Understanding the Life of Ruth Denison Using the Life Course Perspective
Ruth Denison is a sixty-nine-year-old female who currently lives in East Orleans, Massachusetts with Sam, her husband of forty years. The couple has two adult daughters, Molly, age 39, who lives nearby and Rachel, age 37, who recently moved to Joshua Tree, California. Both Molly and Rachel are married, though neither have children of their own. The family unit, as a whole, is very close.
Ruth considers herself the “anchor” of the family. “I believe my family members view me as smart, loving -- but firm -- reliable, and a great problem solver, along with my husband. They have come to realize that there isn’t anything we can’t work through,” she said. Ruth has a small core group of friends, with whom she is quite close. She and Sam are avid New England sports fans and regularly attend Patriots football games and Red Sox baseball games with their friends and family. “I like to have fun,” Ruth said, adding, “One friend’s family calls me ‘Fun Ruth.’” Admittedly, though, some people’s first impression of her is that of a more intimidating individual. “Until I get to know and trust anyone, I do come off as standoffish,” she said.
In self-reflective fashion, though, Ruth outlines why she meets the world with her armor at the ready. Born in 1950, she describes her life as “pretty normal” until around age five. At that time, Ruth lived with her parents (who were married) and her three sisters, then aged seven, three, and newborn. “My parents used to go out on the weekends with a group of friends. Apparently, my mother drank a lot and whatever occurred on these nights, made my father angry. At least that was my interpretation. They would come home and fight. The police were called on more than one occasion. My older sister and I would sneak down the stairs and listen. She would laugh and I would cry. Two different coping skills obviously,” Ruth said.
The situation with her mother intensified as Ruth started school. “When I went off to first grade, I would come home to find my mother drinking and smoking in the living room. Not every day, but enough that it is still a vivid memory. One time she sent me off to school on a holiday or some sort of school closing. I sat on the steps and cried because I was all alone -- I was a walker -- until a janitor came out and spoke to me and told me there was no school,” she recalled. In another striking memory, Ruth told the story of her father loading her sisters and her into the car to drive to a motel to catch her mother in the act of adultery. “Three of the four of his children saw and heard it all and brought that horrible day as a lovely piece of baggage into their adulthood,” Ruth said.
Shortly after that traumatic event, her parents divorced. “My father had custody of all four of us, I don’t know the backstory to that, he would never divulge,” she said. The family moved frequently from rental to rental until Ruth was thirteen and her father bought the house next door to her grandparents. During this time, Ruth’s mother remained completely detached and absent from the family. “What I missed, was what my friends had. A mom. To show me how to shave my legs, to buy me my first bra, to show me how to use a menstrual belt… And to bring the family together for Sunday dinner, birthdays and holidays,” she said.
Her mother reconnected with the family when Ruth was sixteen. “Again, I don’t know the backstory -- I was self-absorbed as all teenagers are -- but my father and mother decided to re-marry. That lasted less than two years. When my mother left, she cleaned out the checking account, and used me to drive her to the bus station,” she said. Ruth said she didn’t hear from her mother again until a little over a decade later when she received an intoxicated phone call. “She had called my father -- drunk -- and he gave her my number. I was cold and rude to her and she said she would never bother me again,” Ruth said.
Meanwhile, Ruth was forging a path of her own, marrying her high school sweetheart and starting a family. “Scott and I have been together since age sixteen, so he knew and knows where I came from. I put one foot in front of the other, and as he always says, he just followed, and carved something better than what I came from,” she said. She spent thirty years working in an administrative role for a lawyer who turned into both a mentor and a father figure who remains in her life to this day, even after her professional life diverted when she and her husband worked together at their building contractor firm. The truest joy of her life, though, is motherhood. “Raising our two girls was the single most important job I have ever had, and I put everything into it. I over compensated for sure because I didn’t have a mother to be there to pick me up at school, to come to Parents’ Day, to watch me perform in the orchestra… My father was there as much as he could be -- he worked two jobs -- but a dad cannot take the place of a mom,” Ruth said.
