Existentialism, Disenchantment and the Six Stages of Retirement

I suppose it was inevitable, but I must unhappily report I’ve suffered my first post-retirement existential crisis.  Following a whirlwind (or manic) first five months that included a dream trip to France, multiple football weekends in Annapolis, several road trips to the Bay Area, and then the holidays, I now find myself at home, alone with my husband in our empty nest, no job, and no big trips planned for awhile.  So now what?

My detailed retirement plan

My detailed retirement plan

Before I retired, I recall seeing articles counseling prospective retirees to plan not only for the financial, but the non-financial and emotional aspects of retirement.   I planned the financial aspects down to the penny, but I was so busy working, parenting, traveling and everything else that I didn’t spend time thinking about the rest.  I just knew I (1) didn’t want to do THAT job anymore, and (2) would go to Paris and other places and maybe learn to cook and play golf and eventually do some volunteer or part-time work.  Beyond that, I reckoned I would figure it out when I got there.  And since I was the primary breadwinner in the family, I never allowed myself the luxury of seriously considering what I would do if money were no object.  I therefore had zippo in the way of a detailed plan or burning desire or vision for retirement. But, seriously, how hard could it be?!

One of the many things I failed to sufficiently appreciate while I was busy concentrating on my career was that my already-retired husband had basically taken over the house.  He was home, happily cooking, shopping, doing laundry, and watching really loud intense action movies in Surround Sound in the middle of the day.  And his daily routines, for the most part, did not include me.  So, my 24/7 lurking in his territory and my newly enthusiastic plans to start cooking or reorganize the house or rearrange the kitchen has not been met with enthusiasm.  I did not expect to be the intruder in my own house.  And I certainly never imagined I would be battling my husband over who gets to do chores. (“Aw c’mon let me do the dishes tonight!”)

Then there are issues of loneliness, self-worth and meaning.   It can be lonely around the house, even with my husband around.  It brings back foggy memories of my 4-month maternity leave, when I was so starved for adult conversation that I found myself chasing down other mothers at the playground. Even though I’m not an extreme extrovert, while I was working, I was accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the office and being around people.  Now it takes effort to socialize, and the further I get from my working days, the less I have in common with my working friends.  I also know that I’m easily bored and can get restless without the daily urgencies of the job that kept me on my toes. I find that without a “job” – whether chores or paid job or volunteer work – my self-worth suffers.  I miss that sense of purpose and accomplishment.  I have not yet identified what I want to sink my teeth into next, but I feel an obligation to find activities that use my skills and talents to give back to my community and I would like them to be meaningful to me.

Another issue I’ve discovered is that unstructured days can lead to an ADD-type existence.  There are so many things I can or should or want to do, and it becomes disorienting and overwhelming.   Paralysis sets in and I feel like I’m spinning when I don’t know what to do first.  And then entire days go by and all I can remember doing is emailing my cousin or researching wine racks on the Internet.  At this rate, I’m not going to make any significant contribution to society!

Which all led to my first post-retirement (and post-holiday) existential crisis.  Looking forward to months at home, with “clean up the garage” the only major item on my calendar for February, I felt anxious for the first time about retirement.  Damn those article writers!  They were right!  I should’ve had a plan!  After I finish the garage, what the hell am I going to do with myself?!  And will my husband and I even survive the garage?

Since I was in a state of blissful denial, I obviously didn’t do my homework pre-retirement.  Yesterday I googled “emotional adjustments to retirement” and was shocked at the volume of resources. Among them I found an article that describes the stages of retirement and was relieved to see that my own existential crisis was quite normal and actually fit the description for the “disenchantment” stage, which follows the “honeymoon” stage.  The author described the disenchantment phase as similar to the stage in marriage when the emotional high of the wedding wears off and the couple now has to work on building a functioning relationship together.  After looking forward to retirement for so long, many retirees are faced with a feeling of letdown. Retirement isn’t a permanent vacation; it can also bring loneliness, boredom, feelings of uselessness and disillusionment.  The stage following disenchantment is described as the “reorientation” stage where the retiree moves on to build a new identity in retirement.  It is described as the “most difficult stage in the emotional retirement process and will take both time and conscious effort to accomplish.” And it gets worse!  “Perhaps the most difficult aspects of this stage to manage are the inevitable self-examination questions that must be answered once again, such as ‘Who am I, now?’, ‘What is my purpose at this point?’ and ‘Am I still useful in some capacity?’  New – and satisfying – answers to these questions must be found if the retiree is to feel a sense of closure from his or her working days.  But many retires cannot achieve this and never truly escape this stage – make sure you do!” (Mark P. Cussen, “Journey Through the 6 Stages of Retirement”)

Oh, for crying out loud, even retirement is going to be hard work!  I probably understood this deep down, but I had successfully convinced myself retirement was going to be a piece of cake.  But I also know from experience that major life changes, even good ones, cause anxiety and require adjustments.  I appreciate now that I need to take charge of structuring my own post-retirement life, that it will take work and courage, and nobody is responsible but me.

