The Retirement Experiment was, in fact, simply an extended stay in our second home in the mountains. The experiment involved measuring the effect of five weeks away from the office on a husband who’s making noise about retiring at the end of the year.
The results were not impressive. We didn’t exactly *fail* Retirement 101; but it was tough going.
I remember the feeling of leaving behind a responsible position. On the one hand you think, “Whew, I’m glad I’m not in charge of all that anymore!” And on the other, you wonder, “How are they ever going to do it without me?!” And that was just a volunteer responsible position, not an entire career based on clients’ million- and billion-dollar deals! I also remember, with no little bitterness, leaving my career to parent our children and finding myself rendered invisible and insignificant. And that was after just a few years, not 37! So I have great sympathy for the adjustment my husband is going to have to make. Such great sympathy, in fact, that I am not at all sure that he should do it. In moments of great self-awareness, I am not at all sure I am up to the task of supporting him through it. Having made his work the tail that wags our dog for all these years of late dinners, missed opportunities, cancelled plans and interrupted vacations, I am not in the mood to let his work continue to define us, or me, especially once it’s over.
So it would be fair to say I didn’t have the best attitude as our experiment began. Compared to him, however, I was in great shape! Transition, Schmission! He left the office Wednesday night and *immediately* started obsessing about the “vacation,” simply transferring to our normal daily living every ounce of the angst, anxiety, attention, and perfectionism that serves him so well as a lawyer paid to worry about what could possibly go wrong. Normal people, I told him, do not obsess about the details of travel, not even the details of transporting a dog from one state to another on an airplane, not even when they’re involved in a fender-bender in a rental car, not even when the drive takes five hours instead of four-and-a-half. Normal people understand that’s Life, and that’s why you have insurance. Normal people “go with the flow” and relax on vacation. He wasn’t quite there.
His colleagues and clients weren’t quite there either. Though silenced, his Blackberry piled up the emails and, ringing like an emergency siren of some sort (fittingly), his office phone line woke us at 8 each morning. And both tethered him to the office which, while it is a lovely office with spectacular views of the area’s iconic hillsides and distant peaks, wasn’t where he was supposed to be this time. We’d invite him to hike with us; he couldn’t decide if or when he could leave. We hiked; he fretted. Or, if he joined us on a trail, he brought along the dog, an under-trained 18-month old English Setter who would have liked nothing better than to chase the chipmunks, and he tried to restrain her with constant commands and corrections, as if she were one of his young associates. Communing with nature was not an option – for any of us. My mood did not improve. It worsened when I tried to promote the idea of “adventure” and “exploration,” themes I am hoping to exploit, at least for myself, in this new developmental stage of life, and he demurred. New hiking trails were too intimidating; he feared getting lost, being out too long, tiring out the dog, overworking his heart or his legs. Even new friends – which I know we will need in a new place – posed a problem: I wanted to meet them; he wasn’t “ready,” and literally stood on the edge of a cocktail party refusing to engage, almost begging me to leave as soon as we’d arrived. Relaxing wasn’t an option; a reasonably good golfer most of the time, he was so tight on the golf course he shanked almost every shot, losing more than a dozen new golf balls and returning home humiliated.
I was witnessing a new, brutal form of self-destruction which also happened to be destroying *my* vacation and *my* time away from the daily grind, so I was as angry as I was concerned. At some level I understood some of what was going on. The tension between being “off” and being “on” was simply too much for my husband. He was neither fish nor foul, and he literally did not know how to act. He clearly felt totally caught between the expectations of his workplace and those of his family. It’s not as if this conflict hasn’t existed before, throughout his career, but prior to The Retirement Experiment, despite a few temper tantrums on my part, it had always been resolved in favor of his career. Don’t get me wrong – he’s a magnificent husband and father – but our partnership required me to shoulder the family issues because his work ethic and psyche required him to give it all at the office. (It is possible, I hasten to add, to rewrite that sentence with the emphasis reversed: he had to give it all at the office so that I could devote myself to the family. It really was a loving, working partnership.) Retirement, however, even just The Retirement Experiment, was going to change the balance, and it was suddenly patently clear to both of us that the transition was going to be excruciatingly difficult. For both of us.
We discussed all this. Really we did. Lovingly, with feeling, and without too much wine. But we didn’t work it out; we got saved by the bell, that damn siren-like phone. A client’s deal that had been percolating for over a year was suddenly boiling over. Obviously (yes, obviously, before I killed him and the client fired him!) he had to go home and babysit the deal. With visible relief, he packed his bags. With enormous understanding and huge relief of my own, I took him to the airport. He promised he’d return in a week, and then, really and truly, we’d have Weeks 4 and 5 of The Retirement Experiment as a “real vacation.” Myself, I started with Week 3!
Weeks 4 and 5 were more normal. He had a few phone call-free days and professed how wonderful it was to finally be “off” and really able to enjoy the mountains. He agreed to somewhat more challenging hikes, to entertaining some friends, and to releasing his death grip on the dog, letting her run free in the neighborhood and trusting her to return, which she did. He smiled and relaxed. He checked his email only surreptitiously. And he cursed when the phone calls started again. But by this time, I was (a) more relaxed, and (b) no longer expecting much. I could also see very, very clearly that while he was not yet *able* to leave, he was increasingly *ready* to leave his work in the law firm. It was no longer fun or satisfying, and the stress was debilitating. I felt more called than ever to support him in this decision and to work with him to make it happen.
I have been concerned this past year or so, every time the topic of his retirement came up, about what he would do, how he would fill his time, what might evolve as his purpose, what parts of his complex and wonderful character which had been stunted by work might re-emerge, if he would stay healthy and engaged with the world. I think now, though, that my concern was misplaced. That next stage will have to be meaningfully developed, to be sure. But before we get there, we have a very challenging transition to get through. We’ll do it, I’m pretty sure, but it’s not going to be easy.
That’s what The Retirement Experiment proved to me.
*Editor’s Note: If you have experience with this transition that might be helpful to others, please add your comments below. I know our writer and her husband are not the only ones going through this. . . . . Thanks! A*
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