tell me about how corporations make them feel marginalized, passed over, or even invisible. Many fabulously smart and accomplished women feel they have been moved into divisions that don’t take advantage of their skills and/or just parked till they retire or leave. Many fear rocking the boat or raising their heads because they wonder how, if they lost their current job, they would get another one this late in the game. While some of this is just general antsiness caused by extreme competition in any profession, some of it sure looks like ageism. What is interesting to me is that women certainly feel that they are being targeted more than men even though there is no definitive research to support the idea. Could it be that women are just more vocal about being let go than men? Or, as one person familiar with this topic suggested, could it be that women and men get let go at the same rate in their 50s but women have a harder time getting back into the workforce.
To dig out some real facts and figures, CoveyClub and Reboot Accel are teaming up with NBC News and Know Your Value to conduct a nationwide survey targeting the challenges women 35 and older face in the workplace: ageism, discrimination, being forced out of the workplace, and relaunching after a career pause. Using this data as a framework, we will work to inform you about the steps you can take to reenter the workforce, understand the barriers placed in front of us (especially those of us over 50), and develop meaningful solutions for companies, lawmakers and employers to destigmatize age. The research will start in February and we hope to bring you results in the spring or summer.
To get the conversation started, Covey writer Katie Weisman interviewed women to get their stories and perspectives on the topic and unearthed the facts at hand in our piece below called “Ageism in the Workplace: Do Women Get Hit Harder?” Please read it and add your comments, which will help direct our future research and conclusions.
Even if you aren’t dating, you’ll want to giggle at our piece called “The New Dating Slang: A Glossary for the Clueless.” You won’t believe the crazy things those millennials in your home or gathered around the office microwave are thinking and saying about the difficulties of finding a connection. It’s truly hilarious (and, if you ask me, just a tad bit sad) and created by our veteran over-40 dater Cari Shane.
If you love decorating and personal style, don’t miss our wonderful piece called “The Joy of Junk and Clutter.” Mary Randolph Carter was a magazine and fashion icon and she reveals her organized approach to designing a home with gorgeous clutter. Does the idea of having all this stuff around you make you cringe or swoon? (I’m a swooner since my whole decorating style is about peeling paint.)
And don’t miss novelist Fiona Davis’ lovely paean to the confidence that comes with age called “Lady at the Bar.”
We have best business books for you, plus a lovely essay about handling Type 1 Diabetes, and an amazing story of turning a tragedy in early life into motivation for reinvention in later life (“A ‘Why Me?’ Reinvention”).
And remember: we at CoveyClub believe it’s never too late to find your bliss. Our wonderful guide on how to “Adopt a Child at Midlife” is from Jennifer Meyers, someone who did just that. Pass it along to anyone who needs inspiration.
We rely on your feedback to make TheCovey better, so please add comments. Have a happy February!
Fired. Pink-slipped. Demoted. Women with chops feel age is undermining their ability to work
Forty is the new 50 for women in the workplace.
That’s because ageism is alive and well. And research indicates it’s hitting women harder than men.
For example, Susan, a top executive at the company where she began her career, was asked last year to fire a group of women on her team, all of whom happened to be over 40 years old. After following orders, she was forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement and received extra pension benefits that “stink of hush money.”
Susan is conflicted because she loves her job but suspects her company dipped its toes into age discrimination with the layoffs she was asked to perform. If she speaks up, however, she’s likely to be let go herself. (Note: TheCovey has changed the names of many women like Susan featured in this story, as well as the names of employers, to ensure anonymity and protect interviewees from potential retaliation.)
A New York Times report from January 8th suggests that older women are “experiencing an unfamiliar sensation: power” following 71-year-old Glenn Close’s Golden Globes Best Actress win and the appointment of Susan Zirinsky, 66, as president of CBS News.
But a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that while both men and women are subject to age discrimination, women are the most vulnerable.
In 2015, a team of researchers led by David Neumark (Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of California, Irvine) created over 40,000 fictitious applicants who applied to low-skill jobs in 12 cities across 11 states. (The team targeted low-skill jobs because labor economists feel the chances for realistic responses are higher than with high-skill jobs, where employers might be more familiar with the applicant pool.) The fake younger workers were 29-31 years old, the middle-aged workers were 49-51, and older workers were 64-66.
Initial versions of the study show that compared with younger applicants, call back rates were 18% lower for all middle-aged workers — and about 35% lower for workers 64-66, behavior that is consistent with age discrimination.
Overall, call back rates for women were significantly lower than for men. Older female applicants experienced a 47% lower call back rate for administrative jobs (7.6% for older women versus 14.4% for younger) and a 36% lower call back rate for sales (18.4% versus 28.7 %). A final version of the study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Political Economy.
But here again, women experienced more. According to Susan Weinstock, the AARP vice-president for financial resiliency programming, 64% of women said they had experienced ageism compared to just 59% of men. What’s notable, says Weinstock, is that though the unemployment rate for older workers aged 55 and over is slightly lower than that of younger workers aged 25-54 (2.9% vs. 3.2%), an older worker who loses a job takes double the amount of time to find a new one. “Once you get shoved out the door, it’s hard to get your foot back in,” adds Grace, 55, a marketing copywriter and consultant.
Age discrimination is not unique to the US. Last summer, the British Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee issued a report stating that more than 1 million people aged 50 or older are being locked out of work due to their age. A 2017 report from Canadian senior living and long-term care provider Revera revealed that 42% of Canadians surveyed felt that ageism was “the most tolerated” form of social prejudice.
Age discrimination has been illegal in the US since the 1967 Age Discrimination Act, which prohibits age-based employment discrimination for workers aged 40-65. It was revised to include workers of all ages in 1975 and further acts were introduced in 2006, culminating in the 2010 Equality Act that protects workers from being discriminated against for a wide range of reasons including age, race, disability, religious beliefs, sex, pregnancy or maternity.
In 2009, however, the US Supreme Court ruled that to prove age discrimination in a bias claim, the defendant must prove that age was the deciding factor in an employment choice. This requirement is exceedingly hard to litigate because a company can always argue that a senior employee was actually fired due to cost-cutting a high salary, rather than due to their age.
In 2017, the latest year for which figures are available, 18,372 age-discrimination complaints were filed at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the US federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights in the workplace. This is down from the 20,854 cases brought in 2016.
But while litigation is down, reports of age discrimination are up. Complaints among women, blacks, Asians, and workers over age 65 have nearly doubled, according to a 2018 study released by the EEOC.
Experiences of ageism were shared in conversations TheCovey had with women 40-plus in a variety of industries ranging from entertainment to corporate consulting. Interviewees elaborated on the age-related challenges they have experienced or have seen in their respective fields. Ironically, industries such as fashion or beauty — which enjoy a primarily female clientele — were tagged by female employees as environments rife with negative age-related issues.
