Wednesday, August 20, 2014

She's Finding Her Fit After 40: Embracing Change and Letting Go



“As you let things go, there’s more space for something new . . . I spent a lot of years trying to make sure that I would hold on to everything that I thought was important to me, and was pretty confidant that I knew what those things were and so then I held very tightly to them and as some things would come undone, or were yanked from me, then I would have to reevaluate whether or not I wanted to fight for whatever that was to come back – or even if I had that choice.” – Jan Bucey

Sometimes we find our fit through following a carefully constructed plan. Tried and true formulas help us predict how to get from point A to point B in an efficient manner and suddenly, smoothly, we have arrived . . . but it rarely happens that way. Instead, our fit is sometimes found through a stripping away of rigid ideas that finally allow us the flexibility to morph into the shape and structure that we have been uniquely crafted for – realizing that while the rigidity may have served a helpful initial purpose (much like a cast correcting a broken bone) it eventually can become a restrictive shell that we must either break free from, or be crushed by. For Jan Bucey, like many of us, this stripping away was not an easy process – hopes and dreams of the future had to be replaced with the ability to fully embrace the present. What initially appeared to be a series of “losses” were actually the process of readjusting her course – doors opening to an exciting new list of possibilities for her future while staying centered on the here and now.

“That old saying about opportunity only knocking once is as archaic as the flat-earth theory and as patently untrue. Opportunity knocks all the time – and it rings your doorbell, calls you up, and sends you e-mails.” Victoria Moran in Creating a Charmed Life


My Facetime screen opens to reveal an indoor scene flooded with sunlight illuminating the smiling face at the other end of the line. It’s early morning for me, but already mid-day in Halle Saale, Germany. I’m greeted by an effervescent “hiiiiii” in a familiar Michigan accent as recent expatriate Jan Bucey answers my call and, with our connection intermittently coming and going, I delve into the story of how she’s finding her fit.

After the age of 50, many people are content (or resigned?) to allow their lives to continue on a path that has been in the making for decades. This is especially true for those who have followed the script corresponding to the often-fantastical American Dream: college, a stable career, marriage, a family consisting of 2.5 children (the American “ideal” as determined by Gallup Poll in 2007), raise children and facilitate their entrance into reputable college, while continuing as a respected member of the community in fulfilling work until reaching retirement age whereby one participates in a handful of retirement-appropriate activities.

The idea of predictability can be intoxicating to some, stifling to others, yet many subconsciously exist as if this is the way we are supposed to live… Life, liberty, and the pursuit of predictability (???)

But what happens when the trajectory is interrupted? Divorce, the death of a spouse, or the diagnosis of a life-altering illness can force many into understandably reevaluating their life-script, but when the interruption is through a less tangible (or socially-acceptable) force, it can be difficult to welcome or embrace the opportunity for change. It is difficult for others to understand it, as well.

That’s what happened to Jan Bucey. Jan, 55, recounts the circumstances leading up to the decision that she and her husband, Wiley, made to relocate to Halle Saale, Germany earlier this year. Prior to their move, they were living just outside Pittsburgh, PA in the same close-knit community where her husband and his three siblings grew up. They actually lived right next door to her husband’s childhood home. Save for a handful of years where she and Wiley lived in another state, Mt. Lebanon was the Bucey’s hometown.

An occupational therapist working with schoolchildren, Jan enjoyed the freedom and flexibility of the school calendar, allowing her to be at home with her own children during holidays and school breaks. Family life was closely intertwined with their church community – Jan was active in many church activities and groups, serving as an elder and volunteering with the youth. As a PK (preacher’s kid), this integration between church and family was a natural one, and Jan worked diligently to perform well in all of her roles. But, rather than seeing this as a fruitful investment in predictability and stability, she gradually began to experience the eroding of some core beliefs about things that she thought were non-negotiable.

Eventually, things began to crumble.

During her late 40s Jan experienced what she describes as a “huge combination of losses and an opportunity to respond positively.” She elaborates, “These happened over a 3 to 5 year period, and ended in me being overweight, in chronic pain, and questioning life-long beliefs.” Confronted with this upheaval, she confesses, “I saw myself as being trapped in a life that had been good before, but no longer seemed to be right. The easy losses to talk about are loosing a job and letting go of the children as they left for college.”

Jan then reveals the difficult ones, too: “Realizing that my daughter wasn’t going to be close, but rather was going to aggressively assert her independence; losing Jimmy [her youngest child] to the drugs and despair that he was in during high school, and then having him come out as gay [during] his freshman year of college; and Jon [her oldest] – way back when he left home [in 2006 he entered the Air Force Academy]. His was a dramatic loss as he was the first one, and basically never came back. We let him go to the complete control of the military.” This was not how she envisioned emptying her nest. None of these things had been in her plans throughout the earlier yeas of parenting.

Her youngest son moved out of state and struggled with health issues, while trying to figure out a direction in life, eventually settling on pursuing a degree in Physics. Her daughter finished college and promptly moved to South Korea to teach and later traveled around the world. Her oldest son – a pilot in the Air Force – is living in California and has completed two tours in Afghanistan. As with most children leaving the nest there are often growing pains. It took a while for everyone to find their wings, but when they did, they flew very far away . . . and did not look back as much as Jan would have liked. While all of her children are focused and driven, she says that not being very involved in the intricacies of their daily lives was far from what she’d foreseen during the more “hands-on” parenting years.


Simultaneously, there was a great upheaval in her church – a place that Jan had looked to for stability throughout her life. As a result of the instability, friendships were weakened. Long-held beliefs were questioned. Many aspects of her life appeared to be in a state of flux at once.

