By Valory Mitchell, co-author of Women on the River of Life: A Fifty-Year Study of Adult Development
There is something about the long-term study of lives that is breathtaking. Perhaps it is that, by making the whole life the “unit of study” we allow ourselves to touch on the mystery of life. We “read the novel from start to finish.” We have a chance to see the entirety of the narrative arc — the unfolding, the denouement. This is so rare in psychological research, and so valuable.
In our new book, Women on the River of Life: A Fifty-Year Study of Adult Development, Ravenna Helson, my co-author and the founder and principal investigator of the Mills Study, and I took this approach by studying the adult lives of 142 women over a span of 50 years. Starting in 1958 with a group of young women who were seniors at Mills College, the study follows the trajectory of these women’s development as they started families, encountered challenges at work and in their personal lives, and as some began to cultivate creativity, wisdom, maturity, purpose, integrity.
We titled our book Women on the River of Life because the metaphor of life as a river has remained a powerful one in our way of thinking. A river carries us forward. It keeps moving, just as life keeps moving. It flows on, beginning in some small place and growing until it finally arrives at the vastness of the sea. In a similar way, psychological development starts small, in a tiny interpersonal family world, and yet, by the end, many of our participants found themselves with such an expanded vision that they’ve begun to feel that everyone on the planet is their family, and that, like everyone else who has ever lived, they have tried to contribute to our world during their own little slice of time.
Take the story of Ann. When we met Ann as a college senior, she was pleasant and a bit vague about her plans. But her personality measures revealed the complexity and conflict within. Like most of our women, Ann soon married, choosing a man who would be a good father. Though she told no one, she feared that she would be unable to love her children, that her capacity to love had been buried in response to childhood losses — she had watched her mother die of tuberculosis, and her father, consumed with grief, was also lost to her.
To Ann’s amazement, she loved both her children deeply. Her determination to give her children an experience of security, and several years of intense psychological work, began to reap rewards. She began a long, challenging and fulfilling career. She divorced when she realized that her husband, while a great father, could not truly meet other adult responsibilities. Ann allowed herself the vulnerability to fall in love, maintaining a rich and vital relationship until her partner’s death. In retirement, she treasures close relationships with her children and is committed to environmental activism.
Without following Ann all these years, how could we have known her journey from the pleasant young girl with troubling secrets, to the woman with a strong identity and deep commitments? Studying Ann’s life has revealed patterns in development that would be invisible within shorter, more limited psychological research.
The life stories of our participants, like Ann, have prompted me to reflect on my own life. Which of the patterns we’ve found characterize my own life? Which do not, and why might that be? Although I am only a decade younger than our participants, I entered the river, and reached some of its key passages, at a different time in history than the women in our book. The power of that is evident to me. For example, as a child of the 60s, I explored through much of my 20s. Unlike the Mills women, I felt no rush to start a family or career. At the same time, I am struck by the impact of personality on my decisions and life path as much as I am when I look at the lives of our Mills women. Someone suggested to me that it would be fascinating if mothers and daughters, and grandmothers, all read the book and compared their experiences through its lenses.
Our book also intentionally focuses on women. There is no other book that has followed a large number of women, in a rigorous scientific study, across the full expanse of their adult lives. We have no accurate map of the full terrain of women’s lives, and the caricatures of women put forth in the early 20th century still distort our expectations. Compared with men’s lives, women’s lives have been largely invisible. We talk about such invisible groups as “marginalized,” and I have felt excited and determined, across the years, to be able to bring women out from the wordless margins of the page.
Along the way, we have made a number of discoveries that refute the stereotypes — such as the finding that women have a prime of life in their 50s. No more the downhearted expectation that a post-menopausal, empty nest time is negative — quite the contrary. For the women in our study, this time was felt as an outstanding period in their adult lifespan. Our discoveries help provide a more accurate description of the varying journeys of women through time. We have also been attentive to recognizing women’s full humanity by focusing our attention on what is important, what we all value in human development. At last we have research, a text available to us, that addresses the development of wisdom, of creativity, of integrity, in women’s lives. Giving an accurate description of the diversity and vitality of women’s inner and outer lives, making them (us) visible and real, has been a profound goal.
And so, here is the book — the culmination of many years, the work of many hands and minds. A marvelous and major part of my time on the river.