I was introduced to The Back Forty when I met Darrell Gurney at a conference in Los Angeles in late 2016. I immediately connected with his mission, and I don’t think he was surprised when I confessed that I’m living my own Back Forty career right now.
Like most people, I tend to focus on what’s currently happening, forgetting that I was 45 when I quit my job as a high-power, good salaried health care marketing executive in 2000. Except that the truth is, I didn’t quit my job; I escaped and ran from Shawshank prison.
I had prepared my escape quietly, carefully, for almost seven months. There were many discussions with my husband, my lawyer and my accountant. My lists had lists of their own. I read books detailing what it would take to become a solopreneur, and I had informational interviews and coffees with people who had already made the switch. I Googled everything in between.
Unlike the many advertising and public relations agencies named for the primary owner, I wanted my new venture to have a name with meaning, which my own decidedly did not. I decided on “odyssey”, because of its secondary definition: “an intellectual or spiritual wandering or quest”.
Some might have thought that I simply started doing the same strategic communications projects that I used to do on a “job”, but from home. They were almost correct. What they overlooked was the jubilation infused with the free air I breathed. The work I performed was under terms set only by me. The ability to choose the clients, people and issues I would to support with my efforts, and to dismiss others, was exhilarating. I re-learned my own rhythms, and set my own schedules.
Over the next 10 years, I grew increasingly unhappy with unreasonable clients, boring assignments, and even the very skills I used to take pride in. Over time, my new world had morphed into feeling like the old world, beyond my control and a waste of my ebbing time. Worse, it seemed impossible to imagine that anyone would pay me to do anything else (not that I knew what “anything else” might look like).
As a communications major in college and a professional in the field, I was captivated by the new technology that hopped over TV networks and radio stations and PR folk like me to post its own reality. Simply put, everything old was new again.
It took hours for me to finish a simple online article, because any reference that I didn’t understand, such as virtual worlds (SecondLife), or channels like Twitter that took weekends to master, I clicked off to explore and teach myself. My first blog, using Google’s Blogger chronicled a Baby Boomer’s leap into modern communications. Communications Goddess represented the self-confidence I had achieved while sharing my delight at the new tools the Internet steadily delivered.
In 2009, I started annual treks to attend BlogHer conferences in New York, Chicago and San Diego. Women – more than 2,000 of them – filled me with their energy and determination to have their voices heard. It was at BlogHer that I began to see blogging as a business. Soon after, I admitted that there were hundreds of bloggers with larger audiences, deeper pockets, and stronger resumes across the Net with social media blogs just like mine.
In March 2011, I flew to Austin, Texas to attend South by Southwest Interactive, a nine-day celebration of all things digital and online. It was there, in a session about how women connect with brands online, that I said aloud for the first time, “I can’t find myself online.”
By then, I was a 56-year-old woman who was not the mother of a teenager, nor an empty nester, nor a grandmother, nor fertile and still trying to conceive. I was not anti-child, anti-procreation or anti-anything. I was pro-me and, in all of cyberspace, I couldn’t find anyone like me. It hurt.
Someone suggested I start a website, and I responded that there was no way to avoid “mean girls” who don’t like children or their mothers. That’s definitely not me.
I thought the subject was closed, until another attendee urged me to follow up on the idea that Madison Avenue and everyone else were overlooking millions of women. I listened, and soon found US Census Bureau reports that the number of American NotMoms was the highest since tracking began in 1976. Today, one of every six American women will never give birth and nations worldwide are reporting historic levels.
I officially launched the new blog on Mother’s Day 2012 and named it The NotMom because of the many, many times I have been called to explain that, “No, I do not have children. I am not a Mom.”
If a woman isn’t a Mom in our Mom-centered world, she often feels adrift without a tribe, a community of her own. It’s easy for people to accept, without full comprehension, the universal power and influence of the title that is “Mom”.