Grace held full-time salaried positions in corporate beauty marketing until a few years ago when a restructuring eliminated her job. She was able to land a full-time contract job with benefits at another company, but that post was later eliminated due to cost-cutting. Grace, the most senior member of her team with the highest salary, was let go.
“I feel it’s age discrimination,” she says. “You age out of the industry. And [the cut off] is getting younger than 50. No matter what office you walk into [today], it’s filled with young women who have great titles but no experience. For those of us with experience, companies can’t meet our salary.”
In Grace’s field, the key to staying relevant is to be able to write with a millennial voice.“‘Get Woke’ is not how I envisioned my career going forward,” she sighs.
These sentiments were echoed by Alexandra, 54, a long-time fashion and luxury goods publicist who is really enjoying her newfound entrepreneurial consulting work in marketing, branding and public relations.“I do not want to go back to the corporate world. They are hiring much younger people with less experience,” she says.
Alexandra left her last corporate communications job because she felt she was no longer learning anything new and didn’t enjoy the skill sets she was tasked to use on the job — such as budgeting and managing staff. “I became aware very quickly that I would not get a similar job. The writing was on the wall because companies are hiring 30- to 35-year-olds. I’m frustrated for women in this industry. There is huge age discrimination and for women who want to get back in [after being let go], it’s very, very hard.”
Alexandra notes that women, salaried or independent, have to be flexible and make “their own opportunities.” But that doesn’t mean that being your own boss will work for you: Juggling medical insurance and irregular paychecks are often hard to digest and, she admits, not for everyone.
The banking and financial services sector offers another view on age discrimination. While ageism might not be blatant — let’s remember, it’s illegal — many women feel the repercussions daily.
(In fact, several of this writer’s friends who work in finance declined to speak for this story due to fear of corporate reprisal.)
“I’ve seen three women in their 60s who were encouraged to leave and take retirement. They were given packages that they were comfortable with, but I have not seen this happen with men the same age,” says Jennifer, 64, a financial services marketing executive. “When you see this happen around you, it’s cause for concern.”
Jennifer loves her job and loves managing and mentoring those on her team, but she admits she’s “married” to her position. She cannot afford to leave and become an entrepreneurial consultant for fear of losing benefits and a steady paycheck.
“I could potentially search for another Chief Marketing Officer role in another organization or poke around and look for Chief Executive positions in small to midsize firms, but will a company want to take a 64-year-old woman?” she asks.
Jennifer, like Lisa, the chief of staff for an architectural firm, regularly experiences ageism at the water fountain. In her mid-50s, Lisa says she was given the “side-eye” by younger women in the office when she was asked to spearhead the implementation of a new internal IT program.
“It’s more at the peer level and most of my peers are 45 and up,” Jennifer observes. “They talk about the time when they were growing up, or pop culture like movies or influencers, subjects that are hard for me to participate in. I have to work very hard to be current.”
“I am trying to read the tea leaves and be mindful and aware. And I’m constantly working to keep my skills at the very top, something important for women at any age,” Jennifer says. “I am not going to be outdone by anybody.”
Meghan, a 54-year-old partner in a multinational consulting firm, has the same mindset. After her group was restructured, she was effectively demoted even though she’d hit 99% of her target goals. She now reports to a younger woman — who holds her old position and performed regularly at least 20 points below her target goals.
Meghan is six years away from her company’s mandatory retirement age and lucrative pension.
She is trapped.
“My boss played it that this was a better role for me, but the woman who replaced me and to whom I’m being asked to report didn’t achieve her objectives,” says Meghan. “Who would float that with a man the same age?”
Meghan feels that while age discrimination does not prevent women from landing the job, age becomes a factor when there are internal executive restructurings.
“Ageism happens because it’s easy,” Meghan observes. “Sure, some older folks run out of gas. But in other cases, it’s hard for the older executive to make a stink. In many cases, women are simply less vocal. [Management] knows that because of your age and proximity to retirement that they can abuse you and give favorable treatment to people younger than you. You’re not going to balk. It’s difficult to leave when you’re at a top senior level since there are not many positions out there.”
In spite of these anecdotes, headhunters claim there are opportunities for older women. Trish Shortell, a career headhunter and now managing director of MediaLink’s executive search practice, specializes in CEO or CMO searches and says that almost all of her current searches make hiring a woman mandatory and that age is irrelevant.
“I’ve never had a client say ‘I don’t want a woman,’” says Shortell.
Shortell also notes that opportunities exist for “senior sage advisor,” or mentor roles for the boom in start-up businesses. This, she says, is incredibly important as the baby boomers begin to retire, and companies need to rely on senior executives for the transfer of knowledge.
Companies are also looking outside their ranks for technology experts that they haven’t developed internally.
“Women have to take an inventory of their experiences. In a job search, you don’t want to recreate what you have done but instead look for something where you can reapply your strengths and what potential you can stretch,” Shortell advises.
She is very inspired by the phenomenal career of octogenarian Charlotte Beers, a former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather under whose tenure billings rose by $2 billion. “Be reflective on where to apply, and acknowledge that it might not be where you applied in the past.”
Founder and former CEO of the Joie de Vivre hotel group, Chip Conley echoes this view and even wrote a book about it: Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder. In 2013, Airbnb tapped Conley, now 58, to become their Global Head of Hospitality and Strategy because of his solid expertise as a veteran hospitality executive. He stepped back from that role to launch the Modern Elder Academy in 2018, an academy in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula “dedicated to navigating midlife transitions.” Conley remains Airbnb’s Strategic Advisor for Leadership and Hospitality.
“Women disproportionately feel the effects of ageism,” says Conley, because they’ve always been disproportionately discriminated against. He cites Yvonne Sonsino, innovation leader and partner at Mercer (the world’s largest human resources consulting firm) and the author of The New Rules of Living Longer: How to Survive Your Longer Life, as saying: “Women live longer, tend to be paid less, are more likely to work part-time and more likely to have career gaps. As a result, the value of their pensions may be reduced by 40 percent compared to a man doing the same job.”
Conley feels that women bring unique strengths to the workplace — an ability to collaborate and empathize — that makes them terrific mentors.
“Modern elder women have the ability to see things holistically. Their generations were often responsible for helping to take care of their families and homes in ways that men [were] not,” he explains. “They learned early on what it takes to build community and consensus in order to keep the family thriving. This is a vital strength in running a business or organization.”
Julia, 49, a former corporate public relations executive, is hoping to return to the entertainment industry, which she says favors experience. “In entertainment, nothing about my age comes up when I’m called about opportunities,” she says.
Jenny Bicks, 55, is the only woman to speak on the record for this story. She echoes this sentiment while admitting there are caveats. A seasoned television executive producer, showrunner, and screenwriter, Bicks warns that even if women are gaining steam, writers’ rooms for sitcoms remain very much “boys’ clubs,” and older female actors have been quite vocal about their inability to land plum roles.
But among the professions that feed into Hollywood, some — like talent management, show-running, and screenwriting — appreciate, and gladly pay for, the experience that comes with age.
