Last Friday I received a reminder from Christian Schools International that I can begin the application process for my pension. In April I will turn 55 and can begin to collect my early pension benefit. This is kind of exciting! It’s the culmination of the last five years of transition, choosing to leave a career I loved, and planning to make significant changes.
Retirement has been surprising. Not what I expected. Not what I had planned.
We are always being advised by banks, investment firms, Oprah and Dr. Phil to plan for retirement. Every bank statement I get warmly invites me to come in for a Personal Assessment so that I can retire the way I want, when I want, and make “enjoying life” my full time job.
This must be a relatively new societal impulse, or else an exceptionally lucrative one, to generate so much repetition and encouragement. My great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents didn’t spend much time thinking about retirement. They pretty much expected to work until they were very old, and, for the most part, that’s what happened. Frankly, not many of my ancestors got to live until they were very old, anyway. They raised large families, survived depression and war, slugged their way through life, and wore themselves out. But, if you read the papers, or watch the news regularly, you know that my generation, the baby boomers, are slated to enjoy a long life expectancy. Planning for retirement does appear to be a necessity, all the more so in the present uncertain economic climate.
When you are young, you don’t think about retirement. You’re preparing for a career, establishing a career, getting married, raising children, participating in a myriad of church and school activities, and paying the pressing bills. Some baby boomers might be financially astute, but me? Not so much. When I took a few years off to start a family, I cashed in my pension plan. We got a nice garage from that payout, but it wasn’t one of my stellar math moments. (Friends and siblings are scratching their heads here, wondering… when exactly did she ever have even one stellar math moment?) On another occasion, supporting three Christian educational institutions, I dipped into the RRSP’s to meet my obligations. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Retiring at the age of 51 was probably not a sound financial move, either. But retirement isn’t solely a fiscal decision. After decades in the classroom, it’s pretty common for teachers to burn out, and I didn’t want to end my career that way. I had family issues, too. A daughter who was a single mom in need of some support. A mom, getting older. A husband whose work week was ballooning. Moreover, my house was deteriorating from neglect. My body was starting to spin out of control from stress and lack of exercise. Insomnia was becoming the bane of my existence. There was a dragging undercurrent to my days that was pulling me down.
So I did my version of a financial forecast. I asked my sister what she thought about my retiring early. She said I should go for it because I could always get a job at Tim Hortons if I needed to. I asked my husband what he thought. He said I could do whatever I wanted. (One of his best qualities). With my minimal math skills and a calculator, I determined that, within certain constraints, we could probably make things work. It would mean budget cuts. It would mean that our present home would be our retirement home. No future “upscale downsizing”. I looked into what my CSI benefits would be if I retired early, and discovered they would be negligible, partly because of my earlier mistake of withdrawing my investment, and partly because some of my career was part-time rather than full time. I retired anyway. Or, as Mark is so fond of correcting me, with his sly grin, I quit.
Here are the surprises. I didn’t expect to feel so guilty. I felt guilty all the time. People just couldn’t believe that I would voluntarily give up my income. I was asked repeatedly by bank tellers, grocery store cashiers, and acquaintances: “Say what? You retired? You’re too young to retire!” Some could barely mask the rolling of their eyes as they sought to hide from me their instinctive judgement that I had lost my mind. Repeatedly, I would hasten to explain that I had worked a long time, twenty-four years, in fact, and that I was now volunteering, and helping my daughter, and my mom was getting older, and I was planning to do some writing… You get the picture. I fell all over myself trying to justify my decision.
That guilt and defensiveness is worth examining. My squirming efforts to rationalize my choice demeaned the Christian and feminist ideals I had always espoused. Why should I have been so abashed to admit that I was going to be a homemaker? I was going to do laundry, clean my bathroom, cut my grass, make meals, garden, wash my car, take out the trash, and manage the details of our home and family. It was work that needed to be done! Work that I had neglected for some twenty-odd years while I did my other work! Humble work, unpaid work, yes, but valuable nonetheless!
I had succumbed to the cultural pressure to accord respect based on profession and income, to consider my “job” the defining characteristic about who I was as a person. A strong bias against “women’s work” – cooking, cleaning, caring for a home, nurturing children, the elderly, and the disabled – is still alive and strong in our culture. It was still living in me.
If media projections are correct, however, and we baby boomers are going to hang around for a long time beyond our income-earning years, we are _all_ going to have to explore who we are outside of our “jobs”. Traditionally, men have had a hard time making that adjustment. But it may now prove be a phenomenon that transcends gender, precisely because women like me have invested less and less of them in the “homemaking” that kept our grandmothers and mothers so busy. How will working women adapt to retirement if the role of women in the home remains so devalued?
