Thursday, March 12, 2015

Guilt and the R word

It happened again last week. Two more people at my former workplace were "reorganized" out of their jobs -- both after 20-25+ years of service to the company. That makes seven of us who were pruned from our department over the past eight months -- almost all of us 50-somethings with 15, 20, even 30 years of service. Another woman in her 50s had been on medical leave, found a new job closer to home with more flexible hours, and left just before she was due to return.  I sometimes wonder if she saw the writing on the wall before we did.

I reached out to a couple of my former colleagues who lost their jobs at the same time I did (almost eight months ago now -- yikes!) to see if they'd heard the news, and to find out how they've been doing and whether they've found jobs yet. They haven't. It's tough out there, people. The competition is stiff.  Many of them still have mortgage payments, kids living at home (some of them under 12), college tuition to pay, etc. etc. -- and, in some cases, their severance payments are starting to run out. The clock is ticking.  And of course, kids today are living at home longer &/or are supported by their parents much longer than my peers & I were at their age, in part because they too are finding it difficult to get a foothold in the working world. 

I'm getting two different reactions from people these days. There are those who assume I am now retired, end of story. They want to hear all about my exciting new life. I hate to tell them that, after the longest, coldest winter on record in these parts, I'm actually going a bit stir crazy (although not to the point of wishing I was back at work, lol).  "I'm so jealous!!" is a refrain I hear a lot.

On the other hand, there are those who want to know how the job hunt is going. This includes some of my former colleagues, now grimly pursuing new jobs themselves.  I hem and haw and mumble about taking some time to decide what I want to do next. It doesn't seem right to tell them that I might never be going back to work, to flaunt my retirement in their faces.

To others, I might sometimes admit that I may not be going back to work again, at least not full time.  And I've discovered that some people clearly do not want to hear the "R" word from me. I'm still so young!! (or so they tell me...). I still have so much to offer! Well, maybe -- but I also know that writers/corporate communications specialists are a dime a dozen out there these days, and there's a lot of us out there pounding the pavement right now -- alongside younger (and much cheaper) recent graduates who are eager to get their foot in the door.

Chief among the members of this R-negative group:  my mother. Shortly before I actually lost my job, I wrote this post lamenting my mother's resistance to the idea of me retiring when I turned 55 or 56 (which was what we were originally aiming for).  Prior to Christmas, my sister had mentioned to me that mom was fretting about why I wasn't looking for another job -- and the subject reared its head again while I was home over the holidays. Dh brought up something only tangentially related to me and retirement, and my mother said sharply, "She's not going to retire!" Addressing me, she said, "You're only 52 years old!! You're going to get bored!"

"Ummm, Mom, I'm not 52, I'm almost 54," I reminded her, as evenly as I could. 

"Just keep an open mind," she urged me, and I said, "Yes, I will," and changed the subject.

Again, I am not quite sure why the idea of me being retired bothers her so much?  (Let alone anyone else.)  It's true, my pension would be larger if I kept working. I certainly won't be spending my winters in Tahiti or on the French Riviera or anything like that. But dh & I have been over the numbers (and over, and over, and over them), and I don't think I'll be reduced to eating cat food either.

As I deal with these very different reactions, I find myself struggling with an uncomfortable, lingering, nagging feeling.


Guilt that I lost my job in the first place. (Could I have done something differently? In the end, probably not. And I know that I'm certainly not alone.) 

Guilt that I essentially got to retire at the admittedly young age of 53 (albeit not by choice), while so many people are finding it so hard to make ends meet, and know they will have to work until they are 65, 67, 70 or beyond. (What makes ME so special, right??) I am all too aware of how rare this is, and how very lucky I am.

I hear a lot of bloggers who become pregnant after loss or infertility say they feel guilty, when so many other deserving ALI-ers remain frustratingly childless. Is there such a thing as retirement guilt? 

Apparently there is. I did some Googling the other night ("I feel guilty about early retirement") and came up with a whole bunch of links on the subject.  (For example: this, this and this.)  Clearly, I am not alone in feeling this way.

I wonder -- would I have felt this way if I'd been able to retire from my job at the time of my choosing (early or not), as I had hoped to do, without being shown the door? (Probably. It doesn't take much to make me feel guilty...!)

Tied up in this weird emotional mix is the certain knowledge that retirement at this point in my life is possible only because we don't have any children. I KNOW that some people who envy us think, "Well, of course they can do it -- they don't have kids!"  But I am also sure that they don't REALLY think about what that means:  we don't have any kids, because our only daughter died when I was six months pregnant with her, and because we weren't able to have any other children, because we stopped infertility treatment (before we racked up too much debt), because I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown, and because we chose not to pursue adoption at that point in our lives. 