“I’m always so thankful to still be employed in this industry,” says Bicks. “Ageism exists in this industry, but you are given a path if you can prove that you know what you are doing.”
Bicks attributes her continued marketability to her track-record for success.
“At a certain point, those of us working in comedy grew older and more experienced. We began running our own shows and hiring more women. It started to shift for me specifically when I started writing for Sex and The City — we were a team of one man and six women,” Bicks recalls. “I started to develop my own shows like Leap of Faith, and half of my writers were women. That was the first of many shows that I went on to create, including Men in Trees, that allowed me to hire more women. The more women in positions to hire means the more we can change the way things go.”
Bicks is part of an informal group (dubbed the Woolf Pack, a nod to writer Virginia Woolf) of female showrunners whose average age is in the mid-40s. These women gather in a safe space to identify and discuss the issues that women face in Hollywood. Their primary goal is to mentor younger women and facilitate their entry into the industry.
And maybe, thanks in part to the spaces carved out by the #MeToo movement, women are now rising into important influential leadership roles. Bicks cites as promising the recent appointment of Karey Burke as president of ABC Entertainment and the current trend of women leaving top executive posts to become independent producers.
But this is Hollywood, where although gender inequality remains a huge issue, age can often be malleable. “People can pass as ageless,” Bicks warns, “thanks notably to plastic surgery.”
Nonetheless, conference rooms tend to be filled with thirtysomething executives, and Bicks worries they might not get her jokes.
“I’m lucky I got in when I did,” Bicks says. “And that my pedigree allows people to not see my age.”
This handwritten journal/to-do list is keeping me accountable every day
I’ve gone so deeply digital with my writing that when a professor says in class, “Take out your pen and paper,” I literally have to ask the twentysomething next to me to share (I’m getting my masters in sustainability management)! Enter a friend who told me about the Bullet Journal: a kind of DIY planner/motivator/scrapbook that captures every thought and “To Do” list in one portable place (instead of all those stickies I have flying around that I tend to lose). At first, I laughed: an old diary?
But I’ve been working with it since the first of the year and I’m finding that writing things down and crossing them off on paper holds me weirdly accountable. I can now see when things are lagging and dispose of tasks that are unimportant. It also helps to brain dump every anxiety-provoking thought at the end of the day so I don’t wake up to worry about buying more cat food at 3:00 am.
Most importantly, ideas don’t get lost or vanish inside my computer or in the cloud like they do when they are only written down digitally.
I’m using good old-fashioned stickers and learning calligraphy (which is way harder as a lefty), and I find decorating the journal (a real no-no for the bullet purists) to be meditative and joyful! What a way to reinvent journaling and planning. Though there are premade bullet journals for sale, you can take any old journal you have hanging around and follow the instructions here to get it started.
Have fun and let me know how you like it.
P.S. I was inspired to write this piece after I mentioned the Bullet Journal in a previous Letter from Lesley and got such an enormous response.
Truths & Lies
Are you being Caspered? Or is he just a Flying Monkey? A guide for those 40+
With their swiping left and swiping right, millennials own the dating scene today. And just like the Eskimos who have 50 words for snow, they have invented dozens of words for how to communicate about the topic. To help guide the uninitiated, TheCovey has created a glossary of slang dating terms to help us 40+ “speak millennial” when on the scene or at the (virtual) office watercooler.
Even if you’re happily married you’ll have a giggle over how complicated today’s twentysomethings and thirtysomethings have made dating and relationships.
Note: This list was compiled from conversations with people in their 20s and 30s (many related to me), studies by dating sites, as well as research through articles and modern references such as Urban Dictionary. Let us know if you have something to add!
P.S. My personal favorite is “Shaveducking” — that is, fear that you are dating someone only because you like his beard. For seven years, I’ve been dating a gentleman with a beard but have found that I still love him even when he shaves it all off every summer. I am confident, therefore, that I am not a victim (or would I be the perpetrator?) of this dating crime.
Casting many messages out on many dating apps to see who bites.
Just like in sports, when you’re on the bench, you’re a reserve player. In the millennial dating world, if you and your new partner are both “free agents” — i.e., you haven’t had the “let’s be exclusive” talk — you may simply be the other person’s backup plan if nobody better comes along. You are a “just in case.”
Similar but different from benching. When you’re “cushioning,” you’ve read the tea leaves and believe a breakup is inevitable, but you don’t want to be the one to initiate the breakup. So you prepare for the blow (aka the breakup) by flirting with other people. You cushion the blow for yourself, for the day when the other person announces, “We need to break up.”
This term combines the concepts of “if it’s meant to be” with “the grass is always greener.” So, serendipidating means you are putting off a date just in case someone better comes along.
In 20th-century terms, this is the playboy who likes the thrill of the chase but is no longer interested once he (or she) has caught you — that is, once you have agreed to a date. There will be lots of flirtation — which can be fun — but if you don’t know the game, you’ll be confused and possibly disappointed when it leads to a dead end.
The modern-day vernacular of “stringing you along.” Lots of texts, calls, and even plan-making, but the person really has no intention of following through.
Flirting for the sake of flirting without any interest in anything further.
Not a new term, generally speaking. To “hear crickets” means you’ve reached out to someone but have heard nothing back (even though you know they’ve heard you). In millennial-speak, “cricketing” means someone has the read receipts “on” (so you know they have read your text), but the person hasn’t texted back — often for days.
Simply put — disappearing, but with a little twist. In the mid-20th century (before answering machines), this meant you’d make someone else in your home answer the phone and pretend that you were out, or sleeping, or in the shower … and then never return the person’s call. In the late-20th century it meant “screening your calls” on your answering machine. It’s the coward’s way of saying, “I’m no longer interested.” Since smartphones have a “read” receipts option, ghosting is also called R-bombing: You know the person has read your text, but they don’t reply.
A Ghostbuster is a person who continues to text and call even when they have been ghosted.
A bit like ghosting, but in slo-mo. The slow fader first becomes less responsive to texts and calls, starts canceling plans, and eventually stops making new plans.
Since Casper was “the friendly ghost,” this is the nice version of ghosting. The person lets you know they are going to disappear. Which essentially means they break up with you, just not in person.
This is when the person who ghosted you comes back to life. With a simple “hey” text (or by liking or commenting on FB or Instagram posts), the person resurfaces after being out of touch for a long time, pretty much acting as if they’d never disappeared.
Coined by the dating site eHarmony, Marleying (which is not in Urban Dictionary) is when you are zombied during the Christmas season, specifically. The name comes from the character in A Christmas Carol, Jacob Marley, who haunted Scrooge. According to Mirror UK, the dating site’s survey found that one in 10 singles have been contacted by an ex during the holidays.
When someone with whom you’ve broken up won’t reply to texts or calls, but they watch what’s going on in your life through your social media posts.
Orbiting is a bit like haunting, but is digitally-based. After ghosting you, the orbiter stays in your life by orbiting your social media world, liking posts and watching your Instagram stories.
