As a young girl, I was a planner. I had elaborate calendars, lists, and countdown charts. Planning was a way to feel in control and grown-up, and I loved it.
My family lived next door to a residential college for a few years. After watching countless play rehearsals of college students, I decided to adapt and direct a play in my elementary school. I planned and directed the “Kiddy Club” to occupy younger children of faculty members while their parents dined with students. I orchestrated holiday activity parties for the college students. Oh, how I loved to plan and direct.
When I was unhappy about something, I would turn to planning and scheming my way out of the situation. Even if I couldn’t actually change anything, the daydreams of those plans provided some relief. I was always looking ahead to the next thing, the next phase. If I had a plan and felt organized, then I could adapt to challenges. I hated surprises, because they took away my sense of control, my ability to be mentally prepared.
I didn’t avoid adventure, travel, or challenging new situations, but I always wanted a vision for how I was going to get there, to take the next big step, and the one after that.
At age 41, I felt I had found a “good-enough” work/life balance. The balance shifted as my kids got older and their needs changed, but overall, it felt about right enough of the time. I was teaching medical students how to be better listeners in a “bedside manner” class, and I had a challenging and interesting private practice doing psychotherapy. I would have been happy with some mix of those two jobs for the foreseeable future—after all, it had taken years of careful planning to get there.
Then came the unplanned curveball that upset my carefully orchestrated balance: My husband was offered a job in New York. In the past, whenever New York was even a remote possibility, I’d said, “no way.” But this time was different, and together we decided that the job was, on balance, worth the upheaval to our family. Our kids could spend more time with their NY cousins, and I would apply for social work licensure in NY.
Once we survived the packing and unpacking of endless boxes and starting the kids at neighborhood schools, I had to figure out what I wanted to do professionally. I remember asking myself: Should I try to recreate what I had before? Fortunately, I also asked myself: What do I really want to do? Which interests and skills do I want to give room and make a priority? What would I like to have less of?
I happened upon an article about the local bereavement center. Grief and loss had been a big part of my life since age 24, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Through my work in a hospital, family service agencies, inner city schools, a college campus, and private practice, I had seen that most clients had experienced losses of one kind or another, and I was drawn to working on those issues.
A new chapter in my career began at that bereavement center, where my experience leading support groups with teens who’d lost a parent or sibling led me to unearth another of my long-dormant interests: writing. Because of the move and associated losses, I had the time to write a novel.
It felt like a giant leap for me to take a novel-writing class, risking exposure and failure. Writing a novel aimed at teens who’ve experienced the death of a loved one (and their friends and teachers who want to know how they might support them) allowed me to bring together my mother’s death, my parenting, my social work experience, and my creativity.
So, looking back, I would tell my younger self, “You don’t have to have it all planned out. Embrace change. Make the most of it.” As Alexander Graham Bell said so eloquently, “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one that has opened for us.”
You can also check out Carole Geithner's book, If Only.
For more in this series, check out: Lessons To My Younger Self
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Carole Geithner has more than 20 years of experience as a clinical social worker, working in schools, hospitals, and counseling agencies with scores of children who have had a parent die, as well as adults whose childhoods were shaped by parent loss. Geithner is Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at George Washington School of Medicine, and the author of the novel, If Only, by Scholastic Press. For more information, visit her online at www.CaroleGeithner.com.More from this Author