Members of TTN’s Santa Fe Chapter on a hike in the Galisto Basin Preserve.
“We’re not our mothers; we’re never going to be our mothers,” Susan Collins says. “And so we need to be around people who can help us do it differently.”
By “it” she means staying engaged in the world. Ours is the first generation of women to achieve widespread corporate success. We have the good health, worldly competence, savvy, and self-assurance born of achievement that will let us savor our fifties, sixties, and seventies in a way our mothers couldn’t.
Still, “50 and forward” means many changes that surprise and confuse—and plenty of transitions to be dealt with. TTN is a community of professional women 50 and up, and therefore each member is going through a different kind of “what’s next?” transition: children leaving home; elderly parents coming back; testing the practicality of changing careers; retirement; being widowed; being newly remarried; navigating the single life as a mature woman. The people who can help us through this uncharted terrain, Susan declares, are the women of TTN.
Thirteen years ago, Charlotte Frank and Christine Millen, corporate executives about to retire, asked themselves, “What does a retired person DO all day?” Not finding a satisfying answer, they founded The Transition Network (TTN), a nonprofit aimed at bringing professional women together to form new friendships, explore changing careers, do meaningful volunteer work, have fun, and share their thoughts about aging.
TTN has grown to 2,000 members in 11 chapters throughout the country . . . and more chapters are in formation. Susan Collins is TTN’s new executive director, following in the footsteps of the beloved Betsy Werley, the organization’s first director.
The Transition Network is a member-based organization that connects professional woman 50 and over for intellectual stimulation, entertainment, and support as they go through life-transitions. It is member zeal that creates the peer groups, workshops, speaker programs, tours, activities, and special events; each chapter has a steering committee that plans these activities. At the national level there is a small staff that supports new chapters in formation, manages administrative systems like the website, communicates best practices across the chapters, and engages with other organizations to support members in their personal development. There is an annual membership fee: $135 for the flagship New York City chapter, less for other chapters.
I joined 10 years ago, lured in by a feisty New York Times article by Jane Gross. It was Chris Millen’s spirited comment in the Times that told me I wanted to meet these trailblazing women. (“Volunteering, for instance, is ‘a cruel way to start retirement,’ Ms. Millen said, ‘if it means doing menial work’ for a 22-year-old boss who doesn’t know you can do her job with one hand tied behind your back.”). My thoughts exactly!
Susan Collins found a small ad in a small AARP magazine (“the magazine you don’t want anyone knowing you get”) and joined the fledgling (but dynamic) Philadelphia chapter five years ago.
What’s the draw?
Charlotte and Christine, the website declares, were seeking to form “a new community for women who are losing the connections they built through their work or while they were raising their families. These women are seeking to find a new community that will support them as they move ahead to embrace new dreams in the next stage of their lives.”
Peer groups are TTN’s heart. “In a peer group [8 to 12 women who meet monthly in one another’s homes] I can talk with people my age about the changes that are occurring in me,” Susan says. “You go deeper when you open up on subjects like the anxiety of becoming irrelevant, how to stay healthy, and so forth.”
The peer group chooses a topic that members can reflect on before the next meeting. (And reflection does ensue.) Popular topics: Sharing our passions. The road not taken. What is the best gift you ever received? Holiday traditions: how do you like yours? What one thing in your life do you most want to let go of? (In my New York peer group, “Second Act,” this topic provoked a member to show up with a clutch of helium balloons. After an earnest discussion, each of us scribbled her “one thing” on a scrap of paper and attached it to her balloon. Then we tramped downstairs and laughingly released the balloons into the night, to the amusement of the doorman.)
“When I joined TTN, I didn’t realize that what I needed was to find a group of women to think a little deeper about these transitions, and not feel judged or thought silly for speaking about the uncertainties I was feeling,” Susan says. “You make a commitment to this group of people to come every month, you commit to confidentiality and to thinking through what you’re going to talk about so you have something to contribute and something to take away. In that sharing you build trust that allows you to open up your heart and your mind to your own reality, as well as to the reality of every other woman is the group.”
Members of the Atlanta Chapter at a Potluck Social.
What makes peer groups so lively is the diversity of viewpoints members bring. TTNers are engineers, schoolteachers, doctors, writers, corporate executives, lawyers, nurses, social workers, college professors, small-business owners, marketers . . . and many of us are used to socializing mainly with members of their own professions. “I’ve never met a writer before,” a doctor exclaimed with wonder as the writers in her peer group bantered before a meeting, exchanging favorite quotations from books. “We always went out with other doctors.”
But there’s more. Special interest groups are born of the enthusiasms and imaginations of individual members who take the initiative to start one. And they are as varied as the members themselves. In the New York chapter alone there are over 50 such groups— book groups, improvisation groups, hiking groups, singalong groups, explore-the-city groups, artists & artisan groups, movie groups, foodie groups, bridge, Mah Jongg, and Scrabble groups . . .
There’s also that unusual health initiative, the Caring Collaborative, a program offered in the New York, Long Island, and San Francisco chapters. Members meet in monthly neighborhood groups to discuss health concerns. They offer “help-insurance”: non-emergency support like accompanying members to and from doctors’ visits, making hospital visits, shopping for sick members. They recommend physicians they like to those who inquire. Health Strategy Seminars bring in specialists to discuss health topics.
Volunteering? All chapters have volunteering programs. Susan Collins is concentrating on revving up the organization’s volunteer programs as part of TTN’s mission to see its members having an impact on their communities.
“In the early years, we in TTN have been focusing on our own transitions,” Susan says. “But these 2,000 smart, energetic women still want to be relevant and provide value as they transition into the next stage of their lives. We say in our mission statement that “The Transition Network is a voice for women who continue to change the rules,” and we will do that by finding ways to have an impact—on ourselves, each other and our communities.”
New York City TTNers at an Annual Holiday Breakfast. (Photo: Nancy Ribeck.)
Well known to TTN members is the difficulty of summing up The Transition Network in a sentence or two. I thought it couldn’t be done—until a TTN friend, Ellen Lennard, easily did it. We were working a TTN table at a volunteer event, and I said to Ellen, “How would you pitch TTN to these people browsing the tables? The name’s not explanatory.” She took only a few seconds to come up with an answer.
“TTN,” she said, “took me from a woman who was a widow to a widow who was a woman who had a life.”
It’s hard to find friends over age 30, because adults no longer enjoy the three conditions vital to forming close bonds. That’s why a national nonprofit, the Transition Network, was founded, 13 years ago—to help women “50 and forward” find friends and volunteer opportunities, build professional networks, and savor their lives “from here on.”