On a bad day – and there are some – Retirement feels like a chronic disease my husband has given me by leaving work at age 61. A chronic disease to which one must adjust and adapt, with symptoms that require changes in lifestyle and, perhaps, diet. A chronic disease which, while always fatal eventually, can be successfully managed and controlled for decades. A chronic disease I did not, somehow, expect to contract. (Oh, eternal youth, when didst thou abandon me?!!) I find vats of self-pity at the ready on those bad days: Why me? Why now? I don’t deserve this! I’m not old enough to be “retired.” How terribly b-o-r-i-n-g. And abundant resistance to seeing things any other way but miserably. It seems like I just got here, and now, without even recognizing the summit, much less savoring the victory, we’re on the way down; it’s all downhill. Nothing will get better; things (our bodies, our minds, our days) can only get worse. Splurging is a thing of the past; we must be careful stewards of our bounty now; there’s no longer any more where this came from. We’ve probably made our last major furniture purchase; don’t even think about jewelry; and winter coats? – not in this lifetime. The budget is key, chiefly because we have one now and, before Retirement appeared on the horizon, we didn’t; I kept all the books, knew what things cost, and juggled accordingly. Now we are “thinking through” every expense, and he is asking at every turn, “Do you know how much that costs?” Duh. Yes, I do know (and I liked it a whole lot better when you didn’t.) But the budget is simply the external sign of the disease; it’s the internal symptoms that are doing me in; Retirement is messing with my head. It has somehow changed the way I think about myself, my life, my health, my age, my energy, my future, my potential– EVERYTHING – and I don’t like it one bit. It’s this deep, dark malaise that’s getting me down, and on a bad day, I can’t make my way out of it. It is not so much a tunnel with no light in sight at the end, as an ever-narrowing funnel cutting off the possibilities, denying growth, precluding new experiences, relationships and/or adventure, measuring everything in terms of an end. Mine. Reminding me of how careful I need to be. And I don’t like to live carefully. Fully, yes, but not carefully.
On a good day, however – and there are some of these, too – I look across the table at my husband and see that the man I married is beginning to re-emerge from behind the protective shell he built to wear to work every day. He is literally shedding almost 40 years worth of armaments forged by fear and pride and ego and competition and hostility and becoming human and present to me again. He is visibly more relaxed, and he hasn’t even quit yet; he’s simply announced he’s going to, and already the masks he needed to cajole, sell, manipulate, convince, persuade, dissuade, counsel, and advise his clients and parry with his partners are falling off like a snake’s old skin. He’s actually smiling. He went out the other night with friends – friends! – to play tennis, and he had fun. Fun! That is not the “F-word” with which he is most familiar. “Freedom” is another concept with which he is getting reacquainted. A few weeks ago he signed up for tennis lessons on Wednesday mornings – a huge step, believe me. It interrupts the routine – the breakfast, the expectation that he will be at his desk at the same time every morning, the give-it-all-at-the-office mentality which has ruled to date. But now, instead, he feels free to take a lesson, take a shower, change his clothes, buy his breakfast at a taco stand or something, and saunter in a half hour or so later than usual. Sometimes these days, he’s almost giddy with the very idea of getting away with it. And he’s generous with this freedom. He even walked out of the office at 10:30 one morning to go to a lecture and have lunch with me; and at 3:30 another afternoon to come home to handle the dog’s appointment with a groomer when my schedule couldn’t. This has never happened before, never, ever – not for a sick kid, or a school conference; rarely even for a doctor’s appointment or a funeral. But now, it seems a very tightly wound screw is finding a little “give” in the construct, and letting loose. I’m not sure I ever thought this would happen. I am amazed. It’s like watching a new developmental stage unfold – which Retirement may, in fact, be – and delighting in the wonder of his re-discoveries, much as you delight in a child’s first forays into the world around him. All that has been on “Hold” since he buried himself in his career (and that is Everything except for Family Responsibilities) is imbued with rich possibility now and he is eager and excited – no longer anxious – to resurrect a variety of interests I am vaguely remembering he once had. He walks in the back door now happy to be home with me (and the dog), no longer completely drained, and not merely relieved to have made it through another day on the metaphorical battlefield. The healing has begun, and he is committed to making himself whole. I will have my husband back, and that jealous mistress, the law, can move on to someone else.
AND REAL TIME
There exists between the good days and the bad, of course, the quotidian reality. And that, in fact, is where I am beginning to realize I need to be living most of the time -- rather than in my head, where the foregoing two paragraphs take place. In terms of our relationship, it’s the “What’s for lunch? Have you seen my brown shirt? Where are you going? When will you be home? Who was that on the phone?” on the one hand and new joy and intimacy in our relationship on the other. But the real challenge is in that space between my life and ours. While I have, over the years, rejected designation as “a lawyer’s wife” for purposes of belonging to one group or another, the fact remains that I have nevertheless let being a lawyer’s wife define my lifestyle – our income, where we live, the freedom to parent, the imperative to literally make the home and nurture family relationships, and my deference to clients’ calls on my husband’s time. I’m not a total sell-out, but I can be charming if I have to even if I don’t want to. And I tend to believe my strong emotional support and my making the house run smoothly has contributed to his success. So it might be pretty easy to fall, lock-step, into Retirement with my husband which, in a conventional transition would mean leaving behind all the corporate wife stuff, letting go of my tight-fisted control of all household matters, and making myself free and available – to play golf or travel – on his schedule, while continuing to tend to the meals and shopping and laundry. I could do this simply because it’s what our mothers did before us and it is, more or less, what a lot of people expect. And it has possibilities: we are, as a couple, capable of developing some great new adventures together. I can’t imagine either of us withdrawing from life, sitting around and just waiting to get sick and die. But slipping naturally into that traditional role is what I fear most because, for me, it represents a loss of self, a diminishing of the independent personhood I have developed in the decade since my children left home. It’s my writing, my quiet time, alone, on the computer. It’s time with friends. It’s my volunteer job. It’s trying – and risking failure at – new things, like bridge and golf and scanning photos. It’s going out to a lecture at night. It’s moving out from our home into other arenas just as my husband is moving back home from his real world. What do I owe him? What do I owe myself? I think the answer is the same as it was at the beginning of our marriage: we owe each other our best selves. In his case, Retirement appears to be a way to retrieve that best self; for me, a kind of Anti-Retirement may do the job. That’s my hope anyway.
Please share your thoughts about the adjustments one makes – or refuses to make -- when a spouse retires and how you’ve worked things out.comments powered by Disqus
by Ann Sentilles
October 28th, 2009