Both Exciting and Scary


February 16, 2014 by Jean

Recently, I asked one of my senior students how she was feeling about her impending graduation from college, and she replied that it is “both exciting and scary.” “I know exactly what you mean,” I said. “This is my senior year, too, and I’m also finding it both exciting and scary.”

I was reminded of this conversation as I began reading Carl Klaus’s Taking Retirement: A Beginner’s Diary (Beacon Press, 1999). Klaus, a Professor of English at University of Iowa began his journal in February of his last semester of teaching – exactly where I am now. The impetus for him to begin writing about retirement was that some of his plans for “keeping his hand in” at work fell through and his retirement suddenly began to seem much more scary than exciting.

I was struck by Klaus’s ambivalence and sense of loss as he approached retirement and wondered about why our reactions were so different. One possibility is gender. Klaus also considers this, noting that the women of his acquaintance seem to have much less angst about retirement than do the men. As he reflects on these differences, he concludes that “retirement, like everything else in the world, is … deeply differentiated by gender….” (p. 20) and realizes “how differently men and women have been acculturated to think about working and retirement.” (p. 21) Men in our culture are encouraged to measure success almost entirely through occupational achievement, while women who focus single-mindedly on career are suspect. In a course on “Changing Sex Roles in America” that I was a teaching assistant for at Brown University in the 1970s, the professor teaching the course, sociologist Nancy Williamson, assigned students to write “future autobiographies” in which they imagined that they were reflecting back on their lives from the vantage point of their eightieth birthdays. The women in the course tended to write accounts full of details about balancing personal and professional lives. The men tended to write accounts of successful careers, many of which ended with the sentence, “I also had a wife and two lovely children.” Just as neuroscience has found that women are likely to have more neural paths linking the left and right sides of their brains, women also seem to have less differentiation in emphasis between different parts of their lives and more varied sources of life satisfaction and achievement.

Another difference between Klaus’s experience and mine might be that he “phased in” to retirement over a period of five years, while I have continued to work full time. On the face of it, this difference would seem to make Klaus’s transition easier than mine. This is what Klaus expected. He begins his journal with these words:

Retirement. I’ve been phasing into it slowly, gently (three years at three-quarter time, two years at half-time), so I figured it would be an easy transition when the no-time begins in a few months from now. I’d step into my new life so well prepared for it that I’d hardly miss my old one. (p. 1)

But Klaus’s phase-in to retirement involved gradually divesting himself of the parts of his job that had made retirement attractive. He was no longer working long hours, facing huge piles of grading, or dealing with the hassles of committee work or the stresses of administrative work. By the time he began keeping this journal, he was teaching one much-loved course and advising a few doctoral and master’s projects. No wonder he was having trouble remembering why he had wanted to retire.

My college also offers the kind of phased-in retirement that Klaus experienced, but it never seemed like an attractive option to me; working part-time for less money would just delay the date when I could move back home to Maine. So, I have continued to work long hours, to deal with a sometimes exhausting load of grading, and to continue with non-teaching academic responsibilities. I have tried to divest myself of some of these, but not very successfully. So, while I am not participating in the sociology department’s search for my replacement and have stopped attending faculty meetings, I am still involved with faculty evaluations and participate in more than my share of meetings. Especially during my overwhelming fall semester, I was reminded every day why I wanted to retire.

Even so, I have been experiencing some twinges of impending loss. In this last semester of teaching, I am hyper-aware of how much satisfaction I get when students’ suddenly grasp a new concept and how much of a buzz I get from the exchange of intellectual ideas in the classroom. Losing this does seem scary. There’s a buoyant moment in Klaus’s journal, near the end of his last semester of teaching, when he attends a talk by a visiting writer and friend and describes what happened this way:

Adam’s thoughtful talk about varieties of nonfiction writing … led to such a provocative discussion that it drew me into the give-and-take, and helped me to see that what I crave, after all, is not the opportunity to keep teaching , so much as occasions like this, wherever I might find them, that will keep me mentally stimulated – on my toes.

Like Klaus, I can imagine getting that intellectual stimulation outside the classroom; but I do wonder how difficult it will be to find (or make) those occasions.