The term was coined by the 2010 documentary film Catfish. It means you’ve been lured into an online relationship by someone who is pretending to be someone else. The catfish has used someone else’s name, photo, job description, etc.
A less severe form of catfishing, kittenfishing is when you’ve been fooled into believing the lies a potential date tells you about who he (she) is. Lies are usually about age (an old photo is provided), job, height, etc. As soon as you meet the individual, you see the truth for yourself.
Flexting is defined both as the act of digital flirting (Urban Dictionary) as well as the act of “digital boasting.” A study conducted by Plenty of Fish dating site suggests that 47 percent of single people have been on the receiving end of a flexter who has exaggerated about who they are, what they do, or how they look. According to the market research, men “flext” more than women, with 63 percent of women who date online saying they’ve met a “flexter” versus only 38 percent of men.
This is a courtship term used by animal behaviorists: To get a female’s attention, a male peacock displays its elaborate feathers (other animals do this as well). Peacocking in human dating means that one person puts on a kind of show to get another’s attention — dressing up in attention-grabbing clothing or colors, showing off musical talents, or throwing around money.
Pretty much what hibernating animals do with respect to food — that is, prepare for a long, dark winter. In millennial terms, cuffing season is when people prepare for a long dark winter by compromising on what they are looking for in a mate to avoid a lonely winter. Cuffing season begins in the fall when singles realize that the winter months will be a lot “warmer” with some company.
It’s what we used to call a summer fling. As summer turns to fall and your freckles fade, so too does your summer romance.
A love bomber moves a relationship forward very quickly — declaring his or her love for you within weeks of dating. Be warned: the person is likely manipulative. He or she may say that you are everything they have ever needed and wanted, and the person may pretend to be what you have always needed and wanted. This may be a red flag for a toxic person simply trying to reel you in. By the time they expose their real personality, you may be deep into a relationship and believe that their real personality is a reaction to something you have done wrong — and that’s why they are behaving differently. It’s a path that can lead to an abusive relationship.
Like love bombing but not as dangerous. The person may be toxic but really only loves the thrill of the chase and the act of coming on strong. The “moster” will likely end up ghosting you once he or she has expressed undying affection for you.
A process used by toxic and abusive people. It’s a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation. The relationship is a roller-coaster of kindness followed by cruelty, abuse, and toxicity, followed by kindness again. During the course of the relationship, he or she breaks down the mate’s confidence, then discards the mate, leaving him/her depleted and confused, wondering where things went wrong. First he devalues, then he discards.
A process used by toxic and abusive people, gaslighting makes a victim question his/her own sanity and reality while the abuser slowly and methodically takes control. The term was coined by the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a controlling husband uses mind games to make his wife doubt her sanity. Once a victim realizes what’s happening, it’s often too late to get out of the relationship. The victim becomes so uncertain of what’s real and what’s manipulative that he or she can’t perceive reality and ends up totally dependent on the gaslighter.
When a toxic or abusive person wants to get back into your life by offering an empty apology. Could sound something like: “Give me another chance. I’m sorry about how I treated you. I can change. I made a mistake.”
A Wizard of Oz reference, a “flying monkey” is a person who is recruited by a toxic person to help debase his or her victim. In the movie, the flying monkeys did the dirty work for the Wicked Witch of the West.
It’s simply pretending to be involved with someone when you are not even dating. It’s a 21st-century concept because the pretending happens online, over social media.
Pretty much the opposite of fauxbae’ing, stashing is when you are dating someone but they keep you a secret from their friends or family, and don’t post about you at all on social media.
Cheating, but only a little bit.
Concern that your attraction to someone is simply because you like his beard.
When you’re on a date but spend more time looking at your phone than engaging with your date.
If a person has connected their Tinder profile to Instagram, Tindstagramming is the concept of messaging someone they’ve met on Tinder on Instagram instead of waiting for a response on Tinder. This is considered a bad idea.
Age provides a new perspective on a stranger
Soon after my divorce was finalized, I headed downtown with girlfriends to mourn the loss of my role of “wife,” and attempt to celebrate an uncertain future. Our first stop was a jazz club in New York’s Greenwich Village, a dive that would’ve been a dime a dozen in the 1950s but today is considered an endangered gem. The entrance led to a steep flight of narrow stairs, and the washed-out guy who took our cover payments probably didn’t see much daylight.
In that room full of college kids and tourists, one woman stood out. Perched upright on a wooden chair in a far corner of the room, she wore bright red lipstick and sported a long mane of wild gray hair. If I’d been in my twenties, I would have thought her half-mad, moving her shoulders in time with the music, her eyelids closed. I might have elbowed my friend and looking for a cheap laugh said, “Check her out, that’s us in fifty years.”
But this particular evening I was in the last year of my forties. Gravity was pulling down the corners of my mouth enough that I had to perform a half-smile just to look neutral, while nightly hot flashes and adrenaline surges left me weak. Getting older was no longer theoretical.
My fears of aging were nothing new. Having sprung from a family of genetically tall, thin beanstalks, I remember the first time the question “Are you a model?” morphed into “Were you a model?” Both questions are pretty awesome, no doubt about it, but even the latter had died away about a decade ago.
I studied the woman in the bar more closely. The red slash of lips was sexy, not garish. Same with the silver curls surrounding her finely-wrinkled face. I wondered what her life had been like at my age. A couple of days later I headed to the Barnard College library to do some research on an article I was writing and discovered shelf after shelf of back issues of women’s magazines from the early 1950s.
As I pored through articles from the period, I was amazed that anyone had emerged from that era without multiple personalities. One article extolled the virtues of taking a part-time job, since working full time cut too deeply into the “satisfactions of housekeeping.” Another offered advice to the newlywed along the lines of “Put on lipstick and comb your hair before coming down to make the coffee.” Or the jaw-dropping, “The first time your baby cries and your husband calls for you at the same time, go to your husband.” It made me take a sobering look at the trials of my mother and others of her generation. As well as what it meant when, like me, you were now neither wife nor mother.
That night at the bar, I saw that woman — a creature without shackles or shame — as a model for my future self.
And I liked what I saw.
I vowed to take advantage of my newfound independence by figuring out how to fly solo. My best friends and I promised to live in the same apartment building and share wine-filled happy hours and home health care aides when the time comes. Using the Barnard articles as a jumping-off point, I wrote a work of historical fiction about a woman in the 1950s who’s determined to forge a successful career and remain single. A year later, I celebrated three milestones: buying an apartment of my own, making the leap from journalist to author, and selling my first novel. Today I write fiction full time, using my books to explore the way women’s roles have changed over time, as well as the ways they’ve remained the same.
And a few decades from now, when I’m the grande dame sitting in a bar, clapping hard as the last note fades out, I’ll turn to the forty-something staring my way, raise my glass, and pass on the inspiration.
