My Husband is Retiring

Four or five years ago, following up on a suggestion from my Philadelphia friend Dick Goldberg, Director of Coming of Age, Eva Archer Smith and I started the Houston chapter of The Transition Network, an organization for professional women over fifty moving from their mainstream lives to What’s Next. We invited a few women to dinner and from that start came a lively monthly conversation group of two to three dozen women. From our large gathering, a few special interest groups have formed. One of them, started by Suzanne Briggs Wright, is the memoir group.

This group published a collection of essays on transition. At the time, my husband was moving towards retirement and my fears about this, which thankfully turned out to be unwarranted, became the subject of my essay. My essay is below; the fourteen other essays in this book are a great read, and the book can be found on Amazon.

Taken from COPING WITH TRANSITION, Men, Motherhood, Money and Magic,
edited by Susan Briggs Wright. Published by the Houston Transition Network

In thinking about transitions, I am flooded by memories, sweet and bittersweet. Walking our youngest child to kindergarten stands as a major transition but, in my case, not one that had me brushing away tears. I nearly skipped home, joyous at having a few hours of time alone in my house.

When we packed that same child off to college, I knew we’d miss him deeply, but I wasn’t sorry to see him go. First, he was desperate to be on his way, and I was excited to have the freedom to immerse myself in work after two decades of disequilibrium that came from never getting the personal/professional juggle into perfect balance.

Significant transitions kept coming. Birthdays ending in zero. Weddings. Grandbabies. Leaving my busy job and realizing I wasn’t just pausing; I was, in fact, retiring. An ill mother. These were all “moments,” shifts from one way of being to another. But they all seemed to me to be part of an expected unfolding . . . normal chapters in the story called My Life.

But now, I am coming up on a transition that doesn’t feel like another chapter but another book. In just a few months, my husband of 41 years is retiring. My husband, Michael–the energizer bunny, the fretter who always has work on his mind, the guy who bounds out of bed before the sun, is out the door by seven, and gone for twelve hours–is planning to stop bounding and hang out in our house. “Didn’t you think one day he would retire?” a friend asked. Since he is on the cusp of 69, I suppose retirement is a reasonable possibility, but no, I didn’t expect he would retire.

When I married Michael, he was as much in love with his laboratory as with me. I couldn’t imagine either love affair ending. The early years of our marriage were shaped by his unspoken but obvious need and desire to find success as a research scientist. And although I sometimes resented the time good science required, I was complicit in his goals. But in the middle of our marriage, I vividly recall our having a fight, a big fight. We never argued much, so this argument stood out. I don’t know what started it, but I remember stewing in my study long after Michael had gone to bed, and then waking him up shouting, “The last 18 years have been great and I want 18 more, but I don’t want the same 18. I want us to grow and change.”

He must have heard me on a deep level because we did change. Michael had been the poetry editor of his high school yearbook. He loved poetry then and considered majoring in literature at Yale. However, a professor assured him he had no talent, so off he went in the direction of medicine and biochemistry. After that disruptive evening, he began writing again and had a serious affair with his muse. In writing poetry, he reclaimed his emotional life which he had, in great part, delegated to me when we married.

Over the years, Michael’s need for time alone and his ability to focus intently on his own interests sometimes irritated me, but with the wisdom of hindsight, I now realize it benefited me greatly. It encouraged me to develop my own career, my own interests. I became accustomed to being alone, even when we shared the same space. I started making decisions without consultation. In short, I have had the pleasure of a deeply satisfying marriage with a man who has made few demands on me, and who has given me the freedom to do as I choose and enough money to do it. Michael makes me laugh and never bores me, and I know he has my best interests at heart. It was my husband who urged me to quit my demanding but fulfilling university job. “I think this gig is up, Suze. It is making you angry all the time,” he observed.

Michael is excited about not working. Healthy and still energetic, he is eager for the chance to live his own life, unencumbered by the big responsibilities he currently has as chairman of pathology and head of the research institute at a major hospital. He sees my freedom and it looks good. He wants time to write poetry, to work on his Spanish, to exercise in leisure, to think and explore and go the museum on a Tuesday afternoon when it is nearly empty. He wants to find out what larger self might be living in him that has not had the opportunity to emerge.

