You’re Out of Order

Prevention Magazine . March, 2005
A guide to making the right choice at the wrong time.

I met one of the most vital women imaginable at a spa a few years back. She was a knockout: exuding health, energy, and sex appeal. When I discovered that she was 70 years old, I was stunned.

But I was even more surprised—make that blown away—when she revealed that her secret for staying youthful involved spending time with young lovers. The idea of an older woman dating much younger men bucks the norm (even when Demi Moore does it) and defies convention.

It’s an “out-of-order” behavior. After all, older women are supposed to be winding down. Yet this septuagenarian was raring to go—and it seemed to be working for her.

I’m an “out-of-order” gal myself. I just spent my 59th birthday biking the slick rock in the Canyonlands of Utah with my fiancé, Gordon, whom I love with a passion that might have made my younger self blush. And I’m gearing up to start a school to train spiritual mentors. Talk about a change of direction, and a leap!

My scientist self has a hypothesis about making out-of-order life choices that I’d love to test. It’s this: When such choices are made from an authentic desire to grow and serve, we thrive in spite of the challenges. Doing what’s right for you, even when other people think you’re nuts, is an awesome experience. But when bucking the norm comes from careless or ill-considered choices, being out of order can be hurtful to you and those closest to you. Taking a clear-eyed look at what motivates your choices—before you leap—is key to making sure they’re healthy.

Consider Linda, whose twin sons, the carefully considered result of in vitro fertilization with a new husband, were born when she was a 47-year-old grandmother. She’ll be 65 when the twins graduate from high school. When I asked if she’d thought about that, her husband promptly piped up that they’d actually read a study about mothers over 40 getting a new lease on life that kept them young. I hope that research pans out!

Roberta, a former patient of mine, made a different type of out-of-order choice—she left a lucrative practice as a divorce attorney and went back to school to become a marriage and family therapist in midlife. For sure, her decision meant a big pay cut, but honoring her deepest longings to be a healer of families was more important to her. I recently checked in with Roberta, and after 5 years in her new career, she’s delighted with her choice.

Of course, many women make out-of-order choices that don’t pan out. Skye, the daughter of a friend of mine, was single and only 22 when she bought a townhouse. Her hope was to sell it at a profit in a few years and work toward financial independence at a young age. It was a great plan—except that she got laid off and ended up selling the property at a loss.

Before you make an out-of-order choice, think through the following three questions to help you discern whether it’s a good idea. You’ll get a handle on what feels right for you, and learn if you’re really prepared to be a trailblazer.

Are You Ready to Be Out of Order?

How important are other people’s opinions of you?

If you’re the sort of person who has trouble standing your ground, and feels anxious or devalued when others question your choices, you may want to think twice about taking the road less traveled. Linda, the older mother of twins, spoke eloquently on this point: She didn’t care what people thought. Others tried to dissuade her from her choice, but she could live with a bit of social disapproval.

So, if you’re about to make an out-of-order choice, spend some time thinking about the strength of your inner authority. If your self-esteem is bound up in what others think of you, such a choice is much more likely to cause you stress. That doesn’t automatically nix the idea, but it does serve as a cautionary yellow light and an invitation to spend time imagining how you would feel on your new path—and how you would respond to people who question your motives.

Are you acting out of freedom—or fear?

When your decision to quit your job, sell your home, and become a nun at 35 is prompted by a sincere desire for spiritual growth and service, you’re on the right track. But if your decision is motivated by an impulse to escape a painful or unfair life, reconsider, because when you move to the abbey all you’ll find is your same frightened self.

When a major life decision is motivated by fear rather than an authentic inner impulse for growth, you have another yellow warning light. Sometimes escape from your current situation is mandatory just to survive, and that’s okay. But it’s tough to make healthy choices when life feels toxic. In all cases when fear obscures reason, taking time out to heal your issues—not make impulsive decisions—should be your priority.

How will your decision affect loved ones?

I confess: I would have loved to have had a child at 40. But after thinking through the effects that decision would have had on our family finances, I realized that my sons and stepdaughter would have had to work harder to help pay for their college tuition (which I had planned to finance) as a result. It didn’t feel right to spend money on a new baby.

For women, there’s a powerful tension between doing what’s good for ourselves and pleasing others. We fear we’re being selfish if we follow our own star. But sometimes, in considering other people’s wishes, we lose ourselves and ultimately sell out our own happiness. The decision to be out of order may bring up that tension. If it does, you’ll want to think about what the most loving choice might be, keeping everyone’s needs in mind, including your own. As for my late-life child? We got a dog instead—and I’ve never regretted the decision.

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