Of all the radical Post50 career change and reinvention tales out there, Sheri Solin's struck me as particularly intriguing. Solin was a self-proclaimed type-A personality who, after working as a book editor for decades, did an about-face in her early 60s and became a doula. A doula is a highly trained, non-medical labor coach who provides physical, emotional and informational support to women before, during and after childbirth. No two professions, in my mind, seemed more diametrically opposed: The highly controlled, cerebral and laborious (no pun intended) world of editing, and the primal, unpredictable and painful realm of childbirth.
I recently spoke with Solin about how and why she reinvented herself.
Going from book editor to doula - now that's a real career change.
That's true. I was a book editor for 25 years. I would probably have been forced into a new career, because the staff positions had evaporated and there was so much competition for freelance work. But I ended up transitioning into a new career on my own time, rather than being downsized.
What was your motivation to change careers?
I love writing. I've been writing since I was a kid. I fell into editing and did it for decades. But it was basically cerebral. It was all in my head. I was brought up that way by academics and that's what was valued. But it wasn't enough for me. One day I was talking to a friend whose daughter was a doula. I'd never heard of it before. A long time ago I had thought about midwifery school; I also did some nursing work and writing in the medical field, so there was an interest there. But when I heard about my friend's daughter being a doula, it was literally like that cartoon light bulb went off over my head. I literally experienced it like that. I thought: This is me. It was the perfect thing for me. It was a way to get into my heart, to explore my own womanhood, to rebirth myself, and to deal with unresolved issues I had with my own mother who, interestingly, was dying during the time I was really getting into this work.
What was it about the unresolved issues you had with your mothers that influenced your career transition?
When I began training to be a doula, I told my mother about it. I was so excited, at 62 years old, to realize that there was a whole new life out there. And my mother's response was: "Well, what do they need you for?" So, that was my relationship with my mother. It motivated me not only to keep on in this new career, but to distance myself from my mom. The two processes went hand in hand. A new career and the process of individuating myself at 65 from my mother. It was about learning to mother myself and learning what it meant to be mothered.
I had lived out other people's dreams and expectations of me my whole life. I had lived my life so controlled, so unspontaneously. But when the door opened for me to see what was out there in the world, I was able to seize on the opportunity. I walked into a whole different way of being in the world. Writing had been totally mental for me. Being a doula is physical, emotional, spiritual.
You have to have a lot of sang froid to be a doula. You've got to be calm and collected under all sorts of emotional and physical pressure. Were you aware of this part of your nature when you were working as a book editor?
Absolutely not. That's something that I discovered. I was a very type-A person, very driven and cerebral and strung pretty tight. And it was really a revelation to me. Birth is also such a mysterious event. It follows its own course. The best way to deal with it is just to surrender to it. And this was not an experience I'd ever had. I wanted to control everything, get everything all laid out in my head and figure everything out beforehand. This is a completely different way of being in the world.
That said, there was one experience I had that was telling: My mother had an aneurism and had to have a 28-hour surgery. She was in intensive care for six weeks. During that same time, her brother, my uncle, had bypass surgery and ended up in a coma. They were both in intensive care. It was over an hour commute for me, but I went to see them every day in the hospital. And I spoke to my uncle every day, even though he was in a coma. I remember a feeling then that I had a gift for being with people in serious, extreme situations. I especially remember my aunt asking me at one point, "how do you know how to do that?" And I said, "I have no idea." It was just an instinct that I had.
How old were you?
In my early 50s.
So you became aware of this part of your nature -- this part that would be so central to your new career -- only after things started shifting in your family?
Yes. There were also a lot of things happening just under the surface. It was a revelation to me that I could rely on instinct and was able to do this kind of service in a very personal and intimate way. It wasn't anything that went on consciously, but when I discovered the world of the doula, it all connected.
This is also not something that I would have been able to figure out if I had sat down and made a list of all the possible careers. It was something that had to come to me and connect in this way. I also found a community. I've always been a loner. I'd lived alone for 35 years until I married a few years ago. I chose a solitary occupation and was into myself. I always longed to be part of something bigger. And the doula community is the warmest and most welcoming group of women I've ever known. So that's an added benefit, to find kindred spirits.
It seems that your life changed more after you hit 50 than it had for a long time previous to reaching that age.
Yes. And I've noticed that things fall into place when you're on the right path, as trite as that sounds. That's absolutely been my experience. I'm in a much more trusting place in my life and realize that things work out the way they're supposed to. But the amazing thing is that I truly feel that age is simply a number. I feel so reinvigorated and reborn. It is kind of like having a child's eyes and seeing things from a new perspective. I was a pessimist most of my life. Now I'm optimistic. I see new life and new potential coming into the world. And every time I cry. It never gets old.
What's the one thing you know now that you wish you knew growing up?
I wish I'd know that my own path in life is a unique and worthy path. It's not anyone else's path and it's not about anyone else's expectations or dreams. I lived out everyone else's dreams my entire life. I didn't even realize that I had my own path. That realization took me years. I wish I'd known.
Follow Debra Ollivier on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@debraso