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.