Young Moms, single Moms, special needs Moms, Moms-to-be, adoptive Moms, military Moms, celebrity Moms, adoptive Moms, empty nest Moms, Moms of multiples, mocha Moms, first-time Moms and soccer Moms are all linked at a visceral level impossible to replicate. When a woman is not and will never be any type of Mom, even those women who chose to live childfree may feel overlooked and repeatedly out of place.
American in focus but global in scope, The NotMom is distinguished online by its embrace of women who once dreamed of motherhood as well as those who never did. Now approaching its fifth anniversary, the brand engages and influences a growing community of more than 25,000 childless and childfree women age 26 and up through the blog, events and social networks.
The NotMom Summit, the only conference of its kind in the world, brings these women together offline to acknowledge and enhance the shared aspects of their lives. The inaugural event drew women from three continents, five countries (Canada, China, England, Iceland and the US) and 18 states, proving that the interest in such a gathering has value.
The 2017 NotMom Summit will be on October 6-7, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio, and once again I am working hard to partner with major sponsors open to recognizing the potential of this important niche market. With my husband’s blessing and enthusiastic support, I am embroiled in the adventure of my life at age 61.
The NotMom has won a $5,000 prize from a northeast Ohio program for entrepreneurial women and scored international media coverage including Fortune, Black Enterprise, CNN.com, The Atlantic and The New York Times (twice!). No matter how this story ends, I will never regret chasing a dream to find my own community, and to help other women find theirs.
Karen is the founding voice & chief executive of The NotMom.com and featured by The New York Times as a leading expert on issues about women without children by chance or by choice. For more information on the 2017 NotMom Summit, go to: https://notMomsummit2017.sched.org.
My friend Bert’s book was titled, “The Free Bird Flies: Choosing Life After Loss”, and it was a chronicle of how she regained her balance after the accidental death of her 21-year-old son, Philip. I held it in my hand, thinking of the journey that she and I had shared as close friends for the past several years. The many small moments of laughter over something her children had said; the sounding-board conversations we had over a shared interest in business; and the deeper conversations of spirituality and the concepts that give meaning to life. She filled such a comfortable and valued place in my life, in the way that only friends who love you just as you are can do. We vibed on a profund level and I always looked forward to our daily phone calls.
“The most helpful thing that someone said to me after Phil’s death”, she said, “was that you don’t ever ‘get over’ your grief. You just learn to manage it.” I had some managing to learn, as Bert had just been diagnosed with an incurable neurological disease that had already stolen much of her ability to speak, and was very soon going to accompany her out of this lifetime.
I felt numb, overloaded with sadness. Bert was well-known in our community, and I got multiple calls on a daily basis from people who were just hearing the news and needed to talk. I did my best to listen as they poured out their shock and grief. We all wanted to connect with someone else who loved her like we did. I found my sadness growing, as if in some way, if I could just get sad enough, then all would be restored and Bert would once again be her regular funny self.
If I’m not paying attention in the morning, I sometimes overpour my cup of tea. It tops the rim and runs down the side of the cup, puddling at the base. On this particular day after the third such phone call, I felt like that cup of tea, my grief at the impending loss of my friend overflowing my heart and puddling at my feet. I knew that I felt that way because losing my friend was all I had been focusing on. It was the topic that took up all my available mental bandwidth. Understandable, but puddling nonetheless. I needed to shift my story, but wasn’t sure what to do.
“How else can I look at this?”, I asked myself as I settled in for a meditation. As I relaxed, I thought of all the friends of mine who had gone out of their way to do small acts of caring for me. A sweet text here and there. Delivery of food so I wouldn’t have to cook. A listening ear so I could unload what I was feeling. Long, comforting hugs from my sweetheart.
My eyes shot open. “Love! I am surrounded by love!” My heart grew, and made room for gratitude as I sent a mental blessing to each person who formed my network of support. I could feel my mood lift a bit – there was now a different emotion alongside my grief.