While Ruth took her early experiences of trauma and manifested good into her life as the knowing alternative, her sisters’ lives went in other directions. “They all entered abusive relationships of one kind or another, ended up divorced -- some more than once -- and alone,” she said. For one of her sisters, the tragic end result of such a trajectory was suicide. “I entered therapy with one of my daughters after my youngest sister died. I would have all available family members over for dinner after and we would discuss her death and what we learned in therapy. It was called Tuesdays at Uncle Ruth’s. One of the girls wasn’t living here, so I would talk to her by phone after. The death brought us closer together and brought an honesty to the table that we were lacking,” she said.
Ruth, alongside Sam, is hoping to transition into retirement in 2021. In the meantime, the two of them are enjoying their lives and each other, living by their family rule: “Raise your hand if you did your best today.”
Applying the Life Course Perspective to Ruth Denison
The Life Course Perspective (LCP) is broken down into five basic concepts -- cohorts, transitions, trajectories, and turning points -- that interweave six major themes -- interplay of human lives and historical times, timing of lives, linked/interdependent lives, human agency in making choices, diversity in life course trajectories, and development risk and protection. The overlap and intertwining of these LCP elements act like strands of yard on a loom and the result is the beautiful tapestry of a human life.
According to Hutchison (2019), the life course perspective is a relatively recent mode of understanding human development. Dubbing it “a useful way to understand the relationship between time and human behavior” by examining “how biological, psychological, and social factors act independently, cumulatively, and interactively to shape people’s lives from conception to death, and across generations” (Hutchison, 2019, p. 5), LCP allows for the examination not only of one person’s experience but layers on additional relevant context, such as the historic moment-in-time and the importance not only of cross-roads but the consequences associated with each turning point along the way. As Gilleard & Higgs (2016) state, “It has been widely accepted that explaining social phenomena necessitates an engagement with the whole of an individual’s life course and not just a reliance on cross-sectional snapshots” (p. 301). Put another way, Lahad (2017) writes, “One’s life course is often conceptualized as a turning wheel, a flowing river, a life journey, or a life span.” (p. 27). Alongside each life event is the human body who is the convergence of social and biological forces -- there is no separation of such a tandem experiential unit (Harris & McDade, 2018). With self-referential qualities as its mainstays, the life course perspective offers balanced credit to events of the past creating an individual and to how that individual uses that previous knowledge to become his or her eventual-self (Ehlert, 2016).
The simplest way to understand a cohort is to think of it as the generation to which an individual belongs (Hutchison, 2019). Here, the threads of time and space start to weave together. Hutchison (2019) writes, “Life course perspective calls attention to how historical time, social location, and culture affect the individual experience of each life stage.” (p. 9). LCP theory champion Glen Elder Jr. believed that the overlay of historical events and individual lives would have significant correlations (Gilleard & Higgs, 2016) while other social and biomedical development hesitate to link those forces inextricably (Harris & McDade, 2018).
In the case of Ruth, she was born in 1950, making her a child of the Cold War era, meaning her adolescent understanding was a constant fear that the Russians were going to “get us,” as she put it. “There were civil defense signs all over town directing us to the nearest bomb shelter, and we had drills in school on what to do in an attack. Which, by the way, was to sit under our desk with a book on our head,” Ruth said. She cited her middle school and high school years as more “care-free,” despite the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy -- “I will never forget where I was when he was shot -- waiting at the curb for my bus to pick me up” -- Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. “My generation experienced Woodstock, the Haight-Ashbury hippie counterculture, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War… So much change and growth. Sam and I feel we grew up in the best generation ever,” Ruth said.
While the 1950’s and 1960’s were decades with powerful steps towards social change, for a child of those years, Ruth admits that she did not grow up with great ambitions beyond being a wife and mother. “This is sad, but I don’t remember ever wanting to ‘be’ anything when I grew up. Did I forget it? Did I never have one? Was it me, or was it the period I grew up in? Our family’s station to station in life? I just don’t know. I do know that I slipped into areas that I am good at. Was that deliberate? I don’t know. But I was not unhappy in my professions,” Ruth said.
