(To start at the beginning of this little series, click here.)
Today, I stumbled across something I wrote for myself in 2005, shortly after my “retirement” (I have no recollection of writing this). It feels a little weird to find a time capsule like this one, written as I took my first steps into my new “retired” life:
Whenever I reach momentous personal decisions, it always seems to follow this pattern. People tell me they are taken by surprise, that they had no inkling I might be considering such an action. I surprise myself. Thoughts may be gestating but I often have no conscious awareness of them. Occasionally, I’ll experience a fleeting thought in the shower, or driving. They usually come when I am at ease, when I have not even named a problem, much less become engaged in solving it. Then, up through the depths, it dawns on me: maybe it’s time to make a change. In the first few moments, I roll the idea around, feeling its texture. I’ll speak of it casually, almost as if stating a whim. Once spoken out loud, I add to it, refine it. It takes shape in the moment.
Just this kind of process led to my decision to leave the world of work. With a problem that wasn’t named, but a solution found, I am doing what I often do: getting comfortable after I’ve decided to act.
Over the weekend, Todd said to me he had purchased a printer/fax machine to go with our new computer. I snapped, “That’s my computer, not our computer.” For the past 15 years, maybe longer, I’ve had a laptop computer that has followed me everywhere. I’ve anthropomorphized these sidekicks, even naming one, “Lappy.” There is no piece of equipment upon which I have been more dependent, with which I feel more natural, than my personal computer. It captures my addresses, remembers my appointments, serves as the slate for both memos and my internal process of reflection. I’ve stored information about our stocks, written holiday letters, inventoried my father’s house, created itineraries for far-flung trips. I’ve transcribed prayers, written customer service complaints, captured quirky horoscopes. I used a laptop to capture the words my mother found the strength and heart to say from her hospital bed, while fighting the twin demons of cancer and dementia. My traveling PC has been a loyal and hard-working appendage.
I am just beginning to understand what I have exited. First, there are the messages of the farewells. I was surprised at the heartfelt message from my boss. Rather than the obligatory “with regret, so and so is leaving the company after X years of service to concentrate on her personal life,” he chose to recognize some of my style proclivities we had occasionally argued about: “…she will be equally missed for her leadership of people – caring about their development, demanding and rewarding top performance, and demonstrating (our) values in the context of creating a great work environment.”
As the news spread, e-mail greetings poured in like pebbles — some smooth and efficient: “Your leadership has made many lasting contributions. You will be missed.” Other messages were strikingly personal: “I am occasionally surprised at how much time it has taken me to work out from under the loss of my Mom last Christmas, even after her long illness. The only thing that I’m certain of is that no matter how much time you spend, or how many things you do, or how close you come to ‘getting it right’ in dealing with family stuff, I haven’t met anybody who doesn’t wish they had done one more thing, said one more thing or made one more special time happen.” Another wrote: “I also find myself prioritizing my life and the things that are important to me. As you may or may not know, I have just undergone radiation treatment for throat cancer and it has really made me stop and think – and who knows – I may decide to hang it up sooner than later.” Still another: “I think of jumping out of the work-for-pay race often. I’m now painting a lot and I have paintings in a few galleries. I often wonder what would happen if I could devote more time to painting. I get great responses… that they are joy-filled. Lots of color helps.”
In some of the messages, people explained that they had reached a conclusion similar to my own, that – if you have to choose – it is one’s teenagers that require your presence most: “I started this job when my son was three months old and I am having the time of my life. I was torn when I received the offer and so talked with all my professional women friends to see how they managed this work/life shift. So many said, ‘Oh stay home if you can… you’ll miss it otherwise.’ I was surprised. But I kept digging and another story began to emerge. One of my colleagues very wisely told me that she found her kids adapted incredibly well to her work schedule when they were little, but she has cut back to part-time now that her daughter is 13 years old. She believes her kids need her much more now than they ever did before.”
So far I have been credited with wisdom, character, selflessness and inspiration. Why, then, don’t I feel that way about it? What I know, that others do not, is that many of my decisions have been based on ambition and fear, supported by a healthy dose of self-justification. I am not wearing a hair shirt here, nor engaging in self-flagellation. In a message to my team, I wrote: “I’m not doing anything heroic. For nearly 25 years, I have vigorously pursued achievement and learning. I was promoted during the sixth month of my first pregnancy and met with my boss while in the labor room; six weeks later, I was back on the job. The desire to keep going was paramount. Now I am selfishly following another desire.”
Both subtly and more obviously, I have also been motivated by fear. After leaving one company and promising to take time out for a while, I found myself accepting my current position after just one month off. It was a great opportunity that seemed too good to pass up, but I also feared the quiet time in between. Where would I be without the structure of my work life? More deeply, there are things I have been afraid to commit to – even to speak of – such as my interest in writing. What would happen if I just tried to write? Had to write?
Though the analysis may be right in the long run, I understand my colleague’s desire to justify her decision to work now, when her children are young. Hearing that children need you most during the rocky teenage years is an answer I was hoping to hear, even as I wondered about the long-term consequences. We are all engaged in a giant social experiment to try to find the best way to raise healthy children. Children can be healthy and happy with working parents, or stay-at-home parents. That’s not the point. The challenge is in knowing what will turn out to have the very best result for one’s own children. No one, not even me, knows whether I have made the right decisions.
From four sources came wagers. Even my brother wrote, “Sure, but the real money is on how long it will last before you get the itch again J”
And a few carrots were dangled: interest in consulting, sitting on corporate boards, “let me know when you decide to re-enter.”
Talking with an old friend over the weekend, he noted that he and his wife were considering a similar decision. She has risen to the top financial position in a large corporation. If she leaves, they both acknowledge, there will be no going back at the same level, or for the same pay. In today’s environment, skills rust quickly, resumes mold, and reputations fade.
If one thing doesn’t work, I usually have another option half-lined up in the wings. This time I have no such fallback plan, and I think it’s important that I keep it that way.
I have exited, and now I stand at the border of whatever is next. For now, I am firmly fixed on just noticing. I am an observer of my own experience. As Jose Saramango wrote in Journey to Portugal: “(M)ay I learn in passing from one land to the next to pay the closest attention to the similarities and differences, whilst not forgetting… that a traveler has preferences and sympathies….”
That was me in June 2005.
If I had to do all over again – leave my job and care for Dad – I would do it in a heartbeat.
Next: naked shredding and other awkward moments adjusting to retired life.