I have always prided myself on how engaged and “with it” I am. I am 64 and gobble up the news items and magazine articles that tell me to “live” the life, to have a second career, to enjoy an encore career, to follow my passion. I just read an article that told me to prepare for retirement by starting my own business after 60 and to do this I have to begin with my mindset. I lap this stuff up. Every word and shiny product that I see tells me that no longer working still involves working if you really want to have any fun and avoid starving to death.
I cringe at the word retirement and try to avoid using it on forms when I am asked what my employment is or what is it that I do? I look askance at my friends who use the word wanting to correct them, to ask them not to sell themselves short with such an archaic word. Sort of like when the word ‘girl’ fell out of favour with women over a certain age. It should still be out of bounds unless you are under the age of 18 in my mind. But hey, some ‘girls’ embrace the word like some are trying to embrace the word slut. I can say the word slut more easily than the word, retire, and I even hate typing the word slut.
I remember my mother telling all six of her daughters that she wanted us to be able to look after ourselves financially regardless of what path we chose. Some of us have done this while others relied more on their husband’s income but overall we did our best. As a young woman entering the work force for the first time I felt encouraged to carry the banner for workingwomen and to hold off having any children too soon. My mother started to work full time in an office when the youngest of her seven children was in school. She managed to work with seven children at home, all under the age of seventeen. She had no outside child care or cleaning service. I thought that I certainly should be able to work easily and gracefully with no children to worry about. None of my friends’ mothers worked outside the home when they were growing up which meant we didn’t talk about it much. But when we did it seemed that these young women were determined not to be their mothers. I pretended having my mother at work from 8:30 to 5:00 every day showed that my mother was way ahead of her generation. The reality of that time was much bleaker and more fraught with tension since there was seldom a visible parent in the house. The older siblings had to take on this role and as the second oldest it often fell to me. Sibling rivalry reared its ugly head every day with no mediator and by the time my parents got home they were too tired to deal with very much. We gave up “telling on each other’ and carried on the best we could. It seemed a bit disingenuous for me to use my mother, as a role model of what women should have been doing, to my friends. But I did anyway and continued to do so for the next forty years.
Even those of us who waited to have our own children later after we were fully engaged in the workforce were still caught with little to no maternity leave provided and given dire predictions of what would happen to our job security and even our pensions should we take too much time off to have our babies. The school system I was working in gave me six weeks for my first child and it was called sick leave. I ended up coming back after only five weeks since the substitute teacher could not control my class. It was my responsibility to come and fix the problem and I did. It never occurred to me to say no, that I was busy tending to a six-week old baby. I could do both couldn’t I? Besides in the back of my mind was my mother’s experience. She had a lot more to contend with than I did and she did it.
We were encouraged to give birth without drugs and to get home as soon as possible. I remembered my mother telling me she spent eight days in the hospital for each baby. I let that thought sit in my mind for a long time as an example of how the system viewed women as weak and sick when they had a baby. But as I lay in my hospital bed with that tiny little human lying on my chest the panic set in. How was I going to manage to take care of her on my own? Husbands were helping more in those days but there are a lot of things the father cannot do in the beginning and besides he only got one day off. I felt guilty as I lay there wishing I could stay in the maternity ward for eight days. Outwardly I was handling it all. I was keen to get home and get busy being a working mother. But inside I was afraid of it all, of the extra work, of the responsibility, of the demand to be thinking and caring for a helpless human. In the hospital at least there was someone else doing the laundry, the cooking and understanding what each squeal or spit up really meant. But no, I took pride in going home quickly. After all women used to give birth at home and continue to cook supper. I would compare the length of my hospital stay with friends who also had babies at the same time. We bragged to one another how quickly we were home after the birth. It was only later when a new mom told me how quickly she was able to leave the hospital that I wanted to tell her how sorry I was that she had to come home so quickly. I didn’t. I kept the pact and stayed quiet.
This is when I believe the hurrying began.
I hurried to work and I hurried to pick up my baby and later my two babies so I could hurry home to cook supper.
I hurried to classes and seminars to keep current in my work. I hurried to play dates and ballet and swimming classes so my daughters would succeed.
I found myself breathless yet proud that I was so successful at what allowed me to do these things although I didn’t call it hurrying.
About mid point in all of this hurrying the word stress reared its ugly head all over the place. People I worked with were booking off sick with stress. Counsellors were hired full time to provide support for the stressed. Workshops and seminars abounded to help all of us stressed people get unstressed while we continued to hurry. We laughed about it, telling each other that all this talk of stress was stressing us out. We clenched our teeth and hurried off to fitness classes so we could work off the child- bearing fat from around our middles, trying to take a deep breath in the car since this was also supposed to relieve our stress which of course we didn’t have.
