Tag Archives: Sheryl Sandberg

The Journey of a Caregiver Begins (Part Two)

My awesome retirement party (planned by Samantha Smith) included Polaroid party pics signed by colleagues and boss

My awesome retirement party (planned by Samantha Smith) included Polaroid party pics signed by colleagues and my boss

(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.

At the management team farewell, gifts included this valise packed with well wishes

At the management team farewell, gifts included this valise packed with well wishes. They couldn’t have been more right about the beginning of a journey.

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Identity Crisis! (Again!) Part One

My Dad and our friend, Peggy Woods, at our Tacoma "house cooling" party, 2002

My Dad and our friend, Peggy Woods, at our Tacoma “house cooling” party, 2002

My Dad always said that he felt like he had several lives: his formative years up to joining the 5th Reserve Officer’s Commissioning Corps in the lead up to WWII, his career in the Marine Corps, his civilian life, living and working in the Pacific Northwest, and the 14 years of his life after Mom’s death.

Yesterday, my dental hygienist, Mary, observed that women have an easier time adjusting to old age because we go through so many physical changes in our lives: first raging hormone fluctuations and cramps as we enter adolescence; then the inflation of our bellies to near-alien proportions during pregnancy followed quickly by the transformation of our breasts into feeding machines; and finally a return to raging hormonal fluctuations accompanied by night sweats, belly fat that seems to reproduce overnight and the growth of random wiry hairs on our chin or necks. Even they never have children, women usually get two out of three of those changes.

Men, Mary holds, never face the ego challenges of appearance and body changes that women do. Their egos can’t take it when they go from captains of industry to invisible old men.

Mary may have it right as far as some men are concerned (although it certainly didn’t apply to my Dad). But I certainly took a blow to my identity and my ego when I retired to care for my Dad, and I know many caregivers who have gone through a similar transition. And now, with Dad newly gone, I am finding I am having to redefine myself – again.

Let me back up and talk about my initial transformation into retiree and caregiver.

I had lost my Mom to late stage lung cancer in 1999, and the words of her last lucid speech to me – from her hospital bed – echoed in my mind. After more than two weeks of being out of it, she began talking quietly to me about 9:45 p.m. I wrote her words as she slowly said them on a scrap of paper. For almost an hour she told me what I had meant to her, shared her reflections of me as a person, talked about the special importance of daughters, and asked how my Dad was “handling all of this,” taking in her surroundings with a glance. She said, “It is hard to say goodbye to people you love, but it is very important.” When I asked her what I could do for her, she said, “You can continue to be the marvelous woman that you are – competent, with a high level of activity. The world needs you.”

In 2004, I knew that time was marching on for my Dad. Just one year before, he suffered a major stroke, and I was all too aware of his cardiovascular surgeon’s prediction that Dad’s arteries would begin to clog after five years. Which was right about then.

Maddie was beginning her senior year and would soon be off to college. Tommy was in 7th grade, in the midst of a difficult adolescence.

Having already lost one parent, I was all too aware that this time with my Dad would never come again. I would be Maddie and Tommy’s Mom for many years to come, but the window of time to be a daughter, to enjoy my father, would close forever.

Much has been written of late about Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women to “lean in.” For the first 10+ years of my career I leaned in. I didn’t lean in so hard that I was willing to permanently relocate to other cities (not feasible for my husband’s second-generation company), but I took every promotion I could. I started my MBA when Maddie was one year old, and I worked full time while I completed it. I made vice president in a major company by the time I was 33. I became president of my national professional society. I was recruited by a national company and got to write my job description for a senior level position at another.

After Tommy was born, I would have to say that my career advancement strategy resembled bobbing in and out more than leaning in. For three different companies, I built up enough credibility to cut back to part-time, all in search of the elusive work-life balance. Cutting back to part-time always came with a cost – and I am not referring to compensation. But I had the reputation, the access to leadership and professional skills to get done whatever I needed to get done. I respected the people who worked on my team, and loved supporting their development and careers.

When I resigned, I fully expected Dad would be gone within a few years and that I would return to the workforce after that.

Although I cleared my plate in readiness for Dad to move down, he was dragging his heels a bit. Maybe when it cooled off in Sacramento. Maybe in the spring. He eventually relocated in March of 2006.

Tomorrow: words to myself in June 2005, “The Journey Begins”

Ahead: what it was really like to transition from career to retired caregiver

Farther ahead: what it’s like to suddenly STOP being a caregiver after Dad’s death

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