Taken aback by the “r” word

At a New Year’s Day party, I ran into an old friend whom I first met through a mothers’ group when our daughters were infants. The talk turned to work and she mentioned that she plans to retire at 59, which is about a half dozen years off for her.

I felt my chest tighten with a kind of shocked panic. I did not want to hear this. I did not want to think about this.


It feels deeply threatening that someone whom I consider a peer is starting to talk about retirement. I’m barely adapting to other signs of the passage of time – that my daughter is no longer the romping puppy whom we took to the zoo on weekends, or that she will be gone to college in two and a half years.

And now… retirement?!

I’m not anywhere near ready to retire. I feel like I have barely made a mark on the world. Admittedly, I’ve spent almost 30 years in the post-collegiate workforce,  so I have a fair amount of road behind me. But my career consists of a bunch of splotchy patches: A half dozen years as a reporter. A year of maternity leave. Back to reporting. Six years working on a book and helping start a school. A few more years of newspaper reporting. Most recently, a year of unemployment and working on fiction.

I haven’t had anything resembling the classic career of my parents’ generation. That would have meant moving steadily up a career ladder, from small newspapers to bigger newspapers to even bigger papers or jobs in newsroom management.

Instead, I’ve done a bunch of stuff, but sometimes it feels just like that – “stuff,” not an organized and coherent whole. I don’t feel like I’ve fulfilled my potential or reached any kind of pinnacle or even had a chance to show my capabilities.

And most days, that’s okay. I assume there’s more time: If I can get this novel into publishable shape, that will be an achievement. When I get my next job, I’ll have time to make some kind of mark. I typically think of my future as wide open, pretty much as I did in my 20s or 30s or 40s.

But then here comes this friend talking about retiring.

And retirement signifies to me: You’re done. Through. You’ve had your moment on the stage and now it’s time for the next act to step forward — even if you barely had time to stutter through the first few lines of your monologue. Even if you had so much more to say.

I know, this is just narrow and old-fashioned thinking. If you love what you do, there’s no need to retire, ever. People today join the Peace Corps in their 60s. They campaign for elected office in their 70s. They run marathons and write best-selling novels at any age. Leonard Cohen did an awesome concert tour last spring at age 74. And so on.

But still… retirement. It is a sea-change moment. It’s a reminder that our road is finite, it goes in just one direction, and that we are pretty far along on it.

I don’t like it.

On the other hand, most of the time I am very happy living in the “midlife” part of Midlife Bat Mitzvah.

Midlife = experienced. Midlife = wise. Midlife = lots of stuff still to come.

So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to stay in “midlife” for a long time. My friend may be getting ready to retire, but I’m uncoupling my engine from hers. We may have had daughters at the same time, and watched them grow up at the same pace, but I am not on her timetable when it comes to work and careers.

I’m going to forget that entire conversation. I’m not going to think about retirement.

I’m going to focus on 2010.

2010 will mark 30 years since I graduated from college. Thirty years since I moved to California. Twenty years since I got married.

And I have two over-arching goals for 2010, bigger than studying to become a Bat Mitzvah:

(1) Get a publishing contract for one of my novels.

(2) Figure out what kind of work I’m going to do next.  (Hint to self: It’s not newspaper or magazine journalism.)


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5 Responses to “Taken aback by the “r” word”

  1. susan milligan Says:

    Don’t panic, Ilana. The important thing is to wake up in the morning looking forward to what you have to do that day. Many people who retire have been heading off each day to a job they don’t really like and so they look forward to leaving that daily grind. They stay at the job for financial security and maybe a pension in the future. We know teachers who hated every minute of working and did it because they could retire at 55 with pensions. How sad is that. So stay in the game and follow your dreams which are just as valid at 50, 60, or 90 as they were at 20. You have a talent, a gift for writing that other woman probably doesn’t have and I am grateful that you share that talent with the rest of us. Happy New Year!

  2. Deb DeBare Says:

    Well, you’re three years ahead of me, and that gives me a rationale to “put that word in the closet” as well! I have a number of friends and colleagues who have retired, and it has re-shaped my thinking of that term. One friend worked for the state for 28 years, and now is starting an entirely new career as a quilter. Another friend worked as a teacher forever, and retired to become a consultant with National Geographic. They were smart enough to start careers that provided them with a pension after all these years…. unlike those of us in the nonprofit world…! I’ll be working for quite a while, too, but lucky to be loving it !

  3. kaveh Says:

    Yeah, I know, it’s a bit scary, Ilana, approaching the age where most people stop working, with lingering doubts about one’s accomplishments… Sounds like you are dealing with it well, though, setting goals and deciding that retirement is not for you yet. It’s a matter of mindset, right?

  4. Judy Levin Says:

    It is so interesting that those who have done so much feel they have accomplished so little. In fact, the more you have achieved, it seems the less you relish in that achievement, being aware and eager to do all the many things left to do.

    Many people would look at Ilana’s many accomplishments and marvel… oh its just one little book and one little school!!!!! Ha!

    Retirement is a state of mind… Ilana, you wouldn’t know retirement if it came up and bit you!!! Board work, community work, political work are all jobs you will forever hold I bet!

  5. Tom Moore Says:

    I am not planning to ever retire….I may move from earning my keep by doing one thing to doing another thing, but what makes life meaningful for me – making music, writing about music, translating – is something I will continue to do as along as I have breath. Retirement is for those who spent their lives doing things that they – didn’t – want to do.

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