I didn’t know it at the time, but choosing to look for love and gratitude in the time of sadness forever changed my stance toward loss. In the two years that followed Bert’s death (or “transition”, as she liked to call it), I also lost two other close friends as well as my dad. While my grief was certainly there at those times, it was also accompanied by its new friend, gratitude. Making the choice to be grateful for all of the treasured experiences I had with each of these people who were so special to me acted as a salve for my aching heart. It gave a dimension and a richness to the grieving process that surprised me, and I learned that difficult things also come packaged with wonderful things. It’s our choice to look for them.
As we get older, losses big and small become woven into the fabric of our life experience and it doesn’t take a big loss like a death to make gratitude our daily companion. We have opportunities to focus on what we love every day, to learn to manage our losses instead of allowing them to define us. Choosing gratitude is a choice worth making.
I knew within a week that I had made a mistake. I had left a position at the radio station where I worked, to take a position in their sales department. Lured by rumors of high sales commissions, I had rationalized the change by telling myself I could use some sales and business experience, to add to my growing body of creative experience as a voiceover artist and recording engineer.
I hated it. I hated the pressure of meeting quotas, and morning “rah-rah” sales meetings, but put on a good face for a year, when one morning I woke up and realized I couldn’t tolerate one more day. So I turned in my resignation and drove home in tears of relief and fear.
I was terrified. How would I support myself? I was 28 years old, unmarried, with a mortgage to pay and a cat to feed, and in desperation, I decided to try meditation as a defense against the persistent voices in my head that told me I had really screwed it up this time.
I got a book that suggested I lay down so my spine would be straight (the better for the energies to flow?) and empty my head of thoughts. Thoughts like, “Am I doing this right? What about now? Oh darn, there goes another thought.” I stuck with it, though, and a funny thing happened. I began to hear another quiet voice, one that encouraged me to relax, that everything would work out just fine. At first I was skeptical. Could I trust it? The feeling of reassurance was so consistent, however, that I thought, “Why not?” and listened closely.
That quiet voice inspired me to reach out to people I knew in the broadcast production industry, and the timing was magical. Within weeks I had a steady gig doing both on-camera work and training as a production assistant. Thirty years later, I have found success in the marketing, advertising, and film industries.
I needed that voice again a decade later, when I knew I needed to end my first marriage, but was afraid of being out on my own. How would I support myself? As before, I had known for a year that our relationship had gradually become disconnected, and my resentment and sadness had become a too-familiar companion. “Have I failed?” I wondered. I was afraid that leaving my husband would confirm my deepest fears about myself—that I was unlovable unless I was perfect.
I struggled for months, hoping a miracle would happen and we would again be happy. But nothing changed. One day, I woke up and my fear of what I would become if I stayed was greater than my fear of what I would face if I left. I was terrified, and yet, I knew this time to listen for the encouraging voice inside me. That voice guided me to find a therapist and work through my resentment, and that going to dinner alone wouldn’t kill me, but open me up to interesting conversations with new people. A small client expectedly expanded into a big one, and my fears of not being able to provide for myself gradually eased. I learned to count on a steady stream of abundance that I worked hard to create.
With the passing of my years, I have come to realize that packed alongside every one of my fears is also the gift of courage that comes from trusting our own quiet voice inside: our inner wisdom. I was surprised the first time I shared the story of leaving the radio station for life unknown and someone exclaimed, “That was so brave!” It took me a while to own my courage, because it sure didn’t feel like it at the time. I own it, now, remembering the earlier times in my life where I was afraid and yet trusted that I could figure something out, even if I wasn’t sure if I could. That knowing has come in handy, when I was again afraid upon meeting the kind man who would become my second husband. I had one marriage that didn’t work out, could I try again? I ultimately decided that I could, and we have just celebrated our third wedding anniversary. The gift of my fears led me to be lovingly vigilant about doing the things that make our relationship happy, solid, and fulfilling to us both.
I can say that being afraid at age 58 doesn’t feel any better than it did at age 28. There are always things in life that kick up fears like a car on a dusty road. But I now face the unknown with a little more curiosity and self-trust than I used to, and that makes all that earlier discomfort well worth it.
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