Retired CEO and Current Author Laura Black Tackles Life’s (Often Unsettling) Stages

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Ellen Braunstein

After selling her company and exiting the workforce, Laura Black would wake up each morning, down two cups of coffee — and panic.

Laura Black (Courtesy)

“Now what? How will I fill the day, the week, the month?” she asked herself. “Did I make a mistake and leave too soon? Who am I without a business card?”

With humor and poignancy, this Baltimore author and motivational speaker tells her story in her new book, “Climbing Down the Ladder: A Journey to a Different Kind of Happy.”

“Whether you are contemplating entering your third act or you are already there,” it is Black’s hope that her 213-page book “will help you on your journey to a new, richer and different kind of happy.”

The work is a must-read for all women in the middle of their lives. Black shares personal anecdotes on her struggles and the ultimate joy she found in her second chapter.

“I am part of the generation that led the great migration of women into professions,” says the 69-year-old. “Like many of my peers, I set out to prove that I could simultaneously shatter ceilings and parent precocious progenies.”

In taking on new challenges, Black did not abandon old responsibilities. “We were to achieve from the bedroom to the boardroom — responsible for housekeeping, cooking chauffeuring, nurturing and more,” she says. “Later, when our children moved out and we retired, we were left to fill crater-sized voids with purpose and meaning.”

Black, who lives downtown, is a member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Pikesville. She helped start the Reform temple’s free outdoor service called “Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars.” She has co-chaired the annual campaign for The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore and served as president of Associated Women.

“Climbing Down the Ladder” is her second book, now available on Amazon. The first book, published in 2012, is about empowering women to be authentic and form relationships in business and in life.

“It was very difficult, and it occurred to me that my generation did not have a lot of support all the way up, and we don’t have it on the way down,” she says. “Once we retire, around the same time or before that, we become empty-nesters. And it’s also a time of loss during those times. A lot of us become caretakers for our parents or we lose parents.”

Life expectancies are much longer nowadays, “so there is this void that we have to decide how we’re filling it,” says Black. “One of the biggest losses is the status that our work identity gave us.”

She points out that success climbing down the ladder is measured in different ways than climbing up. Academic and career advancement are markers of success. “Climbing down, there are no markers. My journey took me to measuring success as one of finding contentment, gratitude and giving to my family and community.”

‘I don’t have to prove anymore’

Black began her career as a lawyer and raised three children at the time with husband Charles Klein, a life-insurance broker. As CEO, Black co-founded one of the first temporary legal staffing companies, grew it and sold it to a public company.

After retirement, she compares life to a pizza with slices gone. “We don’t need to replace it,” she explains. “We could expand all the other areas, like our relationships. Sometimes, we’re busy raising children and working. We don’t have as many friends as we’d like or don’t have time for our health or to give to the community, develop spiritually or learn leisure skills. These are areas we can expand so that we don’t feel a void.”

Black adds that “it’s important not to jump into everything because we tend to fear the void. We have a tendency to just serve on any committee that wants us. I think it’s really important to sample things. What can we really enjoy? Keep an open mind.”

Black took a writing class many years ago and discovered she enjoyed that.

“There’s so much out there, but we are sometimes our own worst enemies, and we have preconceived ideas: ‘I’m not doing that. I don’t like that.’ But we really don’t know.

“You are so much more than your business card, but it is a process. I really advise people to look back and say what motivated them in the first place. Obviously, finances are a big factor, but often times, there’s a lot more. Sometimes, we’re proving something. And do we still need to keep proving or can we just be? Can we give ourselves permission to say, ‘I’m good enough. I don’t have to prove anymore.”

Does the guilt over career drawing away from parenting ever subside?

“There’s always circumstances that nibble away at our self-esteem when our child isn’t happy,” says Black. “I think we tend to blame ourselves. Women tend to be very hard on themselves period. Many career women feel guilty when their kids move out, feeling they missed a lot of their childhood.”

Black concludes that she wouldn’t do anything differently when it comes to how she balanced career and parenting: “I was very lucky that I found what I loved. I was the personality that needed the excitement of a business environment. All that being said, nothing touches the importance of my children and three grandchildren. And I think they know that. I do feel very strongly that the No. 1 thing we can give our children is modeling a happy parent.”

Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.

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