The Third Third

How We'll Relate in Retirement

Surely things are different now. Surely my mother-in-law’s complaints and my mother’s good humor are not the sole prerequisites for coping with a husband’s retirement. Indeed, the word “coping” itself is a trifle negative for my taste. And yet, as I peruse the current literature for women our age, when the topic is a husband’s retirement, I find a surfeit of complaints and a dollop of humor – and little more. I am reminded of the bridal shower I was given 37 years ago that very nearly derailed my marriage. The women, all friends of my mother-in-law, lavished me with gifts of china and kitchenware, and regaled me with stories about how they handled the men in their lives, how they manipulated “the old fools” to get what they wanted, how “what-they-didn’t-know wouldn’t hurt them,” and how, having served hard duty as wives and mothers, they deserved, at the least, a splurge at Neiman’s. In their jadedness, they so thoroughly sullied my image of marriage that I wondered if I was as naïve as they thought I was. I began to doubt my ability, along with my husband-to-be, to withstand such dismal cultural norms. I was engaged to marry a man with whom I could talk, to whom I told everything, whose truth and honesty were at the core of his character, who was my soul mate; they were telling me the institution of marriage might ruin it all. And, for a moment, I believed them. I almost let their experience trump mine. I didn’t, though. With reassurances from my husband, I marched down that aisle and I am happy to report there is still nothing I hide from him and, I daresay, nothing he hides from me, and the luxury of a really good heart-to-heart conversation remains one of our very favorite things. They don’t give showers for couples planning to retire. A gold watch does not a new life together make. But the advice, *aahhh*, the advice. It’s out there – and the women giving it are no happier than the klatch who gathered that day in April 1971. They write of making your husband think he has domain over part of the house when he retires, because he’s used to taking charge of everything in his office. They tell of “just leaving the vacuum cleaner anywhere” when the husband wants to take a ride, or play a round of golf with them. They make lists of “projects” they know will take all day, by the time the husband finds his way to the hardware store and back four times. They’re helping him fill time. It sounds empty. And dishonest. And meaningless. They’re frightening me the same way my mother-in-law’s friends did, and I find myself wondering once again if my husband and I will be able to withstand the prevailing patterns. He’s confident we can. Me? I’m not so sure. I think going into our marriage, we had our eye on the prize, on nurturing our relationship, supporting one another, and growing a loving family. Going into our retirement, however, the focus is not quite so clear – and that, I think, is where our work will have to be done if it is to be a successfully satisfying, happy time. The stakes are high. By most actuarial tables, we have fully a third of our lives left, which makes for a lot of togetherness, and a lot of possibility. I don’t want to waste either, especially not in the irritating way I’ve watched other retired couples fail to get along and pull back from engagement with the world. It would be easy for me to grow resentful, I know. I do not feel called to give up either my relatively new-found freedom or my responsibilities just because my husband is retired. I don’t want to be a kindergarten teacher, planning his every activity, wiping his runny nose. I feel no need for supervision in the kitchen or when I pay the bills. And I’m not a shrink; I’m not qualified to help him find new meaning and purpose, even a new identity, outside the office. He, on the other hand, is a lot like the guy he was when he traveled for days at a time on business who, when he finally came home, was completely baffled by my not totally hospitable reaction, that is, my reluctance to drop everything and rejoice. I think he’s clueless about our home life, really, except that it is a refuge from his work. Because he has worked so hard and with such singular focus, I doubt he can even begin to imagine what his retirement might mean to me and to us. But I don’t want to be resentful. I want to enjoy the gift of this time together. We’ve talked about it. The money. The travel. The openness to new projects. The possibility of teaching. Or volunteering. Or politics. The challenge of transitions. But it’s all still too vague and amorphous for me. He says “Well, I might take a class at the local seminary,” and I hear a man in need of breakfast, lunch, dinner, naps on the couch and reassurance seven days a week. He says, “Look, there’s plenty of money in our retirement account,” and I hear a man suggesting there’s no need for that new outfit or the next trip. The thing is, this is not the way our relationship has worked for 37; there’s no reason to expect draconian change. So why am I having such trouble with it? I think there’s something defeatist about that word retirement, something old, and I am resisting that with all my might. Then there’s the fact that we have no good role models, no one we know who successfully retired from work without retiring from life beyond the cocktail hour or the golf course. And our friends? They’re not quite there yet, but I suspect they’re struggling, too, albeit reluctant to admit they’re no surer than we how things will work. I’m told by two who have retired recently, however, that they are being pummeled with questions: *How did you have the nerve to quit? How did you know when it was time? Do you love the freedom? Do you have the energy to start over? What will you do? How’s your spouse taking it?* They confess they’re making it up as they go, because this isn’t our parents’ retirement; we are younger, healthier, and less attracted to the golf club ghetto. Which is, in a way, the real challenge and/or (depending on your frame of mind), opportunity. Not only are we re-inventing ourselves in retirement, we’re also (each of us) redefining retirement for our generation. Complaints and good humor alone will not be sufficient to the task, but perhaps together, by sharing our love, our knowledge and experience, we will be. I can hope.
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