Who Am I Now?

I officially retired at the end of 2020. Since then I have been trying to identify who I am now, and I am finding it a bit destabilizing. Having grown up in a culture that defines who I am by what I do, now that I am no longer “doing” what I did, who am I?

Eras

My work history can be broken down into eras. There was the post-college era where I was trying out different jobs and different working personas. This was in the mid-1970s, and jobs for women with degrees in literature primarily centered on being secretaries, administrative assistants, or sales associates. I did all three, as well as waitressing, teaching swimming, and writing.

My second era was a foray into law. I started working at the State Bar of California as a secretary and was promoted to Section Administrator (notice the capitalization). This actually was a very fun job that entailed travel, hanging around with really smart attorneys, and participating in policy development. That morphed into a five-year stint as a paralegal and word processing maven in the private sector.

My third era involved personal growth and a return to school. During this phase, I acquired a PhD, became licensed as a psychologist, and married the love of my life. This was the longest and most stable era so far. It lasted almost 30 years.

Current Status

Now I am retired. My identity as a psychologist remains dominant in the minds and hearts of those who have only known me in the recent past (30 years – ha!). I have a few friends who have known me since my time at the State Bar and as a paralegal. Due to a happy synergy between my college alumni association, pandemic restrictions, and Zoom, I am currently reconnecting with college classmates, some of whom have no idea what I did for a living and are amazed to learn about my career (as I am with them and theirs).

The constant, of course, is me. I have been present in all my various iterations. I have been in the same rail car, following the tracks of my life, with different people getting on and off at different stops. Some have traveled with me the entire journey so far, others have had only a short trip with me. Some were with me for a while, then took a different mode of transportation and re-joined me further down the line.

A New Era

I am at the start of an era that is more like a grape reaching maturity on the vine. Its utility doesn’t end when it is picked, but actually increases in value as it is blended and perfected into a vintage wine.

Now I am writing for profit, starting a business to teach others what I know about aging, and becoming more and more politically active on behalf of aging adults. This requires that I let go of some of my identities and create a new one. This means letting people know I am no longer a psychologist and now am … what?  What is it I am doing?

I am So Not Retired!

I am so not retired!  I am transitioning from being one thing to becoming another. The word “retirement”, by definition means ceasing to work, but I am certainly not ceasing anything!  And this is a common trope these days, with so many aging adults continuing to work in a variety of jobs. What does change, however, is how much we are paid for doing. And how we are valued for what we do.

I have often said that I became a licensed psychologist because it was something I could do as long as I could hear what my patients were saying and provide insight and feedback. There were no age limits. What made me change my mind is that I now feel a calling to work with larger numbers of people instead of one at a time.

I want to be valued for my skills and knowledge. I want to share what I know, I want to be compensated for what I offer. Barring cognitive decline and physical limitations, I should be able to sustain my new endeavors for around 15 years or so, perhaps longer. All of these are “doing” things, but I want to do them in a different way.

Transitioning from “Doing” to “Being”

I see this as a new developmental stage of aging. It is a stage where we transition from “doing” to “being”. There are more and more of us who are choosing to continue to contribute, create, build, and educate well after our 65th birthday. There are leaders among us, visionaries, as well as steady workers whose experience and insights can and should provide continuity and creativity to help us navigate the uncharted territory of aging in the 21st century.

Demonstrating our worth as older adults, not in terms of production (newer, better, faster), but in terms of steadfastness and stability will require confronting the implicit belief that old people have no value. And we have to convince ourselves first! Overcoming the cultural default toward youth is a big barrier. The challenge lies in naming this new phase and in claiming a seat at the table.

What the Pandemic Has Taught Me

One of the greatest lessons this pandemic has taught me is the value of slowing down. While I still have that inner voice telling me I should be doing more, I am better able to mute it and give myself the time needed to ponder, to day dream, to nap.

Another lesson I have learned is how important community is. Living alone, as I do, I experience a sense of safety and care just knowing who my neighbors are. I have seen and personally benefited from many acts of kindness during this past year. Information, resources, and love have all been freely shared among the various communities I participate in. And more and more of my groups are interacting with each other, creating this extraordinary Venn diagram.