Fiona Davis is a nationally bestselling author of historical fiction set in iconic New York City buildings. Her book, The Dollhouse, is available now.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Woman of Passion & Purpose
Mary Randolph Carter finds beauty and style by collecting junk
“What I learned from my parents is the love for believing in your own eye and creating personal style for yourself.” This from Mary Randolph Carter, a semiprofessional junk collector, author, photographer, designer, and a Ralph Lauren veteran creative director.
Carter, who uses Carter as her first name, was talking about her passion for collecting junk: items for sale at flea markets or tag sales that might be invisible to others but speak to you and wind up in your home. Carter’s latest book, The Joy of Junk (Rizzoli), is filled with images from her photographer son Carter Berg, and it extols the virtues and sheer fun of collecting things to create one’s own interior design style.
In addition to explaining and illustrating her own collecting habits, Carter reveals those from others with the “junking bug,” including interior design and antiques couple Bunny Williams and John Roselli, and Mike Wolfe from the History Channel’s “American Pickers.” Carter discusses the how-tos of “junking,” including what to wear — a fishing vest with lots of pockets! — when you’re setting out for a day of picking.
The final chapter of the book, “The Junkers Guide,” lists addresses of Carter’s favorite flea markets and antiques stores in the US, including the monthly Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena, CA, and the Renninger’s antique and flea markets in Pennsylvania and Florida.
Can you be born with the “junking bug”? Carter thinks so.
She grew up in Virginia, the oldest of nine children. Her family went through two major house fires, the first one tragic when three of her mother’s family members died. Her parents had to be resourceful about filling their third residence with furnishings in order to create yet another family home.
“We didn’t have ancestral portraits. When [my parents] decided to hang paintings, they had to borrow other people’s ancestors,” Carter recalls. “They filled the house with American and English antiques, but they were always thinking about a house filled with people. They brought a picnic table into the kitchen one Thanksgiving and the table stayed.”
When Carter moved to New York City and her first apartment, she wondered what she wanted to surround herself with. She realized that she wanted items that reminded her of the family home in Virginia such as old quilts, samplers, and “things that had a timeless beauty.” But Carter had limited funds and turned to flea markets to furnish and decorate her pad, a move that sparked her passion for treasure hunting thrift-style.
Carter and her husband Howard Berg have lived for over 40 years in their current Manhattan apartment where they raised their two now-adult boys, Carter and Sam. Photos in The Joy of Junk reveal paintings covering apartment walls, while books and knickknacks (including her mini-collection of religious icons) are packed into shelves and nooks. Eschewing curtains or shades, Carter uses vintage exterior shutters as window treatments. The top of a cricket table — an occasional table with three legs that she’s had since she moved in — is adorned with “a bizarre mix of objects,” Carter writes in her book. These include a wooden bunny and a wire basket of eggs.
The ten-foot-long shelf in her kitchen holds Quimper plates, a porcelain gnome, and a bouquet of dried flowers in a vintage teal blue vase, among other pieces. To some, it might seem like a haphazard mishmash of stuff. To Carter and her admirers, it’s eclectically curated interior design that she calls “scrapbook style.”
“I’m not a hoarder,” Carter says emphatically. “I would say there is clutter but it is not a disorganized mess.” Carter explains that the key to her style is mixing. “I love layering, texture, folk art and then I started to add quirkier things to what we had,” Carter explains. “I mix vintage with new, old jeans with tuxedo jackets.”
Making clutter look great involves choices about where things should go, or not go. For example, you should leave some surfaces free of objects. Carter also suggests that you curate your finds into collections in order to better show them off. Glass-front cupboards, vintage pharmaceutical cabinets, or simple shelving are great for displays, Carter says. And she has plenty of Swiffers on hand for dusting.
“Jane Ives collected old chipped blue ware,” Carter notes, referring to one of the former actor’s collections. “She built a little shelf in her bedroom and has all the cups lined up. Your eye appreciates when you see them all there together.”
Collecting, thrifting, and junking has not changed much for Carter over the years. The Internet, however, has added a helpful new dimension to the process of procurement, notably if you are looking for quantities of a specific item. For her son Sam’s October wedding, the family wanted to decorate the space at New York’s National Arts Club with “a million old brass candlesticks.” They also wanted to adorn the tables with piles of vintage books and figurines of woodland creatures in materials such as ceramic or papier-maché. Carter purchased most of these items in lots on Etsy and eBay, noting that if she’d bought them individually, she would have paid much more.
Collecting, Carter feels, is a hobby here for the ages. This, despite the fact that we live in a consumer era where noncommitment is pervasive, where you can rent everything from handbags to wedding dresses, and ride-sharing is a popular mode of transportation.
“I think that the transient themes of our culture will pass,” Carter observes. “It will drive energy towards the impulse to create something that is ‘mine’ and more permanent…People want pieces that express who they are.”
Carter’s family has patiently indulged her collecting passion, even if countless car trips were halted for piles on the street or tag sales.
She’s heard the refrain “Come on, mom!” many times and she strives to make her “obsession/passion not a burden to my family and friends.”
Carter truly dislikes the idea of a home and its interior décor being “done.” She even wrote a book called A Perfectly Kept House is The Sign of A Misspent Life.
“That would be too boring and too sad,” she says. “Your home is a living space. It can’t be ‘done’. I don’t believe in ‘done’; I believe in process. Never stop to think: do I have a place for this? If it moves you, if you love it, if there’s a place for it in your heart, then there is room in your home.”
Walk while delivering bad news, use mornings for “deep” work & more
In business school, I never missed an author visit because I always wanted a chance to learn from the masters. After 16 years home with kids, I cofounded a company that requires me to stay on top of what’s “hot” in the management field, and business books feed that need. At ReBoot Accel, we help managers transform cultures so that women thrive, and coach women for reinvention and advancement — so we have to stay current!
The three best business books I devoured over the winter holidays have already impacted the way I work. Here’s how they’ve influenced my daily life plus my thoughts on why you might want to read them.
Deep Work by Cal Newport. I’m the odd person who loves plane flights because it’s the one place where I can be totally productive and creative. After reading this book, I understand why. Plane flights allow for “deep work.” Newport describes deep work as that which gets you promoted, and shallow work as the stuff that lets you keep the job. Deep work requires intense, focused, uninterrupted attention, and generally creates results with profound impact. Shallow work is mostly reactive — keeping up with life, answering emails, and responding to what’s on your plate.
My 2019 resolution is to spend more time each week on deep work, and has resulted in my new rule of “no meetings before 10 am.” I’m an early riser (5-6 am), so that means I can spend 4-5 hours before meetings in deep focused work. By 10 am I feel I’m ahead of the game. (Heck, I even throw in a workout.) Now I can adequately prepare for meetings, plan my priorities, and engage in work that allows me to develop intellectual capital. Forcing interruptions and distractions into the later part of the day has created pleasant mornings, and that early sense of peace and accomplishment sustains me throughout the day. I’ve already preordered Newport’s upcoming book Digital Minimalism.
Radical Candor by Kim Scott. I admit it. I hate to have those “difficult” conversations.