As my about-to-graduate senior was leaving my office, I offered this thought about the exciting/scary life transitions we are both approaching: “It’s like turning a new page in the book of your life,” I said. “It’s a new, blank page, and you can write anything you want on it.” “Thank you,” she said with a big smile, “I’m going to hang onto that image!”

10 thoughts on “Both Exciting and Scary

  1. And I will hang onto that image as I retire at the end of this month. Mine has been faster than I had thought and I am already phasing out quickly. They may have me back a few days a month to finish things but the loss I am feeling will continue…for me it is the loss of relationships forged at work…these will be hard to replace or continue as I live an hour away…but I hope to stay in touch.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, Wow! After having your retirement delayed and seemingly receding into the distance, it has suddenly arrived! I have a sense of things speeding up here, too. In Robert S. Weiss’s The Experience of Retirement (ILR Press, 2005), which is based on interviews with 89 recent retirees, the issue of maintaining or replacing workplace friendships loomed large as an issue for many.

  2. Jean says:

    All of life’s transitions are both exciting and scary—graduations, marriage, parenthood, retirement, loss of loved ones, moving to new cities, etc. You’d think we’d all be used to changing courses, wouldn’t you, by our age. I think your approach to retirement—the pull the Band-Aid off quickly approach—is the easiest and best way. With one foot in each of two worlds you are no place, hung in flexing transition. Men in our generation do have a harder time adjusting to retirement for all the reasons you mentioned regarding their self-image being to closely tied to their careers. But I think that will change in the future, don’t you, because more and more men are getting involved in parenting and home skills, becoming more rounded individuals.

    I think finding intellectual stimulation will be your biggest challenge and you won’t really notice that until fall 2014 when you don’t go back to school. That will be your most vulnerable time for feeling a sense of loss.

    My niece finally decided to retire from teaching so I’m going to have to turn her on to your blog. She’ll be getting her 25 years in soon and she’s worried about retirement benefits if she doesn’t lock in soon. I can’t believe how quickly society is changing attitudes regarding teachers, police and fiire fighter benefits and value to society! But that’s a whole different topic for another day.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, It does seem as though women’s and men’s experiences of retirement should become more similar as their adult lives become more similar.
      Thanks for the insight about fall being a vulnerable time. For almost my entire life, since my first day of school at age 4 in September 1952, September has represented the excitement of new beginnings in my life. Klaus and his wife took a big vacation in September so that he would be far away and otherwise occupied when school began. I think a better solution for me would be to begin one of my new retirement ventures in September — maybe those sewing lessons that I’ve been dreaming about.

  3. Retirement issues certainly don’t all fall into one paragraph or topic – there are lots of issues for sure. And, I’m guessing each person maneuvers the turns in a different way. The thing I find most challenging is that once you are retired and reclassified as a senior citizen somehow your experience is not valued as much as when you were ‘working.’ Here’s hoping your retirement journey is even better than you imagine. 🙂

    • Jean says:

      Judy, This is an issue that I hadn’t been thinking about, but I’m sure I will experience this in a big way. In Klaus’s diary, he talks about the need for “affirmation.” I think this may hit we retired professors hard, because the end of career is where we often experience the greatest respect and affirmation from our students. Have you developed any strategies for dealing with this devaluation of your experience?

      • I’m sorry to say I haven’t so I’ll be tuned in to see if you do. I’ve joked that retirees should all wear those billboards that list their skills and experience so that we are not all lumped into one group entitled “senior citizens.” I recently watched the first Hobbit movie and they referred to this one dwarf as ‘old.’ He replied that he preferred ‘experienced.’ I do too. 🙂

  4. Diana Studer says:

    that new blank page for intellectual stimulation? I do recommend Google Plus – so many people have written about the deep value they draw from it – and I’m often in conversations where I would love to draw your voice, your perspective into the conversation.

    Today I’ve had the Ukraine, a canal across Nicaragua, grief and a malignant cancer diagnosis, a few views on trust and authenticity … and then I turn to Feedly and blogs, then tomorrow and sleep!

    • Jean says:

      Diana, Thanks for the tip about Google+. I’m registered there, but haven’t really made use of my account. It’s good to know there are mature, intellectually stimulating conversations to be found there, and I’ll look forward to checking them out.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

Please join me as I step into my future.

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