The Semi-Guilty Stage of Semi-Retirement – Women vs Men?

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My friend, Martha, recently retired as a top executive at a big non-profit. 36 years at one company. Her colleagues held a party for her, many lovely tributes; you were great, we will miss you, good-bye, good luck!

Martha’s last day of work was on Friday.

On Monday morning she did not have anywhere she had to be.

What to do now? – Both of us are semi-retired but hardly retiring.

We talked about how strange it feels to be at this new place in our lives. (It’s been nearly three years since I left my law firm and I’m still figuring it out) –  it is extremely odd to no longer have a required schedule after years of having a very firm one.

Then I realized what makes it so odd – think about it! – from birth forward, someone else – not you – has been in charge of your daily planner, your “life clock.”

When you are a child, it is your parents who get to decide when it’s time for you to eat, nap, play, do your homework, practice piano, apply to college. Then your life clock nudges you to study for exams, to apply for an internship, to get ready for the interview, to get a job.

Finally! You become an adult – yet the life clock hovers: Time to go to work, to get married, to have kids. Time to write that memo, to go home, to make dinner, to bathe the kids, put them to bed, and then it’s time to look at your email again.

Years pass, your kids grow up, they leave the house (hopefully), you grow older, if you have an outside career, that matures too – and then you retire or semi-retire voluntarily or not (in my case, the latter) – and suddenly your life clock hits the pause button.

For the first time ever YOU are now in sole charge of you!

You get to decide what to do each day – and when to do it. You could theoretically, as a newly semi-retired person, if you wanted to, and I don’t necessarily recommend this, spend every week day in your pajamas, eat cereal for breakfast and lunch, whiling away hours catching up on Netflix.

(Unless you have a spouse who is still in the workforce, who strongly suggests that since you are no longer working in an office downtown, that you might actually now have the time to cook weeknight dinners for him to eat when he comes home at night. The nerve!).

So much blank space to be filled in on your calendar in this new semi-retired stage of life. And I think the challenge of how to fill up these blank spaces is harder for women to deal with than it is for men.

Women – my hypothesis anyway – are uneasy having free time. In our minds there is ALWAYS something that we should be doing or that needs to be done. We are so used to seeing each day, work day or weekend, as an endless “to do” list.

When we had growing children, their “to do” lists become our “to do” lists (Sorry, but Dads, as involved in your children’s lives as you may have been,  you didn’t internalize these kid-related tasks as we Moms did, IMHO).

So when Moms semi-retire, we keep thinking – I must stay busy! I must be productive! I need to accomplish something each and every day! All day!

My semi-retired women friends are hardly slackers. They are busily consulting, planning, teaching and writing. They’ve started their own businesses, they take care of their elderly parents, they serve on boards.

But it never seems to be quite enough. We still tell each other – proudly – how busy we are. How much we have to do.

Do men in semi-retirement feel this nagging pull to stay on schedule even now that they are off-schedule?

Having recently done a significant amount of 100% non-scientific research, I can report that no, men do not feel the same way. The semi-retired men I know who recently left long careers are now happily playing golf, puttering in their garages, taking photography classes and starting new small businesses.

These men are far less burdened than my semi-retired women friends by the weight of “I MUST BE PRODUCTIVE” every moment of my semi-retired day.  They go off to golf on a Tuesday afternoon without giving it a second thought – they put in their years at the office, I deserve this! –  while for semi-retired women, even taking an exercise class on a weekday afternoon can feel like a guilty pleasure.

I suspect that all newly-semi-retired women continue to feel that giant tug towards the “to do” list that governed us all of our lives.

And yes, I know what you are thinking – you don’t need to say it – I agree that staying productive in semi-retirement is definitely a positive. I am not suggesting that those of us living in this transitional stage peel off into total slothdom, as personally enticing as that sounds some days.

But I do wonder when – if? – that nagging sense that we must stay productive each and every moment of the day will begin to taper off.










Filed under Aging, Baby Boomers, Empty Nest, Female Friends, Husbands, Men vs Women, Midlife, Raising Kids, Retirement, Second Careers, Semi-Retired, Women, Women in the Workplace

7 responses to “The Semi-Guilty Stage of Semi-Retirement – Women vs Men?

