A group to help women make the most of transition

The Transition Network met at the Barnes Foundation last month: Attending were Peggy Stelle of Philadelphia (left), Jane Plenge of Haddon Heights.
The Transition Network met at the Barnes Foundation last month: Attending were Peggy Stelle of Philadelphia (left), Jane Plenge of Haddon Heights. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 30, 2012

In 2007, Ellen Singer Coleman gave up her home and her social work practice in New York to start a new marriage and a new practice in Philadelphia. The changes had come in a steady pummeling stream.

"My husband had lots of friends in Philadelphia, but I also knew I wanted to develop my own network," recalls Coleman, now 64, of that transitional period in her life.

As it turned out, in facing her own challenges, Singer Coleman created with two others a group that, for women over 50, helps make transitions meaningful, productive, less scary, and less lonely.

Four years later, that Philadelphia chapter of a national organization, the Transition Network, affectionately called TTN, has about 160 members, with the second-highest chapter growth rate in the country. The organization serves 8,000 women 50 "and forward," providing educational and cultural programs and workshops to ease the transitions of situations common for their age group, from being widowed to moving, and especially retiring - the impetus for the 2006 creation of the national group by its founders, Christine Millen and Charlotte Frank.

Millen was considering retiring from her partnership with a consulting firm, leaving her panicked. "What do you do all day?" she would ask anyone who was retired. "How do you know when it's a weekend?"

Frank, the director of procurement for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey until 2002, also felt unprepared for life after her job.

The two brainstormed with friends in their Manhattan living rooms and came to this: There was room in the world for an organization that could help the first generation of women who had to ponder the strange notion, "Without work, who am I?"

These children of the '50s and '60s may have broken barriers in the workplace, challenged the system, and proven that a woman's place could be everywhere.

But with mothers who likely led dramatically different lifestyles, they are also without role models for life's Part 2.

In the words of Philadelphia-born broadcast journalist Lynn Sherr, these are women "at an age when we considered our mothers old, but know that we are not."

In the introduction to Gail Rentsch's book Smart Women Don't Retire - They Break Free, which chronicles the birth and growth of TTN, Sherr asks, "What exactly are we supposed to do with our energy, our connections, our experience, our ideas . . . ourselves?"

But TTN offers more than life-after-work advice. Its small self-led peer groups allow members to discuss anything from their aging parents to navigating being newly single.    

"But the most basic thing peer groups offer is connection," said Singer Coleman, who founded the Philadelphia chapter with Mary Klein, a retired teacher and administrator, and Nancy Leon (now residing in Jackson Hole, Wyo.), who worked in the corporate technology world.

"So many of us grew up in a totally different world," said Janet Magerman Widra, 72, one of more than 20 women who was on a TTN outing at the Barnes Foundation last month.

She recalled a conversation with her mother about Widra's decision to go back to graduate school, ultimately for a doctorate in psychology.

"My mother asked me whether my husband would 'allow' me to do that," Widra said. "Many of us came of age in the 1950s, with all its safety admonitions for women. Getting married and having children was what parents wanted for daughters - and a nice doctor or lawyer wouldn't hurt, either."

For those who wanted more, the path was not easy. "Aside from the giants of the women's movement like Friedan and Steinem, there were no role models for us."

For Barbara Shaiman, a Bala Cynwyd businesswoman and social entrepreneur, the learning curve to reach beyond the cultural norm was steep, but she has managed to navigate it well. She has had multiple careers, including activist and author, and has yet to retire.

"TTN is a place where we who shared a common past culture can move on with our lives and celebrate what the women's movement did for us," she said. "Recycling ourselves is exciting, and a never-ending process."

For some, TTN is a vital pathway to later-in-life friendships.

After a fulfilling but consuming career, including working as the director of marketing for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Jean Brubaker gave birth to a son at 45. Now that her son is 15 and off to boarding school, Brubaker has realized that she wants to reclaim her life apart from daily mothering.

"I've always remembered how friendships in college were so easy and available," she said. "But in later years, I was longing to find a community of women friends. I have a new perspective at 60 that life does not go on forever, and I sought that network of support."

Brubaker, who lives in Center City, heads programming for the organization, planning outings highlighting fitness and nutrition, creativity, travel, medicine.

"Women who have had demanding careers don't have a lot of time to cultivate friends, and I realize how important that is to me now," she said.

Attending the Barnes trip was the national organization's executive director, Betsy Werley, who has been with TTN since 2006. Werley, who left corporate life to enter the nonprofit world, has noticed a growing number of women seeking TTN who are facing a layoff, looking for new friends, or wanting to be role models.

"Even the most secure women often need a safe harbor at this stage of life," said Werley, noting that women, unlike men, are more likely to handle transitions by communicating with their peers.

They "can now support each other in this next exciting phase of life," said Widra. "We don't have to prove anything anymore, except that growing older - not old - can be as good as we want it to be."


To meet current members and learn more about the organization, go to Estia Restaurant, 1405 Locust St., 5 to 7:30 p.m. Sept. 11. Register online at https://www.thetransitionnetwork.org/pages/events/chapter/chapters-philadelphia/.

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