There was still more guilt. I felt guilty about being privileged enough to retire. I was worried that I would be perceived as wealthy, that my early retirement would imply that we had a huge stash of cash bankrolled somewhere. Mark likes to needle me: “But we do have that hundred thousand in the Cayman Islands, don’t we? 🙂
We don’t. But with the adjustments to our retirement expectations that we’ve agreed upon, we should be comfortable enough. I hope. It could be that we’ve miscalculated, and that I’ll be handing out coffee at the Tim Horton’s window, or that Mark will have to work longer than planned. That’s OK. I’m slowly learning to accept that I am responsible to God for my financial choices. I’m not obligated to share all the Quicken data with everyone who might be curious about why I get to go for a walk in the afternoon instead of going for a shift at Foodland.
I felt guilty about retiring early. But I also felt swamped! I was busy! You imagine that you will have lots of time at your disposal when you retire. Time to do all the things you didn’t get done when you are working. I didn’t know that it would be so hard to leave a job, and so hard to establish a new life. Or that there would be so much to do to accomplish that!
It was hard to leave the school where I had worked for twenty years. I had to pack up my office, sort through stacks of files and books, and make excruciatingly difficult decisions about what to keep and what to chuck. I am still not done! My house is full of “teacher stuff” that I can’t let go. Every piece of art I saved, every creative story written by an eager student, every test and exam I laboured over, every entertaining video or fun game is a validation of that productive time in my life. Who will remember I was “that teacher” if all this concrete evidence is thrown out? Who am I if not “that teacher?”
The process of physically weaning myself from the “stuff” of my career remains much more emotional and time-consuming than I expected. The password on my computer is still teacher. Again, I need to re-commit to those Christian and feminist tenets that wife, mother, grandmother and friend are not lesser callings. Again, I have to buck my own secular habit of attaching self-worth to external criteria.
I also had a hard time letting go of the daily camaraderie of colleagues. I kept finding reasons to be in the school. I spent time coaching my replacement teacher. I worked as a supply teacher for about two and a half years. I led drama and art workshops and judged writing competitions and science fairs. Many people had helped me in my teaching. I felt an obligation to do the same. It was a struggle to disengage.
At the same time, there was increasing pressure from other quarters to volunteer. There were requests from church, the community, and friends. I painted at church, took on the job of bulletin editor, judged speech contests, and ran errands for anyone who asked. I said yes to everything. How could I not? I was guilty. Guilty of having time. I got so busy, I wondered more than a few times why I had retired. Moreover, in the same period, my own three children and two of my siblings got married. Talk about overload!
Things are finally sorting themselves out. The transition that I thought would magically occur in the space of about three months has stretched to four years. In April, when I actually do receive a pension, and reach the “official” retirement age of 55, it will be easier for others and for me, too, to consider myself “finished” with the workplace. Maybe I will finally be able to part with my “teacher stuff.” As a Christian, I know there is no such thing as retirement from discipleship and service. I will always be challenged to serve God and my neighbour, but I am beginning to understand that those commitments do not have to be driven by guilt.
Now for the happy surprises of retirement. I didn’t know that my marriage would flourish as it has. Simply being home more, sharing meals (where we companionably read the paper in silence), being together in a context outside of children and their needs, has been liberating and remarkably good for us. We work on projects around the house together, we go out to Home Depot together, we wash the car together and sometimes we even watch TV together (not often, because Mark is Supreme Commander of the remote). We’ve been able to enjoy a few vacations together, something we hadn’t done in a decade. Sounds prosaic, but, for us, a whole new world.
Another happy surprise is that my health and outlook have improved dramatically. My sisters tell me that I look better than I have in years (rather a backhanded compliment from the wicked sisters, don’t you think?) I no longer suffer from insomnia. I have time to go for walks. I have yet to achieve the weight loss that was supposed to arrive miraculously upon retirement, but I can dream. And I am actually writing. Good or bad, I’m finally doing it. 🙂
Retirement has also brought more time for devotions and reflection. Even as I write this blog, my eyes are opening to the issue of balance. Looking back at the frenetic pace of my teaching life, I see that the scale was tipped unequivocally towards work. Out of devotion and duty, assuredly, especially within the framework of a Christian vocation, but all-consuming.
That’s why spending time with my husband feels so fresh and new. That’s why going for a walk feels so cavalier and taking a vacation so decadent. I conclude that I did one thing right. I retired at the right time for me.
There is still much to ponder. Still time to learn new things. This stage of life, like every other, is not mine to control, even as I try, wisely or foolishly, to plan for its unfolding. Circumstances can change overnight. I thought retirement would give me more time with my sister, but she got a job with rotating shifts, and I see her less now than I did before. My neighbour’s husband left her after thirty years of marriage. A friend’s house burned to the ground just before Christmas. One of my former students just had an operation to remove a malignant tumor. Life never fails to remind us that no amount of preparation and planning can give us control over tomorrow.
Maybe that’s why New Year’s Eve is such a poignant celebration. Not quite sure what to do with that uncompromising tilt towards an unknown future, media pundits and celebrities drink and party in madcap bravado. But Christians can mark any juncture of old and new as a fulcrum, trusting that what was past and what is to come is levelled by the faithful companionship of the pilgrim God who journeys with us. He makes the crooked roads straight, the rough paths smooth. He knows the way. On the days when I have the faith to live by that, I travel lightly and with joy.