Sunday, March 3, 2013
Life, Death, Work, Changes. . . All on a Sunday Morning?
Since you've been so understanding, and since a number of you have encouraged me to write through this tough time, should I be so inclined, I'm going to try to articulate some of what I'm feeling despite my fear of boring or depressing you. After all, my blog is intended to shine light on women's mid-life to senior years, and sorrow is undeniably part of those years.
But I'm being dishonest -- or just lazy -- if I'm leaving the impression that my low moods lately are simply a reflection of my mom entering her last months. For quite a few months now, and on and off for at least a year, I've also been struggling with fatigue and stress about work. Increasingly, budget-tightening in the academy has meant that many of us work with fewer resources yet greater expectations. Pressure to "recruit and retain." Administrative bloating yet somehow a constant downloading to faculty level so that there is more and more committee work. And those of us at primarily teaching (rather than primarily research) institutions are generally teaching a 4/4 load (4 courses per term) which means a lot of student contact hours and, for writing-heavy courses such as English, a huge marking load.
So many of my students take English only because it's required, so that I'm often teaching resistant learners. And my sympathies are often heavily engaged by my students who have much more complicated lives than used to be associated with campuses -- most work at least part-time; some have children whose needs compete with homework; many have insecurities from earlier school experiences yet are determined to find success through hard work this time 'round. Disabilities can also be a challenge -- I've had to accommodate student blindness, autism, schizophrenia, as well as regularly helping students recognize and confront depression. All of this is a privilege in many ways, yes, but it's far, far from what I studied, and it wasn't what I might have chosen career-wise. Above all, it's emotionally draining, and over the past few years I've found less and less energy for any social life of my own outside of family and a few friends. This troubles me, increasingly, as I begin to think about retirement, because I am terrified of any resemblance to my mother's last decades. Terrified. Even as I rationalize the fear, argue away the likelihood -- I'm so much more easy than my mother, socially, and once I have time in retirement, so many interests that I'm likely to pursue in quasi-social settings, I am quite sure, intellectually at least, that I will make new friends -- even with all that self-talk, bolstered by my supportive husband, I am, yes, Terrified.
And fear is exhausting. Especially when it is mixed in with sorrow. And with a huge helping of confusion because I love much of what I do, and once I choose to leap into retirement, there will be no leaping back to part-time teaching. Hiring in the academy, particularly in the humanities, has been so tight for years now that my position will either be filled immediately OR, just as likely, will be struck from permanent status to sessional hiring in order to make the institutional budget work. There might be a chance of my picking up some of that sessional teaching, but it would generally be of the less satisfying courses, at considerably less pay, and with inconveniently short notice. I will not be able, as my husband has been, to pick and choose from various consulting possibilities, and 60+ is not the best age for re-imagining the perfect part-time work. Granted, our financial situation is solid enough that despite my paltry pension (my late start at outside-the-home work), we would not have to tighten the belts too drastically. But I feel. . . .safer? more empowered? . . . with a healthy paycheque of my very own. . . . And my Professor self -- no, even more, my Working Self -- is a huge part of my identity. I'm not sure what it will be like to let that go. . .
I wrote the above paragraphs earlier this week. Since then, I have taken advantage of Reading Break to rest and rest and think and rest. Paul and I have talked through some of my concerns, and I am feeling much more positive about heading into the rest of term. I'm giving myself permission, for one thing, to feel emotionally fatigued and not beat myself up about it. The link I feel to my mom and my siblings right now does take away from what I can do in my classes, but that doesn't mean I'm a poor teacher. I will do my best in a difficult, but temporary, period, and sometimes that will mean less than what my best is in happier times.
I will also try my best not to feel guilty when all I can do is knit or read a mystery novel or watch a movie on Netflix. I will continue to "waste" some of my energy on my running because I feel so much better when I free myself into movement. And I will pay attention to the many positive moments I find in my work -- because those moments are there, although they often get forgotten in a miasma of exhaustion.
I'm not going to ignore any creeping or persistent unhappiness, however. I am beginning to entertain the possibility of retirement. I have a great line-up of courses to teach next year (two 4th-year courses, one of which focusses on a favourite writer), so I suspect it will be no problem to get through. But whereas I've been saying for years that I will work 'til at least 65, I'm beginning to develop some positive images of what I might do if I started my next stage of life at, say, 61. The possibilities are rich. . . .
So that's a start at thinking through some of my recent "down" mood. Obviously, much of this has been sadness about "helping my mother home" (in Duchess's friend's term -- see recent comments). Life's big sorrows, though, have a tendency to fold other troubles in, to remind us of earlier loss, to exacerbate concerns in various areas of our life, to magnify vulnerabilities. I'm trying to remember that it's the context of loss I'm operating in right now makes me crave retreat, and that this context will pass. But I'm also going to listen to that desire for retreat, to attend to its possible persistence, and to allow enough room to imagine a positive and healing retreat that might be good preparation for the next part of my years here. . .
So tell me: have you crossed that threshold into Retirement? Elizabeth posted how she's feeling, Four Years On, about having taken that big decision, and I found the details of her experience very helpful. I know that others among my readers are contemplating the move, or have scaled back their work in readiness for it, while others wish they could take the step but worry about the financial implications. I'd love to know where you're at in this process and what the biggest factors are in your decision-making or in your happiness with the decision you have made.