I was raised to believe they had to take place over an hour in a closed room, and the build-up created angst. Scott’s book changed all that. Instead of fretting about a major confrontation, she suggests having a 2- to 3-minute talk while walking between meetings. Do it quickly; keep it short. Focus on three things: The situation, the behavior, and the impact.
The concept offers such a powerful approach to life that I have even shared it with my three kids.
A few years back, I spent weeks stewing over how to give a male colleague feedback on an action that made me feel wronged and slighted. I worried that I would appear overly sensitive, and ultimately never approached him about it. In retrospect, I would have used this book’s three-pronged approach: “Tom, we all want our website to be as effective as it can be (the situation). By not including me in the website revamp meeting (the behavior), we’re not including ALL voices, many of which can make our website stronger and reflect diverse perspectives (the impact).” This would have taken just 2-3 minutes and would have taken a load off my chest. In addition, I might have learned something about Tom’s motives. Giving feedback in this quick, informal manner keeps the conversation objective and nonjudgmental. And if it’s done in the spirit of “I want to help” (a requirement, in fact), it is the best gift you can give a coworker or a child.
So no more shying away from these conversations in 2019. I’m going to seek opportunities to help others be their best selves!
Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. This book describes how to get the most out of people by being an effective leader — one whose presence makes people sharper, better, and more engaged.
We all know “diminishers” — those who micromanage, shift priorities, and have to be the smartest ones in the room. A “multiplier” knows how to ask powerful questions, surrounds herself with people who are more gifted, has an abundance mentality (we can all win!), and creates a safe environment where people take risks and are allowed to fail.
There’s even an online quiz that helps you identify how you can shift your thinking to become more of a multiplier. I took it and realized I didn’t need to come to the table with all the answers but could be more effective by asking probing questions that would elicit them from the group. I was fortunate to have Bill Campbell, the well-known “Coach of Silicon Valley” and the ultimate multiplier, as a mentor. During our regular walks, he spent more time sharing stories and asking questions than providing answers or advice. My goal is to be more like Bill, and Wiseman has given me the tools to get there.
A random act of violence at 23 nearly cost her her life. Today it's the foundation for her reinvention
“Why Me?” We ask ourselves this when we split our pants, lose the coveted parking spot when we’re late to lunch, or when our own little princess contracts the barf bug at Disney.
Then there are the bigger ones. Why did I get MS, why did my house burn down, or why did a drunk driver hit my cousin head-on?
Random acts with devastating consequences. Why Me?
When I was 23 years old and working in New York City, a man who had been released from prison 12 days previously walked past the doorman in my building, took the elevator to the 17th floor, opened my unlocked apartment door and violently assaulted me.
During the attack — I’ll be honest — I had a lot of thoughts pummeling my shocked, despairing brain. But the one that never let up for the next 20 years was: Why Me?
Between then and now, much has happened. I healed, I married a wonderful man, I bore two amazing kids, and I was gifted with years that during the attack I wasn’t so sure were in my future. And now, in hindsight, I can say, What a journey.
But it’s not over. Two years ago I found myself moving into the next stage. Not only did my kids not need me as much, but they were old enough to be let in on Mom’s Big Secret. She was a rape survivor, and it was integral to who she was as a person. The trauma, the healing, the trial, the people, the love. My children were finally brought into the most life-changing before-and-after of my own personal timeline. And in doing so, a new mom, or a new person, was freed.
So, after 20 years I knew it was time to put my Why Me to work, using my experience for good. It was time to reinvent.
For the previous eight years, my most rewarding outside-the-home job was working with Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing as a coauthor, writer, editor, and pre-reader. I realized that working with people on their personal stories was for me both an enormous privilege and a delight. I loved the one-on-one interaction with another person’s narrative, and it was an honor to be brought into the deep, important work with what I call “the stuff of real life.”
I knew despair and I knew joy. I could help and guide others with theirs.
Despite a deep fear about returning to school after 25 years, I decided to apply to New York University to earn a diploma as a professional coach, and additionally get certified — for me an integral part of answering the Why Me call. The course wasn’t easy, but then what is that’s truly worth it?
After the learning, the graduating, the certification came building the business. I had built a freelance writing and editing business before, so I knew what it took.
Today, three years later, I have a three-pronged business: I work with teenagers on their stories for their college applications (I love other people’s teenagers…), I have a one-on-one (in-office and virtual) coaching practice with my beloved clients, and lastly I have my Why Me clients, sexual assault survivors. After survivors recover from the initial trauma, I work with them on their personal narratives, helping them heal and transform, sometimes by the act of writing down their stories, and moving their experiences from the inside out.
And as I work I continue to learn.
Interestingly, the #MeToo movement has shown me that the violent crime I suffered was actually my fourth unwanted sexual advance. The first one happened at age 12 in sixth grade when a certain boy would routinely grab my breasts in the busy hallway of my middle school during the short breaks between classes. I was too shy and scared to tell anyone.
The second came the summer I was 18 and sitting on a public bus reading on my way home from an internship. I felt something touching my inner thigh and it was a man’s hand that had managed to slowly creep under my long skirt toward my crotch. I was simply disgusted, and stood up and walked away.
The third was when I was 20 and a man at a nightclub grabbed my backside and pressed his erect self into me. I figured in my tight dress I deserved it.
The fourth was when I was raped, tied up and left alive.
Before #MeToo, I had never “counted” those first three. But they matter. Oh, they matter. If they happened to my daughter today, they would matter.
So now, after all this time, whenever I think Why Me? I answer: Why Not Me?
It was a roller-coaster ride toward motherhood for me. But you can learn from my mistakes
In my 20s and early 30s, I exhausted myself looking for Mr. Right.
My friends called me the “One-Date Wonder.” Sometimes there would be a second date. Maybe a third. But not often.
And, I exhausted myself building a career in financial services. By age 28, I was a partner in a wealth management firm. It turned into a tumultuous decade that ended in a failed business marriage, and at 35 (one year before the 2008 recession) I began building my own firm, SageVest Wealth Management. I spent the next few years making sure this venture survived the market decline and thrived.
I started thinking of adopting in 2012 in my late 30s. I was financially solvent. After trying for more than a decade to find a man I wanted to marry, I realized a traditional route was unlikely for me. And though I wanted to be a mother, I didn’t really ever want to be pregnant. It was a disconnect that adoption could solve. I’m an only child so I wanted at least two children.
The information out there on adoption at the time was poor and confusing. I was told (incorrectly) that I couldn’t adopt because I was single. Once again I put my motherhood plan on hold.
On my 40th birthday, I went to a fertility expert. That number, four-zero, had the power of a scare tactic. If I couldn’t adopt, I’d birth my own. For a year, I begrudgingly went through the misery of the injections of four cycles of IVF (remember, I didn’t want to be pregnant) until the doctor basically said, “Sorry, Chiquita, your eggs aren’t going to take.”
