Some years back, my husband and I interviewed all of my family members for a video on my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. I remember asking my father the secret of a successful marriage. He smiled and said, “Be flexible.”
When we decided to have a child, our lives were transformed. It was our turn to be flexible, adapting to the needs of our son and a few years later our daughter. Nurturing two small children was a wild ride, especially since I traveled so much for National Geographic and my husband was a full time editor.
But all good things must eventually end. Our kids grew up. The familiar chaos of responding to our children—whether hustling them out the door in the morning, or racing home at night to get them before day care closed, or following their college sports and performances—drew to a close.
Or so we thought.
With both kids in college my husband and I became empty nesters—except of course for our children’s monthly trips home to do laundry, raid the food supplies and meet old high school buddies.
Since they were out of the house—sort of—I decided to return to academia. I always wanted to get a masters degree for teaching or managing a visual department. That became possible when I was awarded a Knight Fellowship at Ohio University. I was apprehensive about the decision. While I’ve had a strong freelance career, I feared that disappearing for a year might not be a wise business move. But I approached it with a flexible attitude and my fellowship year turned into one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
At the end of that year I graduated from Ohio and my son Will graduated from William & Mary within weeks of each other. Pictures of both of us in our caps and gowns are on the Facebook sites of our friends and family.
In the fall Will applied to the Peace Corps and was assigned to Uganda. He left this spring. At the same time Katie decided she wanted to come home to finish college. Our daughter, a smart gorgeous girl, turned out to be a homebody!! Go figure, but my husband and I were secretly pleased to have her back. We count ourselves lucky to have a daughter who wants to be near us. We love having children at home. The weekends are lively with their friends dropping by. Will leaving for two years left us deflated, but having Katie move back home pumped us back up again. We couldn’t be happier.
I guess full-fledged empty nesting will have to wait for a while. But we’re flexible.
Being flexible is one of the more important qualities for a successful career in photojournalism. I used to say if something could go wrong it will. I just need to deal with it since there are no second chances in the profession. If I didn’t return with the pictures on an assignment, I wasn’t getting hired again.
Among other things, being flexible means changing direction if a job doesn’t materialize or a contract can’t be finalized. In the ever-changing profession of photojournalism, flexibility is a mantra. This week another newspaper, the Chicago Sun Times, dumped their staff of 28 hard working and talented photographers. Hearing about such outrages saddens me and I pray that my fellow photographers who lost their jobs will be flexible and smart about finding something that can keep them in the business, or find something else that makes them productive and happy.
After all the years I’ve spent working as a photographer, I guess I once thought that at a certain point in the profession I wouldn’t need to constantly stay flexible. But I now see that isn’t true. I went back to school for a masters in visual communications to keep my skills competitive. I loved immersing myself in modern multimedia techniques and seeing the energy and creativity of the next generation of journalists. Seeking out flexibility expanded my horizons.
I hope that I have passed that trait onto my son. He will need it. Like a dutiful mother, I gave my son advice as I dropped him off in Philadelphia this spring to join his fellow Peace Corps volunteers. Of course I cried uncontrollably. I’m a crybaby. I admit it. Through my tears, I struggled to give my kind and handsome son a few pearls of wisdom for whatever they were worth. I’m sure he wasn’t listening. He was probably focused on the fear and excitement of embarking on an amazing adventure. But it made me feel useful.
My advice to him echoed what my father said to me years earlier: Be safe, be kind and be patient. Most of all be flexible.