Aging Gracefully (or Not): Women's changing career choices

Aging Gracefully (or Not): Women's changing career choices

Natalie Gelman

The choices we made in my generation about lifestyle were more predictable than now.

The anticipated path was to eventually get married and have children. What one did before this was limited. When women graduated from high school, the options were basically to marry shortly thereafter, to work, or to go to college. There were fewer work choices. Sales work in a store and secretarial work were commonly made. And the career options for those going to college were teaching or nursing. Clearly women discovered other options while in school, but the paths for women were far less encouraged than they are now.

Because the expectation was that one would marry, and, yes, have children, work or school were activities we participated in while we sought husbands. Going out on a date on a weekend was classic. Marrying after graduating from college was common. Having children within a couple of years of marriage was typical.

It was always clear in my family that I would go to college. I had no interest in nursing, so that left teaching. My mother would always tell me what a wonderful career it would be to turn to when I was older if my husband died. The thought at the time was that one would marry, the husband would be the wage earner, and the woman would care for the home and children.

I did not look forward to teaching. I had very limited contact with young children and I imagined myself teaching and banging on a tambourine in the middle of a classroom while the students moved around the room. I would not do this.

In 1960 I went to my brother’s graduation from the University of Michigan. We were in the football stadium and the graduates entered and were seated on the other side. There were hundreds in a variety of colors of gowns. I noticed one group that was small in number. I looked in my brochure and discovered this group was graduating as speech therapists. I wanted to be noticed, so the idea of being in a small group appealed to me. And I liked the idea of being the sole person in a school working as a speech therapist. I asked my mother if that would be acceptable as a career and she said it would though she did not understand what attracted me to it.

When I went to college, I discovered that speech therapy required a few math classes. I was not going to do that. Fortunately, I fell in love with my speech and English courses and decided to become a high school teacher where I could focus on content rather than bang on a tambourine. I also liked working with adolescents. High school had been an uncomfortable four years for me, and I hoped I could contribute to a better experience for my students.

My first powerful decision against my parents’ wishes came my second year of college. I arranged to change universities and go where I wanted to go instead of where my parents wanted me. I enrolled without telling them because I knew they would work hard to discourage me. I informed them by asking to borrow a car so that I could gather my belongings at the university I had been attending.
When they asked what I was up to, I disclosed my plan. They were disappointed, but realized my mind would not be changed. I felt exhilarated the day I enrolled. It was my first major action that was determined by my self-reflection instead of what I was told was expected of me.

I was also fortunate that the women’s movement was gaining momentum. My background served as a foundation for my growth as an independent woman. My mother modeled a strong and competent woman for me. In elementary school I favored reading autobiographies of women. I liked Nancy Drew books. Until I read Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique I was not able to put words to many of the thoughts and feelings I always had. I was 19 when I read it. I began to feel validated.

Though I grew stronger and more independent in college, I did not consider changing my career plan. I truly enjoyed most of my teaching experience. I liked the students and I created a curriculum that most found meaningful.

The principal of my school did not care for me as I was too progressive for his taste. This served as the foundation for me to begin looking at options for a career change. I decided that my preference was to work independently rather than be accountable to an employer.

When I left teaching, I decided to pursue clinical psychology. I wanted to continue to work with adolescents and anticipated adding other ages also. I began working during my internship for my master’s degree and made the decision to continue for a doctorate to enhance my independence in my work.

In 2013 women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of co-habitated homes and in 63 percent of single parent homes. We have clearly moved forward and upward, but not as far as we can.

I learned from my experiences and exposure. The older we get, the more material we have to call upon. As we age, we continue to grow and change if we choose to. The recognition of options and the exercise of control are paramount to aging gracefully.

Natalie Gelman can be contacted at; her website is