Leaning Out

A ’78 alumna ponders how to step aside gracefully

By Merri Rosenberg ’78

illustration, woman directing others
Illustration by Elvis Swift

Since our 40th Reunion, in 2018, every conversation I’ve had with my Barnard classmates and friends includes a subtext. “What’s next?” we’re subtly asking each other, without uttering the words directly. “What are we doing with the rest of our lives?” One friend has been struggling with her decision to retire. Another recently stepped down — quite happily — from a high-level position to return to a less-demanding job she prefers. A third discusses her newish career as a theater producer, after previous acts as a lawyer and a law-school administrator.

I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet during these heart-to-hearts, probably because I wonder when it will finally be okay to stop trying to figure out “What’s next?” professionally, when it’s fine to say, “Thanks for the run. I’ve had enough.”

Where’s the instruction book to help me learn how, and when, to step away gracefully? And why do I feel guilty about not leaning in? 

I suspect some of my discomfort comes from feeling that I’m not being the “bold, unafraid” woman Barnard celebrates, enthusiastically pursuing the kinds of highlevel, super-achieving leadership positions that our alumnae occupy in impressive numbers. 

Or perhaps it’s because we’re living through a cultural moment when the message is all about forging ahead and taking or making a seat at the table. Pushing in one’s chair and moving away seems wrong or, at the very least, ungrateful. 

My 30-something daughter and her friends unhesitantly lean into their work lives, embracing challenging assignments, networking at conferences, doing whatever they can to enhance their personal career brand. I admire them. But I feel like that moment has definitely passed for me. 

 Don’t get me wrong. I respect and celebrate my friends who are in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s who continue to find work fulfilling and engaging and enthusiastically seek second and third chapters in their professional lives. 

But the thought of meetings that run late into the night, once so exciting, now fills me with dread. Reading on the couch, with my dog curled up next to me, is more tempting than the prospect of taking on a new assignment. I’d honestly rather weed my garden. 

I fully recognize the privileged place I’m in, that I can financially afford to turn away freelance assignments that I don’t want to pursue and, for now at least, am healthy enough to have it be my choice. 

In the current frenzy to brand ourselves by our professional accomplishments, opting to assert that I’m more than my LinkedIn profile feels transgressive — and not always in a good way. Still, I’d like to think I’m more, not less, than my business card. What echoes in my mind is the message the cantor who presided at my late mother’s funeral offered to us all: We are “human beings, not human doings.” 

More than four decades after graduation, pretending that I have an endless horizon unspooling in front of me would be ridiculous. How I choose to spend my days matters. 

Yet knowing how, and when, to move aside gracefully is a challenge that I feel singularly unequipped to manage on my own. What I look for from my alma mater now is not a relentless emphasis on leading but more guidance on off-ramping, on how to transition to a nonworking role without feeling obsolete or superfluous. 

And I think I’ve been able to find it through my work mentoring new leaders and watching them take over where I have decided to leave off. 

A few years ago, when I was in my last year of chairing Leadership Assembly (the leadership development event the College runs for its volunteers each October), I was prepping to deliver a presentation to class officers. It was probably the sixth year I’d prepared to do it. So I decided to offer one of my committee members, Dueaa Elzin ’11 — at the time, a very recent Barnard grad — the opportunity to lead the session instead.

Dueaa was amazing: energetic, poised, polished. She engaged the group in a way I envied. As she jotted participants’ comments on a flip chart, or deftly fielded questions and provided smart, thoughtful answers, I couldn’t have been happier seeing her shine. 

As I watched Dueaa soar, I thought of Anna Quindlen ’74’s comments in her very last Newsweek magazine column. Acknowledging the talents of the next generation, she said, “But between the lines I read another message, delivered without rancor or contempt, the same one I once heard from my own son: It’s our turn. Step aside. And now I will.” 

So will I, though not entirely, I’m happy to say.

I’m grateful that Barnard offers me so many opportunities to contribute my talents without having to be a leader. Interviewing prospective students for the College feels incredibly fulfilling and allows me to tap into decades of reporting skills. Sharing experiences and ideas on committees, with alumnae of all ages, helps me feel that I still have valuable contributions to make. I love identifying and developing a pipeline of younger alumnae volunteers who will continue to care and work for the College long after I can. 

Instead of fretting and feeling guilty that I’m letting Barnard down by moving away from a visible leadership role, I’ve realized the College continues to teach me invaluable lessons. Leadership is very much about making room for those who follow; stepping off the path can be just as bold, and inspiring, as charging ahead. 

I may not know exactly “what’s next” for me. I do know that shining the spotlight  on the next generation, and metaphorically moving, if not into the shadows, then  into the cheering section, feels right, right now. 

Merri Rosenberg ’78, vice president of the AABC, is learning how to embrace semiretirement as a freelance writer and editor. Want to share your story? Submit essays to magazine@barnard.edu

Latest IssueSpring 2023