The next twenty years were spent hurrying to advance in our careers, to decorate our homes and to keep cleaning ladies and bakeries in business while we hurried to entertain our friends and families. We hurried to our children’s graduations and proms, sports events, weddings and divorces.
When we met with friends who were living similar lives as we were, we reveled in our busyness and expressed our concern that our childless friends seemed rather at loose ends. They didn’t seem to us to have much purpose in their lives. We heard about chronic fatigue, which we mocked as a syndrome that we all had, just that some of us kept going in spite of it.
Then the great retirement goal was within reach. We were not going to be the generation that sat in a rocking chair, we moved on and up. We told ourselves that we need to hurry and find our way to our true passions that we haven’t been able to do before. We can travel, work part time, or work at something we really wished we had done forty years ago. We can volunteer and contribute to our communities. We can hurry up and keep on hurrying which is what we had become so good at doing. If we stopped we would be letting our boomer generation down. We would be giving in.
Next we get lots and lots of information about meditation, mindfulness and living in the now. We look for the faster version. We meditate for five minutes and try to be mindful in the third volunteer meeting in a week or in our new office or at our part time job. We think about the now for a minute as we hurry to fitness classes or the travel agent to book our next trip.
We worry about our retired friends who don’t join any organizations, or take trips or work part time. We want to ask them if they are sick but we don’t ask; we simply feel sorry that something has slowed them down; something that we are determined won’t catch us.
We ask each other “What are you doing these days?” and when we are asked in turn we cannot seem to say “nothing”. We list all of our activities that we are involved with, breathlessly, so we will seem engaged and busy. One of the most overworked phrases of our Zoomer generation is “I’m busier now than when I worked for a living.” We even hurry when we say that. We are fending off that low-grade panic that sets in when we start to think we don’t have anything to do or to be in charge or a reason to get out the door each day.
Now my children are being told to “lean in” by Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, co-authored by Nell Scovell to reach for the top of the corporate ladder as she has with her career. I have no problem with this message for our daughters. But I see that my daughers have learned to lean out too. They will say no I am not going to do that or take that on right now. Maybe they watched their mother, me, and decided that they didn’t need to be like that. Always rushing.
I came to realize that I didn’t believe that my childhood was better because my mother worked outside the home and other people’s mothers didn’t. I told myself for a long time that it was better for us to have a mother who had a career but I grew to know it wasn’t so. I have friends who believe the same about their mothers who stayed home. They wanted to believe that the mothers who stayed home and cared for their family were doing what they were supposed to be doing but as time went on they also realized that some of their mothers were very unhappy. I learned that women need their own money to have any power in the home and they learned that they needed to be in control of everything in the home to have any power. As daughters of these women we had more choices than they did and most of us chose some bits from each rather than making a choice of one over the other. Maybe these are the lessons we really teach, the ones our children live through not the ones we tell them.
But I too want to learn to lean out, away from the expectations our generation have placed on us to appear busy.
It may be time for us to start a revolution of peace and happiness that was attempted in the sixties but got highjacked along the way. Maybe it was inevitable that our generation would get fired up and begin to work for ourselves and our families and leave the peace and love behind. We can be proud of much of what we have accomplished. But let’s do more leaning in and out while sitting on a chair that has rockers on the bottom, without hooking it up to a generator so we can generate electricity to make us feel useful.
What if we stopped hurrying and embraced the slowness of time and place? What if we stayed still and quiet during the mindful sessions and slowed down our pace when we attend meetings or work part time. Does the world need us to continue to live our fast paced “me lifestyle” all the time? Maybe by slowing it down we can offer the world a stockpile of positive energy when it needs it. We could relax into our lives and shout that we are doing absolutely nothing and we are going to take our own sweet time doing it. Maybe there would be more space in the world for the young people to change what we couldn’t and to make things better as they watch us enjoy slow time and what just being ‘still’ looks like in daily life.
We don’t have to get out of their way or show them the way to live a full life. I think we need to be proud of our stillness, of our appreciation for each other and the planet we inhabit. It may be their turn to hurry. But for those of us who had our time of “hurrying” we can now take the time to give the universe some peace and simplicity and share that with everyone so they can see it and feel it too.
So to all those people who ask me what I am doing I am going to say, ”Nothing, absolutely nothing, and I am having a grand time doing it. Want to come along?”
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