I saw myself aging alone: No parents. No siblings. No children. Despondent, discouraged, worried — pick any adjective that is the opposite of “happy” or “fulfilled”— and that was how I felt. I became depressed. And there was an irony: as a business owner, I was spending my life helping other people’s families achieve their (financial) goals without achieving my own personal ones.
At 41, wanting a child became an obsession, although I finally admitted to myself that I would never be a mother.
So, when someone I knew told me their friend had a teenage daughter with an unwanted pregnancy, we arranged a meeting. This 19-year-old assured me she was committed to adoption and she asked me to pick a baby name.
A few weeks later I realized I had jumped on a months-long ride into hell with weekly dramas that included statements like “I’m keeping the baby” and “You can adopt the baby,” laced with threats of suicide.
Months later, after I’d chosen the baby’s name, the teenager decided to keep the child.
The bruises from my failed IVF endeavor had not yet healed, another Mother’s Day had passed, and I was still childless.
One day when I had a moment of clarity, I told myself: “You have to figure this out.” I threw myself back into adoption research.
Unlike the well-regulated and controlled investment industry that I come from, adoption has few rules of order. There is no regulating body to guide prospective parents through the process. Every agency has different methods, and everywhere I turned there was a conflicting approach.
I quickly ruled out international adoption for two reasons. First, most countries are not welcoming to single parents. Second, after many countries closed their doors to international adoptions and China changed their laws permitting two-child families, the wait time can now be as long as a decade.
Focusing on domestic adoption, I attended an all-day seminar for families interested in private adoption. It was truly theater of the absurd. Speakers recommended taking out Penny Saver ads or wearing a T-shirt with “looking to adopt a child” scrawled across your chest to the mall. It had worked for her! Some hungry wannabe mothers in the crowd ate it up but I thought it was wackadoodle.
Finally, my finance brain kicked in and I decided to approach adoption the same way I approach an investment: I devised a research-based analytical process and checklist of questions and solutions that would let me drill down on the problem, cross-check until I arrived at an answer. I called lawyers who specialize in adoptions, adoption agencies, adoption consultants, private and public agencies.
I spent hundreds of hours online, on the phone, driving back and forth to seminars, and I discovered a unique conundrum.
The population of pregnant mothers in suburban Washington, DC, where I live, has higher rates of substance abuse than in other states. The area also has a plethora of hard-charging women who have put off pregnancy in order to build their careers and so higher rates of infertility. In the end, there were more people looking for fewer healthy babies.
Then lawyers with whom I had spoken told me: “Find a national agency that can connect you with birth mothers from all 50 states, not just one state. It will increase your odds.”
A few weeks later I found AdoptHelp. State-specific rules mean that AdoptHelp can only facilitate California-based adoptions. I understood that in all likelihood I’d need to work with a secondary, state-based agency once I was matched with a birth mother if she was located outside of California.
Two months later, on August 28, 2014, I received a call. It was nighttime and I was sitting in my office alone.
“You’ve been chosen,” the women on the phone said.
I remember thinking, “Did I win a cruise?” It was late and I was tired and I simply wasn’t connecting the voice on the phone with my motherhood dreams.
“You’ve been chosen, Jennifer. A birth mother chose you to be her child’s mother.”
“The baby is due in two weeks.”
I was shaking. I couldn’t find words.
“It’s a girl,” the social worker said excitedly.
I was doubly shocked. I’d been mentally preparing for a boy since I knew that in the US the demand for girls was higher. I had 24 hours to tell the birth mother “yes.”
I was 42 years old. I was going to be a mother. Of a baby girl. In less than two weeks.
My case was transferred to a state-based adoption agency and a local lawyer, both in Michigan, where the birth mother lived.
On September 15, 2014, almost one month after learning about my future daughter and two weeks after she was born, I brought my daughter home to Virginia.
Three years and three weeks later, I adopted my son. He was born in Texas. His adoption took longer than my daughter’s — five months. That’s because I changed the parameters; I made more rules the second time around and that slowed down the process. My daughter is African American. I wanted her to have an African American sibling. My son came home to us on a rather lucky Friday, October 13, 2017.
They are now four and one.
I was in the hospital for both of their births.
I am a mother.
I am their mother.
If you’re contemplating adoption, as both an adoptive parent and a financial advisor, I offer the following advice:
Educate yourself. One of the greatest challenges in adoption is the element of the unknown. You might not have a pool of people to ask for advice, and virtually every agency is different. Have a list of key adoption questions to ask. I’ve shared the list I used for your convenience.
Be financially prepared. Costs for adopting range from $30,000 to $50,000 or more, and can have unpredictable legal fees, birth mother expenses, and travel costs. Depending upon your income, you might qualify for a sliding scale or the adoption tax credit. You need to understand your financial position to properly navigate decisions such as what agency to choose, what birth mother match to avoid, what risks you’re willing to accept, and what financial trade-offs you’re willing to make in exchange for a family of your own.
Seek actively engaged professionals, particularly social workers. Social workers play a critical role; they know how to navigate the wildly fluctuating emotions, dialogues, and decisions that come with adoption. They’ve done it repeatedly and understand the tender spots for both the adopter and the birth parents.
Have a birth plan in place. If you’re adopting from birth, this plan will lay out how you and the birth mother will each function just before, during, and after the baby’s delivery. It is essential to have discussed the plan prior to the birth mother going into labor. The plan should be shared with all involved — the birth parent(s), social workers, and medical staff. A birth plan will include details such as who will be in the delivery room, who will receive the baby after delivery, if a separate hospital room will be available for the adopting parents, the birth mother’s privacy wishes, etc. Having an established plan can ease what is most often (if not always) an emotionally charged time for both the adopting parent and the birth mother. It’s not a requirement, but it should be.
Expect surprises. These could be medical, logistical, financial, legal, and/or emotional. A birth mother who has just delivered could become indecisive about her commitment and leave adopting parents in limbo.
Stay organized. Various paperwork filings are required during the adoption process. Stay organized with access to documents, contacts, and adoption-related expenses. Remember that adoption takes courage and many leaps of faith. This applies to both you and the birth mother as she makes an incredibly difficult decision.
Beware of the revocation period. The revocation period is different for each state, ranging from 48 hours to more than a month. If the father is unknown or can’t be reached, many (but not all) states have a putative father registry. This is a forum where unmarried men can register themselves as the father of a child, or the potential father in relation to the mother. Similarly, the birth mother and child can be listed, giving the father a chance to locate a child for a specified period of time. This paternal revocation period also varies by state. Unless a birth father takes action during the registry period, his parental rights are revoked. You’ll be torn between falling in love with your new child and maintaining a barrier to protect yourself if the adoption fails.
There are, indeed, ways to increase the odds you’ll be a parent and the speed of trajectory.
