I recently spoke to a friend who was thinking of retiring, in his 80’s, still very much in his prime and very active, and he was visibly depressed about it. Suddenly he felt as though a big chunk of his identity (maybe even all of it) was about to vanish and fall away. Who was he going to be now? I’m not sure he has answered the question yet. Whoever he has been for the past 60 years, in his own eyes certainly, is about to change. He is about to become a man without a career or a job. That’s a dramatic loss for most men.

It reminded me of an experience I have had in the past few years as, one by one, my children have left for college. I have three in college now, and two others have graduated in recent years. So, for a few years my kids rolled out like gumballs out of a machine and left home one by one. And although I’ve had a career for the past many years, no question in my own mind my primary job was as a mother. Everything else took a backseat to that, even a fairly major career.

I think people expect me to define myself as a writer, some even expect me to play star (which I don’t), or worse yet ‘diva’ (my kids would kill me in a hot minute if I did that). But in my own mind I don’t think of myself as a writer first — I think of myself as a mother, and when my kids left home for college, I was out of a job. Obsolete. Just like my friend who is planning to retire. Only I didn’t plan this, it happened inevitably. Kids grow up and leave home. And when they do, who are we then? How do we define ourselves? For me, it was one of the hardest times of my life.

I don’t think people give enough importance to the impact it is on your ego and self-esteem when a man retires — and for a woman when her children leave home. It is a real shock. Even though the world may see me as a ‘famous writer,’ it was small consolation to me. I saw myself as a dedicated Mom, out of a job. Sure, they still come home to visit, and, yes, their visits are wonderful. But it’s not the same. I am no longer dashing to pick them up at school, rushing to a soccer match, or driving someone to the orthodontist or ballet. Some people think that being relieved of that will be a great freedom, but I have to say that to me, and to many other women, it came as a hell of a shock and a major loss (of my kids on a daily basis, and my identity as a Mom).I felt as though my whole identity, and an important part of my life, went down the tubes.

When these major changes happen, you catch your breath, you regroup, and eventually you adjust. You have no other choice. You can’t whine about it forever. Some men take up golf or other hobbies and women find other things to do, spend more time with their husbands if they have one (and it’s an even bigger adjustment if you don’t). But I don’t think we pay enough tribute to what a blow retirement is to men, and the much talked about ‘empty nest’ to women. Maybe we need to have more compassion for our friends going through it. And, as for the ‘empty nest’ thing, I can tell you first hand that it is really, really hard, even if you have a job you love. I can tell you in total truth that I would trade ten bestsellers to be racing to a soccer match again, or dashing to the orthodontist with a car full of noisy kids. There’s nothing like it in the world, and it was the best job I ever had. I will always miss it. You get used to it, but it takes time, and a lot of loving support from our friends or mates.

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3 Comments so far
  1. Kim January 12, 2009 8:33 am

    You sound like a very good mum. But do remember, we never give up the duties of mum! 😀

    A man should not retire as for most, it retires their spirit when they do. And if he should; he should be prepared to take on something else to keep him mentally and physically active/challenged. My opinion only.

  2. Lisa January 13, 2009 12:54 pm

    I totally agree. My husband is in a line of work that is not easy for men over 50. I think it is hard for him to see the incoming (newbies) because they (in his eyes) are so different from him. But in reality, they are just like him, only a younger version that he has clearly forgotten. We have talked about him having an early retirement but I have had him home on vacations and after a few days he is restless. We both agree that he would get another job just out of the need to work. I think it is important for men to have a place to go and something to focus their energy on as well as women. I raised three children and then got remarried and had two more. I am a mom. That is the best vocation and usefullness I have been to others in my life. I do however take time to keep my mind and hands active in other things. I know very well how fast a childhood goes by. This time I also cherish more moments and relax a bit more. I can see more clearly because of the past. I am glad your friend has you. 🙂

  3. Stefania January 23, 2009 1:40 am

    Io sono una mamma giovane, i miei cuccioli hanno rispettivamente 6 anni e uno 2. Tante volte mi sento stanca e inevitabilmente nella mia testa nasce il desiderio di vederli piu grandi e indipendenti. Mi rendo perfettamente conto però che quando prenderanno il volo rimpiangerò amaramente tutto quello che per me non ci sarà piu, sarò piu vecchia e sola…..