Big Girls Don’t Cry

Joyce Wayne’s outlook on challenges women face and life after retirement.

During the weeks and months before my retirement, I felt like crying each and every day. But during thirty-seven years of full time work, I’d learned my lessons well. Big girls don’t cry, particularly at work.

Timing retirement is tricky, at best. How do we know exactly when to call it quits?  Or to estimate if we’ll have enough money to see us through to the end, or to accomplish some of the things we’ve always dreamed of doing?

Now after writing steadily about retirement for four years, I’ve learned that there is no perfect time to retire and that managing retirement is not an exact science. Retirement is much like the life we led before retiring. Much of it’s hit and miss, layered with prudent planning, financial savvy and emotional intelligence.

Most of my friends are terrified to retire, since we all know from hard-fought experience, that trying to pin down the perfect anything is challenging.

When I returned home from Europe this month a copy of Hillary Clinton’s new book What Happened, was waiting for me on the doorstep. My daughter Hannah and her boyfriend Andy sent it to me. I’m not certain if I’d have purchased it for myself, but once I got into it, all I could think about was Clinton’s dire loss at the polls last November and the implications for those pondering retirement.

If anyone didn’t have time to contemplate retirement, it would be her. In one night she went from the probability of being the most powerful person in the world, to not having a job. No job, no title, no status.

True to form, Hillary doesn’t reveal much about the night she faced defeat. After all, big girls don’t cry, at least not in public.  I can only imagine her thoughts and feelings when she was so certain she would win the Presidency and instead she lost. What she does reveal is how much of women’s lives are wrapped up in work.

For those of us who first heard about feminism during our first years of university, the turnaround in the direction of our future began then.  In a short time, between 1965 and 1975, the lives of girls and women changed. We went from disposing of the notion of a college education as a route to marriage and motherhood to embracing it as the pathway to a solid, rewarding career. For me, and for my friends, work became the focus of our lives. We had children late in life, and by all counts, only one or two. We learned to balance home chores, relationships, marriage and child rearing with the duties of demanding careers. When I started working, maternity leave was fifteen weeks.

For women in politics, it was more difficult and as Clinton remarks, it gets worse the higher you get. “If we’re too tough, we’re unlikeable. If we’re too soft, we’re not cut out for the big leagues. If we work too hard, we’re neglecting our families. If we put family first, we’re not serious about the work. If we have a career but no children, there’s something wrong with us, and vice versa.”

It’s no wonder that working women find it difficult to retire. We’ve faced huge obstacles to remain in our careers, let alone rise to the top. To sum up, we’ve spent the greater portion of our adult lives trying to crash the glass ceiling while doing double-duty at home and covering what Clinton calls “emotional labour” at work and at home.

Working women handle the “unpaid, uncounted, often unseen work that people perform to keep their families and workplaces humming,” argues Clinton.  “Organizing office birthday parties. Arranging kids’ summer camp. Coordinating visits with in-laws. Helping the new employee feel welcome and included. The list is endless: all the little details without which life would devolve into chaos and misery.” I can’t help but agree. And so, when it comes time to retire, it’s no wonder that many of us envision a gapping hole in our day-to-day activities.

It’s no easy task to figure out what to do during retirement when you’ve been crazy busy for the last thirty-five years. Of course, men suffer as well.

I was particularly struck by a recent New York Times review of What Happened, which quotes 1968 U.S. presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey when he wrote

“What am I going to do?” He lost the race to Richard Nixon. “There isn’t anything I want to do. I wanted to be President. … I was ready. I’d really trained for the presidency. I know government. We had such great plans. We could have changed things. Damn it, I love this country. We could have done so much good.”

Recent U.S. studies point to the fact that the majority of men and women facing retirement wish they could continue working in some capacity. It’s no surprise. Not only do older adults need the extra income, but also they crave the companionship and a sense of purpose that work provides.

An analysis done for BNN here at home “vividly shows that compared to earning nothing extra at all after the traditional retirement age of 65, earning modest amounts of extra income, such as $1000 each for a couple per month (whether as a part-time employee or on a self-employed basis) magically changes (the prognosis for a secure retirement).

“In the case of a retiree with lifestyle expenses of $60,000 who undertakes a full-stop retirement at 65, earning no extra income, there is a sharp fall in a $500,000 (combined registered and non-registered) portfolio starting at age 65. By the time they reach their early 80s, the nest egg is depleted to zero.

“The outcome is much different for a couple earning just $2,000 a month between them part-time after 65 and going until 75. That’s about $250 per week per spouse. The dramatic effect is that even that modest amount of income delays the portfolio’s drop below zero beyond their early 90s. During the ten-year period of working part-time, not only does the nest egg not decline the first ten years, it actually rises! The effect is that by the time you reach 75 and finally stop working even part-time, the portfolio declines from a higher level and much more gradually.”

My best thoughts are try not to spend much time comparing yourself to others, the glamorous CEO down the street or your old pal from high school who seemingly thrives on nothing. Neither helps. Instead, do plan ahead. Start early. Avoid snap decisions. Figure out what you need versus what you want. Working part time after retiring was the most important decision I made, both for my emotional and my financial health. Today, four years into retirement, my list of need versus want has changed considerably, but my vision for the future looks rosier than it did when I first contemplated retirement.

And the song still holds true: big girls don’t cry.

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