Class guides woman who has nurtured all dreams but hers

June 14, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

Many of the women in Kim Sutter's classroom have had the luxury, the privilege, the good fortune, the determination, the support to stay at home for a time and focus on raising their children.

Then, when the kids are in first grade, the first year of high school or the first year of college, these women find themselves trying very hard to find themselves.

Kim Sutter, who teaches "Developing New Horizons" at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, helps in the search.

Often, the women finish the 16-week course knowing more about what they don't want to do with the rest of their lives. But they certainly know plenty about themselves.

"Most of the women have raised their children and begun that shift from thinking about nurturing to thinking about achieving," says Kim, who is nurturing an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old.

"They express lots of joy about raising children, but there is this feeling that something has been left behind."

Most have been at home for many years, with no college or just a couple of years of college from 20 years ago. Kim helps them identify their skills with a series of tests and pushes them to interview people doing the things they think they would like to do.

"Most of them don't believe they have any skills. But most have been extremely active and have pulled off incredible things as volunteers. When we are done, they know more about themselves than most CEOs."

But Kim also leads them through a series of exercises that might look whimsical at first glance -- "Your Ideal Day" -- but are cause for some troubling introspection, the kind of thing, the kind of luxury these women never allowed themselves during their busy lives as mothers.

The purpose is to uncover the things that have value and meaning to these women so they can integrate them into a plan for the second half of their lives. But it is tricky business.

"These women take taking care of people very seriously. It has been a focus of their lives. It gets really scary when I ask them to make a list of the most important things to them and they suddenly find their family is third on the list.

"I see this incredible tentativeness, like they are looking for permission from the world to thrive. They equate doing something you love with selfishness."

Kim corrects the impression that she is leading a bunch of mousy housewives back into life. She is a facilitator in a course of self-discovery that takes guts, and she sees it every Tuesday morning in her classroom.

"These women often see themselves as vague and all over the place. But I am surprised, and I think they are, too, to see the tenacity, the depth, the talent, the courage."

Often their journey leads right into a wall. "They often run headlong into a dream that can't come true," she says. "There is initial disappointment, but then a sense of relief. Now, at least, they know."

Though children are often cheering them from the sidelines -- especially sons, Kim says -- husbands are not always pleased or even comfortable with the transformation that is inevitable when a woman begins to look outside her family for definition.

"Often these women have purposely amputated part of themselves to get along better with their husbands," says Kim. "At some point in this class, that becomes painful for these women to continue to do. Families see us frozen in time. It isn't easy for them to see us with fresh eyes."

Kim's students finish the course by writing a paper synthesizing what they learned about themselves and what they learned about what they thought they wanted to do. "Public Relations -- Not!" was the title of one woman's thesis.

Some of the women in Kim's class go on to college to study social work or business -- not as some vague career choice, but as something they have found themselves to have a real affinity and inclination toward. Others become full-time volunteers. Some never get off dead center.

That's because change is hard, Kim explains to them, and there are lots of barriers to change. You are afraid or you have to take care of your sick mother. You don't have the education you need or your husband resents you.

"It is their job to design their lives, and they are incredibly responsible," she says. "I never make it sound easy, because it isn't. But I make it sound adventurous."

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