“The older you get, the more you get to be like yourself.” That wisdom came from eighty-year-old Ida Fisher Davidoff. I found Ida’s inspiring story while researching my study of how twentieth century American women were handling the prospect of growing older. Her unpublished memoir, now housed at the Schlesinger Library of Women’s History in Boston, offers up lots of wisdom about how women can reinvent themselves at mid-life and how we can choose to handle obstacles—in ways that let us move forward or in ways that hold us back.
Ida Fisher Davidoff reinvented herself long before midlife reinvention was trendy. Born in Boston in 1903, Ida was the eldest of three children born to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, and she grew up as the peacemaker in a household where her father ruled the roost and treated all women with “verbal contempt.” Ida said that her father taught her that “as a woman, I should be modest and know my place.”
Ida’s father’s teachings led Ida to question her own abilities. She enrolled in the secretarial course at Simmons College. She chose Simmons because it didn’t require an entrance exam and because she didn’t believe she was smart enough to go to Radcliffe College which required several entrance exams. In spite of her lack of self-confidence, Ida earned a bachelor’s degree at Simmons, then promptly enrolled in the master’s program in comparative literature at Radcliffe. In her memoir, Davidoff wrote about the doubts that assailed her in her college years. She was appalled when a Radcliffe professor commented in a letter of recommendation that Ida had “a Ph.D. mind.” She wrote, “Instead of being elated I was left feeling ambivalent—just as when a woman is told that she ‘thinks like a man’. . . . If I got a PhD, I reflected, would . . . it not be alien to the ideal female model as the nurturer, the hands-on individual, the unselfish one?”
Ida rejected the life of the scholar, electing to spend some time traveling abroad after she finished her M.A. at Radcliffe. Shortly after her return from Europe in fall 1925, she met a young neurosurgical resident named Leo Davidoff. The couple married the next year, and after a European honeymoon, they settled in New York City where Leo was completing a residency at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Here Ida played the traditional stay-at-home wife’s role, raising four children. Eventually the couple moved to rural Connecticut where Ida continued her volunteering. During those years, Ida struggled to reconcile her personal ambitions with her role as a full-time wife and mother. She explained, “There were many episodes of struggle within myself at such times. . . . I would read about Margaret Mead [the well-known anthropologist], hear her lecture, and both admire and envy her achievements for which the world awarded her so many accolades. Where were my accolades as a full-time wife/mother and a part-time volunteer?”. . . I myself was frequently assailed by feelings of doubt about the value of what I was doing as a wife/mother in a world which measured the value by achievement in the market place.”
Ida was struggling through a period in her life that Gestalt analyst Ilana Rubenfeld dubbed the “fertile void.” The “fertile void” hits many people at middle age as they find that the old patterns of their daily lives don’t fit any more, and yet they wrestle with the task of finding a new path. It feels like a time of void, a time when we are gripped with inertia, not knowing how to forge a new path, and yet it’s a fertile time because lots of processing is taking place in our psyches. As Ida faced the empty nest, she struggled with the fertile void for some years, but eventually, she entered a new phase where she revised her priorities and renegotiated her relationships. She decided to return to school and train to be a counselor, one who focused on working with women. She said, “I told Leo that’s what I was going to do. . . . [A]nd I don’t think he was too happy about it, because one of the classes was on Saturday when the kids were here.” However grudgingly, Leo accepted Ida’s new direction. She studied family therapy at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University where she earned a doctorate in 1961 at the age of 58.
Ida’s struggles to find a way to realize her own goals while still being a good wife and mother informed her work for the rest of her life. Believing that most women would labor all their lives to reconcile their family roles, society’s expectations for women, and their own needs and ambitions, Ida devoted her private psychotherapy practice and her research to helping improve women’s skills in coping with competing roles.
In 1966, when Leo developed Parkinson’s disease, Ida again found herself striving to balance her own competing roles. She wrote: “It was around this time, when he . . . had to begin facing retirement, that I began to be so much more successful. . . . I had to face the question then, what should I do when my husband became incapacitated. . .?. . .We were two people at very different stages—I think that happens with many, many couples when the woman is going gung-ho, hasn’t reached the top of the ladder just when the man is ready to stop and wants a playmate. . . I said, it’s my turn now, because for all those years that Leo needed a wife and someone to support him and put her own development as a career person on the back burner, I did it. It was my turn to invest in my own career. And he said that he could not argue with that.” Ida compromised by working fewer hours in order to spend more time with her husband, but she refused to give up her work.
Ida returned to full-time work after Leo’s death. Inspired by the emerging women’s movement, she helped start a women’s center in Fairfield, Connecticut. In her eighties, she began to offer programs on successful aging. She struggled with various chronic illnesses including arthritis and an autoimmune disease that attacked her eyes, but she continued working. In her book, The Fountain of Age, Betty Friedan described a visit with eighty-year-old Davidoff. Friedan arrived at 9 am to find that Ida had already swum fifty-five laps and seen two patients. Davidoff told Friedan, “The older you get, the more you get to be like yourself. I have gained tremendously more self-confidence even in the last four or five years, become more integrated as a person now, more together. My work has become more daring, more spontaneous, more effective.” Work provided Davidoff with a sense of wholeness that gave her life deep meaning. She saw therapy patients until a few months before her death at the age of 97 in 2001.
In her memoir, written when she was in her late eighties, Ida Davidoff offered some good advice for twenty-first century women who struggle to realize new dreams in middle age and beyond. She believed that the key to enjoying a productive and meaningful life well into old age lay in the way one approached problems. She wrote, “There are two kinds of people and let’s say they’re driving along and they suddenly come to a boulder. One kind of person says, ‘just my luck! I’m in a hurry and now there’s this big rock in my way.’ The other kind of person says, ‘Oh, there’s a big rock here. Now, how shall I handle this? Is there room to get round it? Will I have to do something to move it, and if so have I got anything with me? Or shall I change my route instead?’ The second person puts their energy into solving the reality of what confronts them. The first person becomes overwhelmed, sees themselves as a victim, an object, and lapses into inertia and dependency.”
Like Ida Davidoff, we can aspire to becoming the kind of people who see big rocks in the road as problems to be solved rather than insurmountable obstacles to creating the lives we want. We can find inspiration in the stories of people who have passed through the fertile void and found ways to remake their lives in ways that feel more authentic and true. I’m going to follow Ida’s advice each time I confront a new problem—a big rock in my way.