I’m excited for him. He has earned this. He is entitled to the same freedom I have loved. Yet I’m terrified. It seems a bigger transition than sending our boys off to college or even off to wives; bigger than turning 60 or leaving my mainstream career.

Why, why does this feel like such a tectonic shift, I have been asking myself. After all, he will still be an introvert when he retires. I’m sure he will still spend time alone in his study, writing, reading, thinking. I don’t think he will expect me to make lunch. So, why does this feel so big?

First, Michael’s retirement signals to me entry into our last developmental stage. Perhaps we don’t look like what younger adults call old, nor move like old people…but we are in the process of becoming old. Heading into our seventies, we are rounding the bend for the last act, and while I was clear about the general plot for those earlier acts, I have no script outline for this one. I understand that old doesn’t mean boring, infirm, slow-witted or even slow-moving. It describes a chronological moment and that moment cannot be bent backwards by plastic surgery or yoga. I can change how I look and how I think, but I cannot change where I stand in time.

Second, we have been blessed to see our resources grow with each decade. Now, we will begin to see our resources decline with each decade. There are, I think, enough resources, but it’s such a different way of being and it scares me. This isn’t about real money but about existential money: about becoming comfortable with living from savings rather than saving from earnings.

Third, as much as I often wished for more time with Michael when he wasn’t exhausted, now, I am nervous about his expectations. Simple, reasonable questions like “What are you doing today?” When are you going to eat lunch? Do you want to go to the gym? may make me feel cornered. Since leaving the university and returning to writing and consulting, I am often alone in the house. I wander. I might sit at the kitchen table ‘til mid morning, sipping tea and reading the New York Times. I eat caloric food standing at the kitchen counter without feeling as guilty as I should. In the late afternoon, if I have been out with appointments, I can curl up in the library with a book and slip into a nap.

The idea of sharing my house…well, really our house, but on weekdays in daylight it has always felt like my house…unnerves me. Forty years of living with a partner who has been distracted by his work have made me comfortable with solitude and independence. I seem, after so many years of marriage, to be commitment-averse—that is, averse to committing to a schedule. What if I say I am going to the gym at 2 pm…and then I get lazy and sit with my book instead? My private laziness is one thing; displaying it to someone else– even if that someone else isn’t judgmental–feels bad. What if I commit to eat lunch at noon and then decide to have a muffin with coffee at a meeting and don’t feel like lunch– and Michael has waited. I know I am making my husband sound like some sort of control freak when he’s not at all. Michael will read this and wonder why his being in the house should make me feel constricted in doing any of this. This is all about me and my fears–not a me that seems particularly attractive on paper, but me nevertheless.

On the other hand, here is a huge opportunity. It is like being in our twenties, newly married and deciding where we wanted to live and how we wanted to work and what shape our lives would take. We will get to ask those questions all over again. Amazingly, the questions seem more important at the end than at the beginning when I was too naïve to understand their import and how enormous the choices were.

When we first married, I realized that even in marriage we remained separate people. We didn’t read each other’s minds, dream the same dreams, want the same choices. Now, it all feels less separate. How else could I end up writing a memoir that features my husband? After 41 years of being together, writing about Michael is writing about me. Both literally and metaphorically, he has penetrated me. His “moving home” is every bit as much about me as about him. I know him so well that sometimes I know when he is horny or hungry or unhappy before he does. His vibrations perturb my own. And I love him so much and care for him so deeply it is difficult to ignore his needs when they conflict with mine. That doesn’t mean I am always loving. Sometimes I get angry when Michael hasn’t yet asked for anything. I’m angry because I have anticipated “the ask” and the difficulty I’m going to have in deciding how to respond before he’s said a word. Understandably, he regards this as a bit nuts, but it is perfectly clear to me.

So now, in just a few months, there will be this huge transition for Michael as well as for me. It hasn’t happened yet on the ground, but it is happening in my mind just now and filling my thoughts.