Johnette was happy. Her marriage was good, her son completed college and had his first job. Things were moving along according to plan. Contrast this with her best friend, Donna, whose daughter dropped out of school and eventually died of an overdose. As her friend said, your children should be burying you not the other way around. Another friend of theirs, fought breast cancer for a year. During that time she felt completely disconnected to her life. These three friends experienced different life events, which highlighted the importance of time in their lives.
When we are "on-time" we feel our life is following the script—we are ok. We feel "off-time" when we are either very early—a teenage pregnancy—or very late—getting our first apartment at age 40. It is being "off-time" that makes us aware of how life has not followed the script. Sociologist Gunhild Hagestad experienced a life-threatening illness and described what it was like to be "out-of-time" for over a year. She lost track of the world and focused solely on getting well. Marty cannot decide what to do. His wife is dying but he has a severe case of spinal stenosis and needs surgery. Plus Marty needs to work to pay for health care for his wife. He is resisting surgery—he is afraid to put himself "out-of-time." It is possible to be "on-time" in some areas of life, "off-time" in other areas, and occasionally "out-of-time".
The late psychologist Bernice Neugarten suggested that behavior is controlled primarily by a social rather than a biological clock (1977). One's social clock can be understood by the comment, "my clock is ticking." We have all heard people say, "I'm too old to still live at home." "I am too old to go back to school." "I am too old to get divorced." "I am too young to run for public office." "I am too young to have the baby." In other words, each culture has different sets of timetables for events—when to go to school, to have children, to marry, to retire. These accepted timetables influence our reactions to our circumstances.
We often compare ourselves to others. We look at members of our groups (the ones we are part of and the ones we wish we were part of) and ask: How do I compare in the following areas? In money, success and career; in relationships with partners, spouses, adult children and friendship; in fun, leisure and travel; in our legacy and in the way we imagined we would turn out and how our peers have turned out.
Today we live with conflicting realities. It is wonderful that our lives do not follow a rigid plan; however, it is confusing that our lives and futures are not predictable. For example, we see people marrying in their forties, becoming parents in their forties, retiring in their late fifties, and changing careers in their sixties. Life is in flux, but we still hold onto rigid ideas of appropriate behavior for different ages. And maybe that is the problem—maybe there is no single age that is the "right" age to go to school, to marry, to retire. Maybe we need to make our social clocks more flexible for, after all, they are person-made.
Questions for You to Consider
Think of transitions where you feel On-time? Off-time? Or Out-of-time?
Identify how you felt about each transition? Did you feel best when life was following a script and you were on time?
How do you handle off-time transitions?
Please share your reactions so others can learn from you.
Nancy K. Schlossberg
Professor Emerita, University of Maryland
Author, Overwhelmed: Coping with Life's Ups and Downs
Copyright, December 2011