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Women in Retirement: A Life Review

For many, retirement triggers a trove of memories, moments replayed and misconceptions corrected.

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For many, retirement triggers a trove of memories, moments replayed and misconceptions corrected.

They came one by one eager to tell their stories. They were prepared for the swirl of change retirement brings, but they did not foresee the compelling life review process that gripped them.

“Soon after I retired, uninvited thoughts roamed my mind,” Ruth recalled. “Suddenly I was back at sleep-away camp plotting my escape route home. Then I was gazing at my Dad’s car fading in the distance the day he moved out. Memories surfaced like guppies. I couldn’t hold them back. I didn’t even try.”

Ruth, 71, is one of thirty-two women I interviewed between the ages of 65-88 who offered unvarnished narratives of their retirement and the unexpected life review it spawned. For many, an ongoing retrospective provided a chance to take inventory, to reassess strengths and fault lines, to reconsider choices made, paths not taken. As bonus, a backward glance typically informed a smarter move forward. If past is prologue, we best not ignore it.

But we live in an era that eschews looking back. Our cultural tribunes implore us to live in the present, face the future, but LET GO of the past . . . PLEASE. If as they insist, the past is dead, looking through a rear-view lens is nothing more than an idle waste of precious time.

Yet when Ellen, 69, exited her twenty-year academic position at Northwestern University, she re-examined not only her career but also the family history that shaped it. The only girl and youngest of three, she fought to keep pace with her brothers in school and sports. Though the boys were older, bigger and stronger, she never factored in those advantages when keeping score. “I was always runner-up in my mind,” she said. “It could have been my middle name.”

Later as a faculty member in the mathematics department, a male-dominated field, she doubted her abilities, constantly looking over her shoulder for her place in line. Only at retirement, after she stepped off the competitive treadmill, did she value her achievements rather than the race. Reviewing her list of publications, she smiled. “I caught up with my brothers,” she said with a twinkle, “and now I just want to hang up my sneakers and go barefoot in the park.”

The life review process not only presaged future pursuits, in some cases it ignited a wish to reckon with the past. Many were primed to explode family myths, unlock secrets, corral the truth. Life review led to life revision.

One woman pledged to uncover the truth about her father’s boyhood escape from Nazi Germany, steeling herself to the horrors beneath his silence. She learned anew that he was one of six children, three of whom perished in the camps at Auschwitz. She realized as never before that his glazed stare during their casual conversations was born not of indifference but of an enduring imprint of guilt and grief.

Kate, at 69, embarked on a long, convoluted search for her birth mother. “After I left the job I really loved,” she said, “I began feeling yet again like a stray suitcase left unclaimed. I decided it was time to find HER so maybe I could find ME. Though Kate was ten years too late for that reunion, she located Jean, her mother’s sister, who told a story Kate would forever cherish.

“My sister desperately wanted to keep her baby,” Jean said. “She named the baby Kate, and clung to her for as many months as money would allow. Yes, she signed those adoption papers but only because she didn’t have a red cent to her name. My sister never really gave up her baby. She thought of her every day till the day she took her last breath.” “Whenever those stray suitcase feelings wash over me,” Kate said, “I tell myself that story. I tell it and retell it. I know it by heart. Literally.”

Sara, 68, describes phases of her retirement and identifies the very beginning of her life review. Retiring after twenty-five years developing programs for Alzheimer’s patients, she kicked off her heels and shouted, “FREE AT LAST.” It was time to babble in French, travel to Provence and enjoy pleasures long postponed. “I love this new freedom,” she rejoiced. “I love reading for pleasure rather than performance. I love waking to my natural rhythms rather than a shrieking alarm clock.” To mark the day, she shred jaundiced files, rid herself of bulky furniture and reveled in open space AND open time.

But Sara grew restive. She felt at sea, groping for something, not knowing what. She felt sidelined, invisible. She missed the camaraderie of a team of caregivers dedicated to a shared mission. “I can meet friends for lunch every day of the week,” she said, “but it’s not the same as having them across the hall working together on a common cause.”

She realized incredulously that she missed the sturm und drang she once longed to escape: the urgent deadlines, the office chaos, the fevered debates. But most of all, she missed a purpose, a destination, a raison d’etre. If you are what you do, she wondered, then who am I now? She felt bereft of an identity, a proud reputation, a status long enjoyed. Is this freedom really worth the loss, she asked herself? Wrestling with that dilemma, bestirred a profound life review process.

A new introspection dislodged memories of earlier separations and dislocations. She relived too long an absence from her hospitalized mother when she was too young to know she “would” see her “mommy” again. She replayed the two-year family move to another country during her tender adolescent years. “I was ripped away from my home, my boyfriend, my mentors and my ‘joined-at-the-hip’ friends.”

Though these memories were painful, she was emboldened by her own resilience. She had, after all, overcome seemingly insuperable obstacles when confidence was in short supply. “Reliving that tsunami,” she said, “made retirement seem like a piece of cake.”

For many, the life review process inspired more joyful memories unearthed on visits to the attic. Stashed away in quiet corners were troves of memorabilia: a baby’s sock, a passel of love letters, diaries, journals, letters of gratitude, finger paintings from little hands.  Reminders of what matters.

Erik Erikson, psychologist and psychoanalyst, posited a late-life developmental phase where we long to review, integrate and make sense of our lives as we enter the twilight years. These narratives show a strikingly similar review process but one prompted by retirement rather than mortality. Revisiting the past provided a clearer vision of the future. Many realized they still wanted an active career but less of it. Most sought a comfortable balance between work and freedom. They called it “Career Lite,” and created compromise solutions.

Enterprising women conjured spin-offs derived from primary careers. Gene Cohen, geriatric psychiatrist, felicitously labeled this career off-shoot, the ‘encore’ phase, a minor variation on a major theme. Former English teachers led literary discussion groups, social workers wrote manuals, journalists sponsored local newsletters, bylines guaranteed.

In addition, many used the life review process to rewrite select chapters of their life story. “I finally understood that I chose boarding school not out of revenge,” Sara said, “but of a wish to find a ready-made group of friends after I was spirited away to another country on the other side of the pond.”

Perhaps most of all, this retrospective helped navigate the complexities of a crucial inflection point. Relinquishing a long, vital career meant losing an aspiring, visionary self. It meant giving up dreams of glory. It meant a time to mourn a more vibrant self.

And, too, it was time to marvel at yesterday’s accomplishments. It was time to step off the treadmill and walk with the wind. It was time to nurture grandchildren’s dreams and those of another generation. It was time to enjoy the “sweet” of a bitter-sweet transition.

“The world breaks everyone,” Hemingway famously said, “and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” When mourning allows the broken places to mend, we forge new pathways, appraise those already trod.

After an intense life review immersion, many said they enjoyed a quiet sense of internal harmony. They discovered a thread of continuity woven through their lives. They felt they knew themselves better and better liked the person they knew.

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