Don’t pick a race. If you are open to children of all races, you will increase the pool of birth mothers. Adopting children of a different race has seen its share of controversy: According to a report by PBS, in 1973 the Child Welfare League of America began recommending only same-race placement in domestic adoption. Then, in 1996 “Congress enacted the Inter-Ethnic Adoption Provisions … which prohibited federally funded agencies from denying or delaying adoptions solely on the basis of race or national origin.”
Don’t pick a gender. This is simple math — since 60% of birth mothers don’t find out the gender of their child, if you choose a gender, you will only be matched with 40% of existing pregnant mothers.
Be open to a substance-abusing mother. Even though I don’t recommend this, I do know adoptive parents with happy children born with an addiction.
Whereas women on average head into retirement with nearly $40,000 in savings, men head in with $60,000. Moreover, many older women face the dual responsibility of tending to both their elderly parents and their children. Eldercare providers are most commonly women aged 55 to 64, and nearly half of all elder caregivers also have children under 18 at home.
Except when I consider the alternative
I’m sick. It feels as though I am going to die. It’s 87 degrees outside, and with the humidity at 89 percent, each time I leave my air-conditioned apartment I’m afraid I’ll literally pass out if I don’t quickly find a shady spot. The thing that’s so weird is that I’ve spent the majority of my life playing outdoor sports in the blazing sun with no problem.
But that was before I became a type 1 diabetic.
The first time I heard the word was in the third grade when the art teacher raced into the room to say he had diabetes and needed sugar — fast — and could we please give him our cookies. I unhappily parted with my two Oreos.
Two years ago, I still didn’t have a clue what being a diabetic meant. Sure, I’d seen the TV commercials saying 29 million Americans have diabetes and it was important to take whatever pill they were selling, but it had nothing to do with me.
Then, a few years ago, I was on a trip with four other writers. During lunch, one of them took out a little kit, pricked his finger until it bled onto a tiny strip, inserted the strip into some meter device, and stuck a syringe filled with insulin into his abdomen.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I’m a type 1 diabetic.” It was annoying because before every single meal, he apologized and repeated the same ritual. I never stopped to think about how truly annoyed he must have been.
Three years ago, they found a small cancer cell in my pancreas and performed The Whipple, a six-hour-long operation in which they cut off the head of the pancreas and rewired four other organs.
A year later, they found a new cancer cell in my pancreas and, so I’d never again have to worry about pancreatic cancer, they removed the entire organ.
But having no pancreas turned me into an instant type 1 diabetic — not type 2, which is usually gotten from excess weight and inactivity but where you don’t have to stick needles into yourself five and more times a day. Like the other 1.25 million Americans who have type 1, I would have to inject insulin or die; I would have to constantly monitor my blood sugar and shoot up at every meal as well as at bedtime and upon waking, and sometimes even more.
It took a while to be able to deal with constantly stabbing my body with needles because every prick hurt.
What drove me crazy was that I couldn’t just shoot insulin into my body before meals. First, I had to figure out exactly how many carbohydrates I was eating to know how much insulin to shoot. But who knows how many carbs are in each food without having to measure portions of everything from grapes to yogurt? Yes, I have a carb-counting phone app and a book that does the same, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to look up every single thing I eat (except celery, which has no carb count).
I carried insulin-pen needles with me. If I was eating out, I’d excuse myself and say, “I have to go shoot up,” just to shock my companions.
Eventually, I poked myself under the table. Last year, my endocrinologist suggested a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), an excellent solution because I’d be able to take many fewer blood-glucose readings. There’s now a grape-sized device on my abdomen for the CGM, but I‘m too old for bikinis so it doesn’t much matter.
You’d think I’d stop whining and be grateful that I don’t have multiple sclerosis or lupus or fibromyalgia or a more difficult autoimmune disease.
I can still hike and run and bike and do all the activities I love and did before I was diagnosed, a good thing because type 1s have to exercise to keep down their blood sugar. Best, unlike a disease where you live your life in a wheelchair, no one has to know I have diabetes unless I choose to tell them.
Still, diabetes stinks.
Yes, I can correct too many carbs with insulin (if I don’t, I might go into a coma and die) and yes, I can correct a low reading with juice or candy (provided I have it with me), but nothing about this disease is consistent. I go to a spin class and my blood sugar goes too low. I go to the same class the next day and my blood sugar goes too high.
I never know how my body is going to react so I have to be prepared for anything.
I used to leave the house with just my keys and iPhone. Now, even when running short errands I wear a small fanny pack with my glucose monitoring meter, test strips, needles, juice, and glucose tablets (which taste like chalk).
Recently, I was walking, not even running, in Central Park. I’d brought the blood testing kit but forgot candy. Suddenly, my neck went clammy, my body began to sweat, and my hands shook. I was all alone. I sat down fast. Fortunately, there was a vendor about 20 feet away, so I managed to finally walk over and buy orange juice.
But what if there hadn’t been help nearby? If I’d gone without sugar too long, it could have led to irreversible brain damage.
If I go so low that I know I might go into a coma, I have an emergency glucagon kit at home with a vial and syringe. But I need to shake it up and inject it, and if I can’t even get out of my chair, how can I do that?
Then, of course, there are all the side effects from going too high. It’s a really ugly picture. There’s possible heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney damage, foot problems, eye problems, teeth problems, and God knows what else.
Before my diabetes, I saw doctors once a year, at most. Now I need multiple visits to my endocrinologist, ophthalmologist, podiatrist, and dentist.
Oh, yes, and because I had cancer, I also have to get scanned and see my oncologist four times a year. And now I also need to see a dermatologist because I keep getting skin rashes, due undoubtedly to my compromised immune system.
There’s no one but me at home, so I keep glucose tablets and orange juice at my bedside for emergencies and have had to use them on many occasions.
I have cried about this stupid disease until my eyes were little slits.
This summer was hotter than ever, a real bitch because heat can cause blood sugar levels to both spike and plummet. But crying isn’t going to make my diabetes go away. I am alive and as well as I can be, even if I do have to constantly monitor my blood sugar.
I’m still jumping on my bike, kickboxing, racing down the steps to the subway, jamming blues harmonica, and getting on planes every few weeks for assignments. I am happy, working hard. And no longer scared all the time.
Women with type 1 diabetes have an average life expectancy of about 68 years compared with 81 years for those without it. So considering I’m already past 68, I just think of myself as Superwoman.
After getting a master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School, Fiona Davis fell in love with writing, leapfrogging from editor to freelance journalist before finally settling down as an author of historical fiction. She has three novels out now: The Dollhouse, The Address, and The Masterpiece.
Diane Flynn is the Cofounder and CEO of ReBoot Accel, a company that empowers women to lead lives of impact and helps them reenter the workforce after a long break. Diane is also a speaker, coach, and consultant and currently resides in San Francisco Bay Area.
Margie Goldsmith is a regular contributor to Forbes.com and Business Jet Traveler. She’s traveled to 135 countries and written about them all for publications including Travel + Leisure, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times. Margie has won 80 writing awards including Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Gold, ASJA Gold Award, multiple NATJA Gold Awards and four Folio Awards.
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