But on the other hand, we could have taken our childless living "dividend" and blown it on travel, a bigger house, a fancy kitchen renovation, expensive cars and/or other toys. We didn't. We still live in the same small house we bought 25 years ago, we drive a 12-year-old car, we watch a 12-year-old TV set (with a picture tube)(much to my BIL's bemusement), we use non-smart flip phones that are around 6-8 years old, and we've spent most of our vacations to date visiting family. (With more vacation time now at our disposal, we hope to change that soon, lol.)  Once it became obvious that we weren't going to be parents, our primary goals became paying off our mortgage as quickly as possible, and saving for an early retirement, when I turned 55 or 56 and dh was 59 or 60.  Neither of us made it quite that far, but because we had been saving, saving, saving for this goal, we're doing OK. And so long as we don't change our lifestyle or spending habits too dramatically, we should continue to be OK. 

I am still trying to come to terms with my new life, to figure out what I want to do when I grow up (lol) and what I want my life to look like from this point forward. The last few months have been a time of transition (and the transition is continuing) -- they have flown by, but they have also been a learning experience. (One lesson:  Winter sucks, and next year, I am definitely signing up for a post-Christmas yoga class...!)  I don't think I want or really need to work full time again -- but sometimes I toy with the idea of setting myself up as a freelance writer and/or editor. 

Or not. We'll see. I don't really miss working -- my stress levels have gone way, WAY down, my blood pressure has been good...! -- but once in awhile, I'll see a typo onscreen, or in a magazine or even a book (argh!), and my fingers will itch for a red pen, lol.  But if I do go back to work again, I want it to be because it's something that I WANT to do -- not because others make me feel that I SHOULD do it.  And not because of guilt.


  1. I wish you could have shared your winter with us. I live in Northeaster Utah and our winter was very calm and warm compared to most years. We woke up to a skiff of snow on Christmas, that has been pretty much it this year. I feel like I was cheated this winter.

    Good luck on this next chapter of your life!

  2. Sometimes I think life is like a big sort of card game, where we are all handed out a random assortment of cards to play, swap, hold... a tall card, a blue eye card, a this or that disease card, a bereavement card, a divorce card, a win the lottery card, a public profile card etc etc. The unique mix of the good and the not so good, and how we play them makes up the pattern of our lives. You may have received the heartbreaking loss of a child card, and the childless not by choice card, but also the wonderful husband card and the able not to have to work by choice earlier than most card. No guilt required!

  3. I think that you worked hard and lived a modest life through your entire adult life and you planned and sacrificed for an early retirement and you have nothing to feel guilty about. Yes, your retirement came a bit earlier than planned, and yes it happened a bit more sudden, unceremoniously, and not on your terms then you would have preferred, but because of advance planning this little curve ball is working out for you.

    Job hunting sucks and I am glad that you aren't in a position where you have to do it. And if you get to the point where you're craving some structure in your life, I'm sure there are plenty of great volunteer opportunities that you could participate in. Or maybe a new skill (non-employment related) that you could learn. Or another language.

  4. Feel what you are going to feel, but temper your guilt with the knowledge that you made this retirement happen. Yes, some things such as being chosen for a job were out of your control. But you saved what you could save. And not everyone does. You made hard choices in order to get to this point.

    It is so hard out there on the job front right now. Age doesn't help, but even with age and experience, there are too many people fighting for the same jobs.

  5. You and I are facing similar struggles with career paths. Even though I've had some headway, the long-term future is still very uncertain. It's so hard out there both because of lack of work (though your old company is doing something that I think borders on bing unethical) and the reality that one can't simply follow a certain formula for a comfortable retirement at a given age. In short, the whole game has changed. And it's throwing everyone.

    You've hit the nail on the head regarding grief and the connection with infertility. A lot of similar themes. Like infertility, people don't know what to say or do. There's the prescribed platitudes, but those certainly don't help. There's also their own fear wrapped in the conversation, which usually makes it worse.

    I'm so sorry that you're having to deal with all of this. I wish I had a clear solution. I think you are makin the right decisions and keeping doors open. Who knows. Maybe this is the beginning of a new transition?

  6. Sending some support your way, Loribeth! Change is so hard. Good change, bad change, expected or unexpected- it's all tough. I admire how you have taken it in stride, and how you have made the situation work for you. But it's still tough, and a wide range of emotions is expected and normal. Despite the guilt, it has to be a little bit exciting, too! I am certainly not jealous of the fact that you lost your job, but I find myself fantasizing about what it would be like to actually have some options. Very exciting! I know that no matter what you choose to do with this next phase of your life, you will manage to put that guilt behind you, and enjoy what you have. Lots of hugs to you...

  7. I work in an industry where people rarely just retire. They either move on to consulting or try something completely different. Maybe your "career" is over...or maybe an opportunity that sounds interesting will pop up...or maybe you'll start something completely new...or maybe you'll retire and read books and travel. But here's the thing that you should consider whenever you're getting a little of that guilt - no one ever knows where life will lead them.

    Also, moms always think you're about 20 years younger than you are...because that makes them 20 years younger too! So, maybe that's her perspective, even though she got close to your actual age.

    Regardless of the size of your family, you and your husband have worked and saved and made an effort to be in a position where you could be retired in your 50s. Don't let other people's expectations or poor planning make you feel like you are doing the wrong thing now that it's come to pass.

    Also, as a lover of books...look into the library. That's my ideal retirement job!