"She deserved it." Hearing that phrase, most of us would assume the worst. Probably some sort of comeuppance, settling of scores, or divine justice. "She deserved it" rarely is a sign that something good happened to someone female. Too often those words are applied to victims of domestic violence, rape or sexual assault -- or some other form of abuse -- to justify the wrong done to her "because she asked for it" (another one of those awful phrases.)
Women don't often think of themselves as deserving because they're too busy serving others. That's what we do as wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, caretakers and nurturers. We are the safety net under those we love, stretching ourselves thin yet never failing to be there -- and catch others -- when they fall. It's only when the pressure on us to serve lets up (due to children leaving the nest or divorce or both) that we begin to see that we ourselves can be the ones who are deserving.
Curious word, "deserving." Latin in origin, the prefix "de" means removal of, reversal or departure from. So why doesn't "deserving" mean de-serving or the end of servitude?
Most of the women I know who live their lives believing they are deserving are the ones who are not in servitude, whether by timing, lifestyle or choice. For many of us, that time comes once we move past the magic number 50.
In the United States, 50 is seen as a milestone -- and not a good one. Other cultures don't necessarily share that viewpoint. I've written about the "Sarah Birthday," a tradition celebrated in the Netherlands when a woman turns 50. And I've also contemplated "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly of Turning 50 for Women." Both those piece were researched and published online just as I turned 50 myself. But I had to walk a mile in those shoes -- and live a year in that decade -- to really feel the transformative power of turning 50.
In my 50th year, my youngest child went off to college and I experienced "the empty nest." After the initial shock, what followed may have been the most liberating year of my life. Everything I'd worked toward for years seemed to click into place. My writing career took off. I was able to get rid of clutter I'd held onto for far too long. And my relationships with my spouse and my friends improved. I not only had more time for them -- I had more time for myself.
Over the past year, I ticked off some items on my bucket list. A lifelong love of ceramics prompted me to take an 8-week introductory pottery class -- where I found the other 9 participants were all women 50 and older. I tried my hand at a daylong memoir writing workshop. Again, the other 3 women were all older than 50. I could rationalize that younger women were too busy with family and careers to dabble in ceramics or personal storytelling, but I think it has more to do with feeling deserving than finding the time.
My "self-indulgences" (as I call the classes and new interests I've recently pursued) have been low key and required little financial commitment. But it took a full 18 months for me to truly feel deserving enough to take time away from my life and consider going away to a special event designed for women like me.
Back in April, a Facebook friend connected me to something just starting up called Women at Woodstock -- a four-day retreat near Woodstock, NY from October 7-10 geared towards women 50 and older. It featured workshops, lectures, presentations and personal consultations covering everything from reentering the world of dating to starting or building your business, blogging and social media, spirituality, writing and publishing, financial advice and embracing the beauty of aging.
It was something I wanted to try, and I signed up for emails and advance notice when registration opened up. I saved up a little here and there, arguing, I deserve this. I deserve to treat myself to this. Over the course of five months, I put aside several hundred dollars between freelance writing jobs, selling items I no longer needed via Craigslist, a garage sale and on eBay, and other small efforts. Then reality kicked in.
My husband's a small business owner and the economy hit him hard. We have two daughters in college and are taking out loans to afford tuition. We didn't go away on any sort of vacation this year because we knew we really should save the money.
I could afford the retreat, but not the accommodations which would double the cost. So I shrugged my shoulders and told myself, Next time. Next year.
Then I received an email from Women at Woodstock, announcing a scholarship for a deserving woman who demonstrated need. All I had to do was fill out a form and write an essay about why I wanted to come and what my situation was. I sat there looking at the announcement, thinking about that word "deserving" and automatically saying to myself, I'm not deserving. That's not me.
Deserving women are selfless. They establish charities which help others, give unstintingly, never think of themselves, and are in far worse financial straits than I am. I am not facing homelessness, I am not food insecure and unsure of where my next meal is coming from, and I am living a comfortable life compared to so many others. I am not deserving, I reminded myself. Not that kind of deserving.
Then I thought back on the year I'd just spent de-serving, learning to put myself first and not delay gratification as I had for decades. I'd earned this time to be "selfish" and "self-indulgent" after years of mothering, wife-ing, supporting, being stretched thin as the safety net to the world. If I didn't believe I was deserving, nobody else would. So I wrote the essay, submitted the application, and knew that although it would come to nothing, it was my way of saying to myself, You are deserving after all. Don't ever doubt yourself.
Last night as I volunteered at my local library, I got the call on my cell phone. I was in fact deserving -- I had won the scholarship to Women at Woodstock. But (the caller on the other end inquired) was I still willing -- as I'd mentioned in my essay -- to pay for half the expenses so another woman might also be able to attend with the other half of the scholarship money? Of course I would, I answered. (Deserving is as deserving does.)
I don't know who that other woman is who received the other phone call last night. I don't know if she struggled with the same feelings of deserving/not deserving as I did. But when I meet her I'll know that -- like me -- she balanced on the knife edge of not being able to do something she'd had her heart set on. I learned you don't have to have your heart broken to be deserving. You don't have to suffer tremendous loss, live a life of sacrifice, be a better human being (or much worse off) than anyone else. You just have to believe in yourself.
If you're 50 or older, Women at Woodstock still has a few openings for the Oct. 7-10 retreat. If you decide to go, look me up and I'll give you a hug. You deserve it.