Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of guest blogs by Lee Woodruff.
A recurring nightmare visits me in the middle of the hormonal sweat lodge that my bed becomes at 3:30 a.m. I’m toward the end of my life, crone-like and alone (always alone) with all of my possessions in a paper bag. My house and family are gone and I am living on the street.
I once read somewhere that this phenomenon among middle-aged women is dubbed “Bag Lady Syndrome” and I took solace in the fact that this was a collective nightmare. I was not alone marinating in my worst fears.
And yet I was not surprised to learn that so many of us average, semi-well adjusted, wives, mothers, partners and daughters have an irrational fear of being left destitute after we have finished caring for everyone else.
There is no basis for my personal bag lady fears, no reason in my life that I should feel this way. My family would call me a thrifty person, even cheap. I’m a saver more than a spender, more planner than spontaneous soul. There is nothing in my life or anything I yearn for that’s extravagant. When I rifle through my family history my father has provided for my mother and in my case, I have always worked, dutifully socking money away in my own self-employed retirement fund. We’ve never lived beyond our means and we pay off our credit card bills regularly.
But it’s no surprise to learn that many of us women put ourselves last on the list. With all the multiple hats we wear in life, we often delay thinking about our own futures and planning for the “what ifs.” Who wants to think about the what ifs anyway?
So the fact remains that most of us could do much better job in the long-range planning department. Perhaps the Bag Lady Syndrome is our subconscious mind prodding us to get busy, understand what the future looks like and plan accordingly. If life is what happens when you are making plans, than I venture to add that anxiety is what happens if you ignore the future, even though none of us has our hands on the script.
When my husband, Bob, was critically injured by a roadside bomb while covering the war in Iraq, my world came off its axis. And in my darkest days, as his life hung in the balance, I realized how little I really knew about our financial situation. My 3:30 a.m. thoughts then were questions like:
- What is our long-term care?
- Did we have adequate life insurance, exactly how was our money invested, had we adequately provided for our children in our will?
- Did we need advanced directive?
I was shockingly unprepared to take over the reins of our lives and embarrassingly under-educated about our financial picture.
I’d been the sort of wife who’d been more than happy to let my husband handle all of that, elated when we married and I no longer had to balance a checkbook. After Bob was injured, my learning curve of what I needed to know was a trial by fire, and I don’t recommend that for anyone.
I smile today when I hear young women say they want to be married at 29 and then have three kids and quit work. I was that young planner and list maker once. But there are very few people for whom life works out that simply. And so if anyone asks what my life lesson is from our own family’s brush with tragedy, I answer “always have a Plan B.” Human beings are capable of surviving amazing things, but while you’re in survival mode, it’s nice to have a safety net of a plan in place.
In working with AARP on a caregiving program, I was introduced to “Decide. Create. Share.” (www.aarp.org/decide). The program walked me through the basics about planning for the future. Tackling what I needed to know in bite sizes was much less overwhelming. We still have a few steps to put in place, but at least I understand the landscape now.
And when my personal bag lady appears at 3:30, and I scroll through the mental worry beads of all the people my husband and I care for, the children still under the roof, the college tuition, the mortgage and the current orthodontic bill for braces, I tell myself to slow down. Everything always looks worse at night.
I remind myself of the planning we have done and I take a deep breath. Most nights I can make the bag lady in me vanish. I can walk her back in the house, give her a warm meal, show her the long term disability and retirement plans. And then I pull up the blanket, tuck it over my body and that of my sleeping husband as I reach for a few more hours of sleep before dawn.