  1. I have heard women say “I am a better person if I stay busy”. The question there to me is busy for busy sake? Busy doing what? I think it just takes time to adjust.To not feel sloth-like if you choose to read all afternoon or watch a movie, go to a matinee not on a weekend! The world does not stop spinning and your heart does not stop beating. All in good time ….. She was right!


  2. Lani

    An (older) friend of mine, who spent her working years as a teacher, remarked that when her husband retired, he expected that she would continue in her domestic roles as housekeeper, cook & bottlewasher. She announced to him that she was now “retiring” as well. And he could take her out to dinner most nights of the week. And they would hire someone to clean the house. “When a man retires, he does as he pleases,” she said. “But a wife does not get to retire until the husband dies. I’m not going to wait that long.”


  3. Rachel

    Yes, yes, yes. Must stay busy and productive, try to at least make sure husband has clean undies in his drawer, and a hot meal on the table from time to time!

    When my son was a senior in high school, as a volunteering fundraising parent, I took a fiction writing class anticipating I would need some deadlines that would be absent when he graduated, when I graduated from all that volunteering.

    Writing is what I do now, and it’s how I “produce”. On days when my pages are due in my writers group, after weeks of putting in 8-10 hour days writing, I feel the elation of my old TGIF cry after a hard week in the office, a sense of elation and celebration reminiscent of having completed a project, or just survived the work week in the office, in my prior life.

    The office job is a job I “retired” from early, unexpectedly, so I could raise my high needs kid. Now that he is 19 and successfully up and out (second year at university) I am grateful to have taken that writing class. Now when people ask what I do, I tell them I write fiction and their response is more fun to witness than the old response, their faces transforming from awkwardness to some version of manufactured, but not authentic, respect that often accompanies a parent saying she stays home to raise kids.

    But, yes, I find it difficult to NOT be productive, no matter hard I have worked, 15 years in the office, plus 19 in motherhood. Whether I am painting the interior stair landing, weeding a planting bed out front, repairing or maintaining something in this house, I am happiest when I am productive, doing some form of work. The prize though, IS eating cereal for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, if I am in the mood, or letting myself watch a Netflix movie during the day, on occasion, if I choose; I agree with that, sister!


  4. I’ve always had this “thing” about **needing** to get a certain amount of stuff done during the day. I have no idea where this driven nature comes from, because my parents, while certainly not lazy, weren’t like this at all! I expect that when I finally do “retire” — just like you, I actually won’t, and in fact, I may be more productive than ever. There are always too many books I want to read, too many movies I want to see, too many restaurants I want to eat at… and as a writer, I always want to be at the top of my game as well, no matter how old I get! 🙂


  5. Patricia Hartge

    Spot on.



  6. Florinna

    Thank you for your article! I am considering an early retirement but am a bit apprehensive of leaving a job that I love in cutting edge stem cell therapy and clinical trials. Unfortunately, my job has become extremely stressful with a to-do list that only gets longer and longer. As an active approaching 60 yr old wife, mom to a teenager, and also a Boy Scout leader, I realize I can’t possibly do all the things that I did quite well in my 40’s. Even mentoring my younger colleagues, often late into the night, by email or by phone is becoming a challenge.
    I realize that there will always be a “to-do” list for me because of the life choices I have made and also because I reside in a major metropolitan city. Without a planned list, there could be real chaos in my life! Additionally, when the list is completed, I have a great sense of accomplishment and am less worried about things that could fall through the cracks.
    Though when I retire, I will amend the list to contain fun types of items, or, maybe even creative adventures. There’s no end in sight as to what either will entertain or reward me. Bottom line….I will be happy that my brain cells continue in a state of neuron plasticity. The opposite might be called early onset “something else.” Keeping busy or active (albeit with a to-do list) may very well be the key to having a more satisfying mature life, while continuing to contribute to the family and community. I can’t compare myself to how men view retirement. It would drive me crazy. I will only live once. I prefer to leave a positive legacy of some sort and while I am able.


  7. memorten

    Nice insight and I agree with your theory about the difference between professional men and women. However it might be different for folks who haven’t had satisfying or challenging careers–maybe? The gear shift may be greater for you than someone able to retire on a pension after 35 years of a not-so-satisfying job. Just a thought. Love your posts!

    Mary M



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