My recent existential crisis manifested itself in some heated and ridiculous exchanges with my husband where I accused him, among other things, of chore hogging; frantic searches for adult education classes to swiftly learn new hobbies or explore new career paths; and an urgency to expand my circle of friends to provide companionship and sounding boards as I discern next steps for myself.  I also recognized there is a spiritual aspect that compels me to renew my spiritual disciplines.

Thanks to my “disenchantment” stage (now that I know what ails me), I am now signed up for seven (yes, seven!) adult education classes over the next three months, ranging from “Winter Soups and Stews” and “Golf” to “Blogging for Fun and Profit.”  I’m trying out three different women’s small groups at church to find the best fit.  I’ve scheduled myself to participate in group exercise classes every weekday morning at the YMCA – we’re members, it’s right down the street, and I now have no excuse. After intense but fruitful negotiations, my husband and I agreed that I will make dinner on Wednesday nights (a major concession I am proud of).  And today I attended my first Lectio Divina gathering at church (a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer) that really fed my soul.  I briefly considered setting up a Doodle poll with every friend I could think of to schedule lunches for the next six weeks but rejected the idea as giving the appearance of desperation.

Who knew retirement could be so exhausting?  Here’s looking forward to Stage 6!

7 thoughts on “Existentialism, Disenchantment and the Six Stages of Retirement

  1. Rather than “adult classes,” I went back to school to take undergrad courses that I didn’t have time for during my early BS and MA pursuits. History! So far, I’ve taken a History of the Vikings course and tied it into a Medieval Europe class, what fun. I also am taking every South Carolina History class available, since we are now South Carolinians! The professors love me for my class participation (maybe too many questions?) and I now have multiple students that come to me as a mentor (what do I do with this History degree?). I actively recruit these smart kids to seriously take a look at being Intelligence Analysts for one of the three letter agencies, who are always looking for geopolitical talent. Of course, I want them to go Navy OCS! Who knew this would be a part of my retirement, I can’t play golf every day, and now the Polar Express has removed that option. This semester it’s the History of the U.S. Constitution (probably something you know backwards and forwards) and South Carolina Heritage. It’s Marbury v. Madison this week in one, and in SC, the haves and have nots of the 17th century.

    • That’s a great idea Joe! I’ve thought about looking into auditing classes at USC (So Cal not So Carolina!) which isn’t far from us. Great to hear you’ve had such a great experience!

  2. Too Funny! I guess I breezed through “disenchantment” because (1) I set up my own LLC to take on a part-time consulting job in my first year of retirement and couldn’t wait to re-retire, (2) my already retired husband happily turned over all the chores he didn’t like in the first place, (3) I moved to an entirely new place that I’m still exploring and into a new house that needed decorating, and (4) it takes 20 minutes just to get to town and the nearest grocery store so driving takes a lot of my time.
    Did I plan all this? No! My approach to retirement was pretty much like yours. It WILL all work out great. Remember, if you can’t find anything else to do, you can always go out and reorganize the woodpile.

    • Thanks Pat! Perhaps “disenchantment” is too strong a word for me (although it makes for a better story) Perhaps “disorientation” is better. Now that we’re back home for awhile I just need to get my land legs under me and work out some new routines. And I decided I would be honest (albeit humorous) with this blog so others might benefit from my experiences. It’ll be fun to see where this all takes me!

  3. Your blog is truly a testament of how human and wonderful you are, Betsy. My biggest regret is spending so little time with you or not getting to know you more sooner. I’d love to keep in touch and see you periodically. You make such a positive impact on me and others to date. I will text you to see if we could meet up soon.

    • Aw, thanks so much Ana! That means a lot to me. I am trying to be as transparent as possible so I can make a positive impact, so its good to hear that you are benefiting from my ramblings! Please let me know when we can get together again soon. I, too, have really enjoyed our lunches and getting to know each other. See you soon!

  4. Pingback: Alive and Well in Retirement! | Betsy's Beat

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