In earlier years, Jan and her peers in her church community would often discuss various parenting methods for getting optimal outcomes. “Good” child rearing, they were taught, was a science. Successful methods and formulas were offered in abundance through books, classes, and counseling sessions. But what happens when the formula does not produce the outcome that was expected?

When confronted with such disillusionment it’s not uncommon for people to choose a self-destructive path – often unintentionally, as Jan experienced during that period in her life. “I wasn’t feeling well, and the physical toll on my body was getting big. The emotional toll was so big that I was going to counseling on a regular basis, so I was having some help in trying to reevaluate some of the scripts and understanding where I wanted to land on them,” she explains. Some people withdraw from friends and family, marriages suffer, health declines, and work is neglected as every aspect of life is questioned and self-scrutinized. The key lies in not allowing oneself to get stuck at this point, but instead, to use it as an opportunity to welcome change and flexibility. “I guess the icing on the cake was to see that now where I had spent a lot of my time and energies with my peers and friends was not fitting at all for me. This meant that I had to let that go . . . It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” She eventually realized, “This is life and I’m going to move on.”

Jan views these difficult experiences as having granted her the opportunity to choose a new path, declaring this period as, “a huge combination of losses and an opportunity to respond positively.” Her recurrent theme for the past several years has been, “as you let the things go, there’s more space for something new. I spent a lot of years trying to make sure that I would hold on to everything that I thought was important to me, and was pretty confidant that I knew what those things were and so then I held very tightly to them. As some things would come undone – or were yanked from me – then I would have to reevaluate whether or not I wanted to fight for whatever that was to come back – or even if I had that choice.”

One of the primary things that Jan has let go of is the need to keep everything in some sort of predictable order. A major way that she’s released that is by embracing the opportunity to relocate to eastern Germany, thanks to an opportunity for her husband to work there for the next few years. When considering this move, Jan had also been entertaining the idea of returning to school to earn an Occupational Therapy Doctorate. She had already started doing the prerequisite work to prepare for the program while paring back her occupational therapy business commitments in Pennsylvania. This, coupled with the experience of doing some work in Cypress, she realized that she could envision herself not just visiting – but also living – outside her comfort zone (figuratively AND literally!). Fortunately, her doctorate program is fairly flexible, so she is able to do much of the work from her new home in Germany.

Flexibility is crucial to Jan these days. Previously the gregarious one of the couple, since she is in the initial stages of learning to speak German, Jan must rely on her husband to do much of the communicating for her when they are out together. She laughingly admits, “So the man with the few words has to have all of the words, and the woman with all of the words now has to shut up. And this is a good thing! It’s working well for us!” Like many parents focused on careers and the activities of growing children, she and her husband have found a fresh connection with each other now that they are undertaking this new adventure together. She describes their relationship as “very, very good. It’s more open. It’s less competitive. He and I are really enjoying the fact that the demands on us in this setting – with just the two of us in our little family here – are not that great,” she confesses, “so we are able to give ourselves more attention and really respond to what that person really needs and wants, and that’s really precious . . . And what’s even better is that we are finding that we are still really compatible.” Being flexible to bend with the demands of various seasons of life can also give a strength that forges great connections.

Creating and maintaining connections are goals for this couple – not just between them, but around them, as well. Jan and Wiley view themselves as “bridges.” “He [Wiley] is a bridge at his work for the [German-based] project and the company in the States. And I am a bridge in my profession, as well as in our faith, too,” she explains. “We feel like, no matter where anybody goes, hopefully, they are a bridge to love and to forgiveness and I really was convicted as an American that this was an opportunity to be a bridge between continents.” Choosing not to live in a community with other expats, they are hopeful that they will find a unique experience by totally immersing themselves in a new culture that’s not always friendly to Westerners. Navigating her city alone, finding ways to communicate, and creating connections require a delicate balance of tenacity and creativity that might be overwhelming at times, but often eye-opening opportunities for growth, nonetheless.

A curious parallel lies between her chosen field of Occupational Therapy and how Jan is choosing to view life these days. Occupational Therapy, she explains, “uses medical and scientific approaches combined with psychosocial and anthropological concepts” to create methods that address peoples’ needs. “I’m inclined to see the world through our physical, emotional, and spiritual being, and this is a good fit . . . I like the uniqueness of the profession and the idea of coaching, guiding, and teaching others toward better lives.” This multifaceted view is one that she has applied to other areas of her life: scientific formulas are often influenced by the environment that they are applied in, and sometimes, the emotional or spiritual factors carry more weight than we ever imagined.

Embracing flexibility, creating connections, and allowing the expansion of comfort zones can be scary, but as Jan has discovered, they can also open the door to a much fuller and more expansive life. “Thank God we are not there anymore!” Jan says of the past. “Letting go and reinventing yourself…” – THAT’S where she is today.

Our signal stalls and fails a few times, but we manage to complete the interview. Sure, it’s taken a bit longer than it would have if everything had gone smoothly. Fortunately, we are both flexible and able to pick up where we’ve left off when necessary as our signal ebbs and flows. It is a great metaphor for life. It’s late on a sunny Friday afternoon in Halle Saale. Jan and her husband are headed out for a bike ride in the countryside – just the two of them, together on a really cool adventure.



Author Elly Haddad is a certified holistic health and wellness coach and founder of Elemental Fit, based in Nashville, TN. She helps individuals and groups understand the important influence that diet & lifestyle have on health, happiness, & overall wellbeing. Elly is also a writer and public speaker, conducting workshops and seminars throughout the US. She can be contacted directly via email here

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