When I left the paid workforce, I had two young children, a husband, and a job I liked a lot, paid well and was generally considered a plum position. I didn’t do this wanting a different lifestyle. I wasn’t confronting an organizational mandatory retirement age.
No, I was living with multiple sclerosis and ulcerative colitis and my health spiraled out of control. On the worst days, I couldn’t get out of bed (high fevers, uncontrollable bowels, weakness.) My job at that time as a college professor offered no scheduling flexibility. Show up or class was cancelled. Show up or you’re out. My performance was declining and if I hadn’t left on my own, I‘m sure I would have been asked to resign.
In an effort to cheer me up, an older friend who was 65 and had just voluntarily retired to stay home to take care of her grandchildren, joked that I could look at this as a form of retirement. But I’d heard my parent’s friends, facing mandatory retirement at age 62, complain bitterly about leaving their jobs before they were ready. They believed they had lots of good working years ahead. The idea of retirement did not bring a smile
In those first months though, I felt a huge relief, like I’d been let out of jail. No longer was I dragging my miserable body to show up at a job five days a week where I had to pretend to be a ‘normal’ person. Now my responsibilities – childcare and household – were mostly doable. If not, other people could step in for me.
But after a few months of wandering in circles around my house when the kids were at school and my husband was at work, my essential nature kicked in and I felt itchy to pick up the pace. Without thinking much about it, I ramped it up, pouring whatever energy I had available into activities like cooking, gardening, piano lessons, fixing up our house. That wasn’t an intentional process. I picked those activities because I’d always liked doing them and hadn’t had the time before. You wouldn’t believe how many hours you can spend searching furniture consignment shops!
In my own meandering way, I was exploring what was possible and what was my capacity at that point in time, much easier to do without the pressure of paid employment. What I didn’t realize at that time was that I gravitated to activities I could do at my own pace and where I was only accountable to me. What do I learn from this:
√ Must Have Criteria: Work must be a flexible schedule where I am accountable only to me.
As this level of activity felt more comfortable, I branched out to group activities, still without intention. There was no one to mentor me, no ‘self help’ books that offered me a master plan. I dove into the easiest and nearest opportunity, volunteering in my daughters school PTA . Interesting, important stuff but it left me emotionally flat. Casting about, I stumbled into another area of interest that had always engaged me, social justice action. This brought more committee work and required a little more physical effort and more accountability to others — but without threat of being fired. I was regaining some momentum and confidence in my capacity to be engaged in the world, even while living with illness.
Maybe it took not working to show me how much work mattered to me and what it did for me. Now I could see what it I got from this, other than a paycheck and job status. Being deeply engaged in activity that I could do to the best of my capacity allowed me to be more than my sick and diminished body. It became clear that working can offer purpose and engagement and shift my focus from inward to outward, from what I can’t do to what I can do. What did I learn?
√ Must Have Criteria: Work must give me purpose and engagement.
After a few years of increasing my activity level to the point where I was working in the volunteer world almost the amount of hours I’d put into a paid job, I noticed something big was missing. I thought that volunteer work is great and valuable but some part of me felt unsatisfied. I wanted to know that I was chosen for a task, hired to do a job because I was the best person available to do it. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my own abilities at that time but there’s no doubt in my mind that struggling with difficult health left me more fragile. I would feel even better about myself if I’m chosen for a job because of my value and my skills not just because I show up. I think this can be true for anyone, regardless of health. What did I learn?
√ Must Have Criteria: Work must include being chosen for my skills and talents.
With intention, I slowly carved a path, wavy but steady, toward paid employment. I know I’ve been fortunate to have the resources to do this my way. I know that my way isn’t right or possible for everyone. But it seems to me that regardless of your age, when your body is diminished, work can play a critical role in your ability to maintain your balance, your sense of joy and your body.
Yes, we should all be able to make this happen. But it’s not always possible. What works for you? Have you found volunteer work that makes a difference in your life? Does work have to be paid and if not, then what should it do for you? Does it make sense to work for low pay – and when? I’m curious. What are your thoughts and your story. Please share it here with the community.