Foundations for Creating a Vision for Aging in the 21st Century

It is clear to me that I need to build my vision for my old age on five pillars:  1) creating, sustaining, and participating in community, 2) meeting the challenges of aging by adapting and accommodating to change, 3) staying engaged physically, cognitively, and emotionally, 4) creating purpose and meaning for my life, and 5) pulling together a legacy of values to hand off to the next generation.

These five things are the focus of my transition from doing to being. The “doing” requires I reach out to others, take steps to maintain myself, and share what I know. The “being” requires that I accept the changes in status and capacity, and adjust my life accordingly.

What are your foundations?  What are you building your future on?

6 comments

  1. welcome to retirement-hope it brings you all your desires. my search for the next chapter continues after 1.5 years, though the slow time of 2020 has sharpened the focus. boy do we share a lot of train stops! a long visit is overdue.
    your transition elements are spot on-revel in the knowledge you attained them in the past, just looking for that next train stop to share with others. loved this column ms mary-stay well.

  2. Mary, marvelous post. Until age 60, I spent MY life (due to my childhood unconscious role-modeling of two unhappy, self-sabotaging “parents”) doing “honorable” jobs, i.e. contributing while getting (sort of) “paid,” but never had found “Right Work.” (The French word “métier” (May-tee-ay) doesn’t translate into English. It means “spending your time doing your passion.” I’ve met masterful waiters in France proudly, expertly and joyfully “doing” that, their métier. (Such do NOT t shamefacedly hasten to tell you of their plans to “advance upwards.”)

    MY “retirement” began when the 10-year startup company I was attempting (a vastly idealistic experiment in recycling large volumes of wastewater “for the world”) was killed by the 2008 crash (terrible timing). However, that IS when I at last found MY “right work” ~ as a lifelong poet and writer. (Writing I’d done all along, but mainly for others). I’ve been writing for ME ever since. (Regarding all Artists, most Americans ask: “So are you a Success? [Meaning published, rich and famous]. To me that would or will be merely “gravy.”

    BTW, gotta love that word: “retirement” (e.g. “Retreat”) — nearly as much as “invalid” (i.e. Not Valid). What a supportive culture this one is (ha ha!).

  3. I also retired in 2020 after a rewarding and productive career. The slow down of the COVID effect has been a gift in one respect as I have been able to recognize, justify and enjoy just being quiet. I have realized that I have contributed well during my career and there are ways I can and will continue to contribute to my family and community once I can get out and about again. Having time to consider what and how to do that has been invaluable.

  4. Great post Mary. Synchronistic you should write this morning when I dreamt of a cross between a commencement & reunion of doctoral students I taught.
    “Retirement?” Needs to be retired from the language! I’d planned to continue Jungian psychotherapy practice full time for another 8 years. Slow moving, stage IV cancer changed that. Have I “retired”? No. I’ve changed the balance of what I do. I delight in consulting with those who know me & an occasional short burst of therapy with someone I’ve known for years. A year after diagnosis & neck fusion, I finished the longest 🖊📕 I’ve published:460 pages. (I didn’t plan to write it; discoveries & beautiful illustrations required it). I’m writing two more – no idea how that happened. I’ve taken more classes at Stanford than when I had 30+ patients/week. I spend too much time with superb health providers. I travelled often until Covid. I’ve just changed proportions. My criteria for quality of life? To feel love & loved; to be pain & nausea-free enough to enjoy life🏊🏼‍♂️🏓; to contribute; to be creative (🎨, ✍🏼 ,🎹…).
    The hell with “retired“. My father turns 101 today. He’s highly creative, related, & busy.

  5. I think you have answered the questions in my poem…

    What is your job
    when you no longer have a job?
    What is your work
    when you don’t go to work any more?

    When you retire
    you gain such a lot—like freedom
    and time and multiple choice.
    You left with relief
    so why this incongruity of grief?

    Work gave you friends, a schedule, a label
    a space and a fable
    a reason to get out of bed
    a dress code and your daily bread
    and at your very core
    a sense of who you are
    and what you’re for.

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