Women and Retirement: Issues of Transition, Denial and Loss

"Retirement" is no longer limited to meaning "the rest of my life of non-working," since we live longer and have a great deal of vitality and energy at fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty and beyond.
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In the years I've spent co-facilitating support groups, co-leading workshops and discussion groups, giving lectures and writing about women facing retirement, the overwhelming sentiment they express is the fear of loss. Inevitably, loss entails dealing with or avoiding grieving, mourning and letting go. Along with letting go, questions of meaning, identity, self and aging emerge, ultimately leading to the question, "what next?"*

"Retirement" is no longer limited to meaning "the rest of my life of non-working," since we live longer and have a great deal of vitality and energy at fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty and beyond. Because we have no precedent or role models for this new phase of development, our current retiring generation is left with the task of formulating the relevant questions and finding ways to answer them -- one person at a time. While the word "retirement" is now frequently used and we have more resources available (self-help books, some institutional assistance and many professionals with expertise in issues which arise), the task remains quite lonely and isolating. This is especially true in the beginning, when the rumblings in the deep internal waters of change do not yet have a voice, a forum or a community of women to affirm the validity of the questions as they begin to take shape.

The most interesting finding in the informal research I have done with my colleague, Karen Van Allen, is that all the women we have worked with have similar questions after about fifty, no matter if they have always worked/never worked/sometimes worked, are in long-term marriages/second marriages/divorced and living alone/or never married or have or haven't had children. The deep questions about loss of structure, identity, "bag lady" fears and the search for meaningfulness surface at this time of life more than ever before.

The universal issues involve feelings of isolation, ("I'll lose my working community of peers"); fears of the loss of external structure, ("what will I do with my time?) and questions about self stemming from a loss of the well-worn belief that what one does is who one is. In addition, financial worries, whether realistic or not, seem to surface in old un-worked-through forms stemming from cultural and family attitudes toward money. These need sorting out in order to separate the diffuse anxiety from whatever the reality may be.

Several steps need to be taken to enter into this transition, make use of it, and move on in a meaningful way.

Acknowledging the Losses vs. Denial

Retirement is indeed a change and a significant one at that. Change implies loss whether it is wished for or not. Avoiding the feelings of loss which accompany change is likely to result in the psychoanalytic idea of the compulsion to repeat. Unconscious and well practiced, the inability to face the loss, feel the loss, grieve the loss and give language to the loss, is likely to take away the option of choice and is likely to cloud the opportunity to face the unknown in order eventually to create something new. This requires time, support and the willingness to feel one's feelings as well as the understanding that the fear of the unknown is just that -- a fear, a belief -- not something real and reified, not something solid and true. It is a fear. It is an idea. It is a thought. t is a constellation with deep origins in the denial that the unknown has been accompanying us all along. Once we realize that, we may be able to put it aside, visit it once in a while and pull the covers over our head, but emerge again to face the changes we are making.

The Manic Defense vs. Holding Still

One of the most common forms of avoiding the unknown is the manic defense which compels us to act: to do, to hurry up, to avoid being still, to avoid feeling sad, to avoid being scared. It may actually work well in the short run, but fails us in the long haul. For we cannot feel our feelings when we are too busy doing. We cannot "be" when we are fixated on what to "do." Holding still is difficult. Sitting with silence and going into our heart is what is required although it is difficult, it harbors the riches. W.B. Yeats, who wrote his greatest poetry after midlife, often depicted his experience of major developmental transitions by using the image of the ladder which is widespread in literature and mythology. As he says in his poem "The Circus Animal's Desertion":
Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Identifying Old and New Passions
One way to come closer to one's heart is to remember current and/or forgotten passions. Ways in which one's true self is manifest in one's creativity. Times when time went by unnoticed. Times when one felt whole and complete. Times when a sense of boundaries defining our separateness faded into a different consciousness and nothing mattered but the experience of passion. This is important because it is a very tangible, palpable reminder of how it feels to be one's true self. This is the very state which will become the meaningfulness we are seeking as we trudge through the murkiness of acknowledging the losses trying to believe there is something on the other side.

Getting Rid of Old Injunctions/Assuming Permission
Often there are obstacles in the way which keep us from achieving a state of passion. They appear in the form of injunctions and rules. They have words attached to them such as "should," "can't," "don't," "must" and "not." These, too, must be identified, named and let go or at least put aside in order to let the passionate self through. Often, we need support and help to grant ourselves the required permission. This support can come from a friend, therapist, good grandmother, teacher or mentor. Or it can be symbolic, stemming from something like a heroine from a favorite book, someone in your past who you felt "understood me." We call upon these wise women and men for their counsel and support to say "yes" and to help us believe in ourselves.

My experience with women's groups has taught me that what is lost in this transition may seem real and frightening, but what is already there within us is the unexpected joy and consequence of sitting still and listening in. For we will not be left alone. We will be accompanied by the strength, resilience, talent, abilities and passion of who we already are.

The fear of loss, once again, is just that: a fear. An idea. A thought. A belief. When women retire, they are making a move, a change. It is fraught with fears and it is experienced as a loss. The fears are replaceable with all the creativity that is already inside. The loss must be grieved and let go in order to search for what is next.

It is important to let go of the too-big question "what do I do with the rest of my life" and break it down into one step at a time. You only need to do what is next because what is next will inevitably lead to unforeseen meadows where, once again, you can ask yourself "what next?" If that means sitting still for a while longer, then do so. You will not be disappointed.

About the Author:
Ruth Neubauer, MSW, LCSW, is a clinician in private practice in Denver, Colorado, working with adults and couples. In 1996, Ruth and Karen Van Allen, MSW co-founded "Retirement" or WHAT NEXT- workshops and support groups for Women Over 50 in transition - www.retirementorwhatnext.com. She is still on the faculty of The Washington School of Psychiatry and teaches courses on psychoanalytic concepts to the general public at Denver University's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She is a musician, published poet, and photographer (www.liminalspace.com) who may be reached through www.rneubauertherapy.com.

This article was previously published in Clio's Psyche, December, 2006

*The reader should note that although it is likely that many of the same issues facing women about to retire or already retired also occur for men, my work with women of retirement age over the last dozen years explains my focus on women for this article.

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