There is little doubt that historical context played a role in her life. As a member of this cohort, Ruth’s life experience shows that “time, as well as characteristics of the person and the environment in which the person lives, all play a large part in human behavior” (Hutchison, 2019, p. 6).
Hutchinson (2019) talks about transition as a “change in roles and statues that represent a distinct departure from prior roles and statues” (p. 10), citing examples such as starting school, entering puberty, leaving school, getting a job, leaving home, migrating, retiring, getting married, getting divorced, and leaving a job. Harris & McDade (2018) further explain this aspect as any time a choice is made about environments, health behaviors, habits, and lifestyles.
As a sixty-nine-year-old, Ruth has experienced many transitions over the span of her life, including starting and leaving school (both as a youth and adolescent as well as completing a two-year associate’s degree after high school), entering puberty and much later entering menopause, leaving home, getting married, going to work for the lawyer, leaving to go into business with her husband.
Additionally, she experienced transitions from the innocence of childhood to the harsher reality of recognizing her mother’s toxic and harmful behavior, both to herself and to her family, which made Ruth shift from seeing the world through a child’s eyes to adapting the lens of a more adult viewpoint. She and her sisters had to grow up faster than most of their friends -- their trajectories (discussed later) forever impacted by the actions of an alcoholic parent.
Hutchison calls transitions a “process of gradual change that usually involves acquiring or relinquishing roles” that can “produce both stress and opportunity” (p. 12). Certainly Ruth has experienced -- and taken the opportunity to learn from -- these shifts both in her biological and social self over the span of her life-so-far.
Hutchison (2019) calls a trajectory a “relatively stable long-term processes and pattern of events involving multiple transitions” (p. 10). In many ways, these are the story arcs that create the schematic of individual lives. The visualization of the line that starts at Point A and gives way to Point B may help illustrate how and why a person is who they are. Lahad (2017) argues that for some, there is nearly a sense of predetermination that their trajectory will include so-called obligatory milestones like marriage and children, claiming that “familial life fulfills the pursuit of maturity, continuity, and stability” (p. 29). Harris & McDade (2018), likewise, tie trajectories to biological events -- which could extend beyond child-bearing to other health factors. Just as bodies -- and all of their processes -- walk in step with the human inhabitant’s progress, so go the footsteps they leave behind at the start of any given arc.
For Ruth, her footsteps feel relatively traditional. Of course, with the traumatic events of her childhood, her take on “traditional” also requires an owning of the lessons she was forced to learn at such a young age. As she put it, “Based on the abandonment issues I ended up with, I set a path for myself that would take me away from where I came from.” She took the opportunity to pivot from the unfortunate aspects of her youth to create an environment that felt completely opposite for her children. “I know that I do this because of my upbringing, and I want everyone to feel welcome and loved. And I always want everything ‘just so’ – so that they will have wonderful memories,” Ruth says.
Lahad (2017) talks about such a female role of wife, mother, homemaker, as being embedded in the fabric of society, going so far as to call it an “idealized version of the life course” (p. 28). Ruth, of course, is more than “just” a wife, mother, and homemaker -- but for her, pouring her heart and soul into nurturing her family came as a result of her personal knowledge of what the opposite feels like. There is no denying the importance of this specific aspect of her life’s trajectory. As Hutchison (2019) says, “Trajectories are best understood as the rearview mirror” (p. 13). These trajectories may be varied or intertwined -- they are likely not in a convenient or straight line -- but what they are most consistently is the thing that gives shape to the life course (Hutchison, 2019). Only once they are plotted out in some sort of visual way do their complexities as well as their starting and stopping points stand out as something fully realized and worthy of awe.
