Many are the women who will recognize themselves in Jess story. -Faith Sullivan, award-winning author of Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse
It was a week-long painting workshop in Sante Fe. Mid-March. Just what I needed to escape the effects of the snowiest ever Minnesota February. Booked on almost a whim, once I arranged air travel, I patted myself on the back for taking a risk by maxing out my AMEX card in order to go. Not expecting warmth really, just getting away from snow and the mid-winter doldrums would be enough.
On arrival, the desert was such a contrast to snow and ice that I almost couldn’t take it in.
After the cocktail hour and dinner with the awkwardness of first meetings over with, the convener pulled the group into a circle around the adobe fireplace in order to brief us on the week ahead. Introductions first, of course—name, where you live and something about you beyond your painting life. She handed a plate of cookies to the first person, to start.
“I’m Sophie, from Des Moines Iowa, I’m divorced, have two adorable grandchildren who I will visit before I head back to Iowa,” she laughed. “I’m trying to avoid the spring thaw.”
“Meggie here. A widow from Chicago. This is my first trip to the southwest—so excited about the landscape—so different than what I’m used to.”
Widow or divorcee?
“Dot—and I’m a widow once and divorced once—and I can tell you which is better!“ Everybody laughed at that. Dot turned to her neighbor to pass the plate of cookies, when Fiona, a few seats down said. “Oh, do tell—that sounds like a lesson we would all learn from.”
A few nervous giggles, and then Fiona added. “I’m serious. Will you please share?”
Dot, an attractive ginger-haired woman, looked at the convener as if for permission, and then to each of the eight women around the circle. “Well, none of you know me well, but I’m not shy and would share if that’s what you’d like….”
As if a light switch was toggled on, the rather stiff formality of the group seemed to disappear, with eager faces alight. This ice breaker was not assigned but worked beautifully.
“OK, here goes. I’m fifty years old. I married my first husband Tom when we were young, just out of college. We raised our kids, Joe and Joclyn in Denver. We struggled with money at the beginning, but Tom’s business took off; he was a contractor and I helped manage the business—I’m an accountant. We were married 15 years when he died, pancreatic cancer, it came suddenly and took him quickly.” Dot’s eyes glistened for a moment, and she lowered her voice a bit. “It was awful, for all of us.”
There was a low murmur from the group, but Dot quickly went on. “But, I was quickly surrounded by loving friends—Tom and I had a great group of couples friends that helped me through the mourning process, took the kids for overnights if I needed a break.
Their help allowed me to concentrate on the business, so I could finally sell it. I kept my job working for the new owner. The friends just sort of adopted me and the kids into their own families. We felt supported and cared for. Our financial situation was never dire, it was more the social aspects that were on my mind, but never for very long as I always had a friend— family friends to lean on.
Kids did too, made all the difference to Joe, who really missed his Dad as an adolescent. But, he had several surrogate fathers who kept him active in sports and brought him up short if he needed it. Always in support of me.”
Dot looked around the room and took a breath before she continued. “After the kids went off to school, I was ready to start dating. My couples friends wanted to set me up, and we did that a few times, but it was never right. It felt a little like dating my cousins.” The group laughed and Dot explained. “You know, like just a bit too familiar. I felt like I needed to explore a new social group a bit. Eventually, I met a guy in a college extension class I was taking—Jeff, the teacher in fact, and we started dating.”
“I loved the dating. Something about being free again; without the responsibilities of a business to run or children to watch over closely. I think I fell in love with that feeling of freedom more than with Jeff.
After a couple of years of commuting between two houses, we married and I moved into his. I left my job and couldn’t quite leverage my years of experience into an equivalent position, but took a job closer to his house, an hour’s drive from my old haunts.”
“Oh, oh.” The words seemed to come involuntarily from Sophie, a wisp of a woman with her hair in an unkempt up-do. She quickly put her hand over her mouth, as if to take back the words, but everyone looked to her until she spoke up.
“Well, that’s kind of what happened to me when I took time off. When my husband and I did the calculations of daycare costs vs. my salary, as a business analyst—we agreed I should stay home with them for a few years.
Even though I tried to keep up with my career by taking piece work assignments and kept up with my field when I was ready to go back to work, I was viewed as a ”mommy track” worker and my salary went back to the lowest level.”
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She went on, now with some bitterness. “Then when I got divorced the following year, our mutual choice to have me stay home for a few years didn’t count as contributed income to the family for settlement purposes.”
That seemed to open the floodgates on the discussion. Everyone seemed to have a personal story about the different perceptions of widows and divorcees. Widows seemed to get the support of friends rallying around due to the husband’s death, divorcees seemed to be cast as failed marriage partners, to be avoided in case it was catchy.
Is a divorced woman considered a widow? Or people are slightly hesitant to extend help and support to a divorced woman? Widows are assisted in social re-entry, and divorcees are usually viewed as a different species. This is not to deny that the problems faced by widows are daunting and crippling. However, widow or divorcee, life is full of upheavals for both.
After a free-for-all of sharing, these women had bonded. Even the other widow in the room understood widows were treated differently than divorcees.
Finally, during a gap in the conversation, Dot summarized to knowing glances around the room.
“See, I told you one was better!” Then, Sophie caught the gaffe first and said: “Hey, Dot—you don’t want anyone to test this theory of Widow or divorcee, right?”
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Maren Cooper grew up in the Midwest and now resides in Minnesota. During her long career as a health services executive during a time of continuous change, she led a number of organizations to respond to the challenges of new competitive business models, required operating system improvements and the search for optimal governance structures. Through it all, Maren was a keen observer of the range of coping mechanisms people call upon when their known world is upset and the consequences of choices made in the board room have a direct impact on patient care, professional careers and the families of all involved.