Hutchison (2019) defines a life event as a “significant occurrence in a person’s life that may produce serious and long-lasting effects” (p. 10), specifying that it refers to “the happening itself and not the transition that occurs because of the happening” (p. 13). Gilleard & Higgs (2016) discuss life events as a “pivotal moment shaping adulthood” (p. 302).
In the case of Ruth, early life events -- such as the time her mother sent her to school because she was too drunk to know that there was no school that day or the time her father dragged her sisters and her along with him to “catch” their mother at a motel with another man -- so clearly shaped and informed her social, mental, and spiritual growth. In her own words, “Obviously, the divorce of my parents is the single most significant experience for me. The most important person to a child is their same-sex parent. Abandonment issues crept into every aspect of my life. Even, as I aged and became more self-aware, it was and has been hard to ‘shake.’”
For Ruth, the specificity associated with the conflicts originating from her mother dug the deepest holes in her consciousness and bore the most fruit of who she became over the course of her life.
Hutchison (2019) defines a turning point as a defining moment in a person’s life, one that is a “lasting change, not a temporary detour” of a person’s self-concept, belief system, or expectation of themselves (p. 15), some of which only become obvious with the passage of time.
For Ruth, she readily pinpoints her sister’s suicide in 2010 as the major turning point, not just for her but for her entire family. “The ‘real me’ probably didn’t reveal until [then]. That will make you real, very quickly. I believe I am living the ‘real me’ every day now,” she said. That loss propelled her into therapy and also generated more family unity as they started to gather on a weekly basis to talk through their shared grief and grow closer. Ehlert (2016) writes, “Life courses are strongly shaped by the household a person lives in” (p. 46). By finding a way to turn the tragic loss of her sister into a way to reconnect with her family -- all with the support of her husband and daughters -- Ruth was able to move forward with added strength instead of increased isolation.
Hutchison (2019) claims that life events “either close or open opportunities” (p. 16). Considering that social factors play a role in both biological processes and health outcomes, it is worthwhile to examine the different results for Ruth and her sisters, with particular stress noted on one of their decisions to take her own life. Understanding the root cause of her willingness to go through with a suicidal act is emotional malnourishment and shows a clear connection between the social and biological circuitry of the brain. As Harris & McDade remind their colleagues, “Human biology is social biology and it is probably up to social scientists to make this point” (p. 6).
When considering the life course perspective model, social workers must also keep in mind the themes of the interweaving of historical time periods and the lives lived out in their midst; the concept of life as it is lived internally versus life as it is shared with others; and the human ability to make choices through it all (Hutchison, 2019). LCP assists in understanding patterns as they emerge and tying them back to social constructs. By applying the life course perspective to Ruth Denison, the puzzle of her life from birth to this moment takes shape with striking clarity. For her, the impact of having an alcoholic mother set her entire family on a path, but Ruth’s path is evidence that traumatic experience can be a teacher -- that starting in a toxic place does not have to yield a failure to thrive. Ruth used those early experiences as a blueprint for what not to do, which informed her choices along the way and resulted in a life that she loves a great deal.
She said the best advice she ever received was “Sometimes you have to give yourself what you don’t get from others.” Certainly, a full analysis of her life course perspective evidences her desire to reject the negative aspects of her childhood and, instead, build the reality that fosters the familial bond and beautiful life she both has and deserves.
Ehlert, M. (2016). Life Courses and Trigger Events: Theoretical Considerations. The Impact
of Losing Your Job. 35-68. Amsterdam University Press.
Gilleard, C., & Higgs, P. (2016). Connecting life span development with the sociology of the life course: A new direction. Sociology, 50(2), 301-315.
Harris, K. M., & McDade, T. W. (2018). The biosocial approach to human development, behavior, and health across the life course. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 4(4), 2-26.
Hutchison, E. D. (2019). Dimensions of human behavior: The changing life course. Sage Publications.
Lahad, K. (2017). The linear life-course imperative. In A table for one. Manchester University Press.
Written in pursuit of my MSSA (2020)
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