A few weeks ago, a friend sent me this note about women and retirement:
This is a gender issue for the most part. When I was raising my child, the question I was always asked (my husband wasn't) was how to juggle career and family responsibilities. Now the common denominator among the career women I know in retirement is how to juggle the supposed freedom of retirement with family obligations — especially care of aging parents. For instance, my sister took early retirement from the faculty at Queens University to care for my father... How do we make this journey meaningful when most of the time you just want to stick a fork in your eye?
I write looking out from the eyes of a heterosexual man. I need to remember that most things in life are skewed to gender, and thus, so too, are phases of life, including retirement. Women who have been caretakers (of children and husbands and parents) can be shortchanged on the golden years of freedom by having to continue in that role.
Let me turn this slightly, because while I have no experience with the intractable challenge of taking care of aging parents, I’ve read a fair bit about the challenges heterosexual couples can face when they retire or when the husband retires and comes home for the rest of his life, a home where his wife has often happily existed during thousands of work days without him.
Miriam Goodman, an American writer, wrote what must be the seminal book on the subject, Too Much Togetherness: Surviving Retirement as a Couple.
One problem, says Goodman, is male depression and sense of loss after work ends. "I have interviewed hundreds of women," she writes, "and almost all of them tell me how they miss that energy, interest, and involvement in everyday affairs that used to be part of their life as a couple. Not only have their husbands stopped working, to many it seems they have stopped living. But it shouldn't really be a surprise. They no longer have that shield of a profession around them, and many men feel defensive, vulnerable, and a bit panicked.”
"This is not a small problem,” writes Goodman. "Indeed, retirement is a critical time in a marriage, one of huge conflict, much of it unspoken. How each couple deals with this change in their relationship — because it really is a change — in the balance of power, in scheduling, in your social life, in almost every aspect of your daily life, will determine how happy the next segment of your marriage will be.”
Where do women draw the line? Apparently, a growing number are drawing it hard and fast. There’s a syndrome — a trend — known as the “Walkaway Wife” that should chill the spines of all unwitting husbands, more so if they are planning to retire. Walkaway wives, overburdened by care-taking or an unfulfilling relationship, sometimes just leave abruptly. They walk away. Here’s a therapist who wrote about it in Psychology Today.
Younger working men are experiencing this tragedy (tragedy for them, not necessarily for the woman who walks). When retired men spend too much time doing very little and expecting perhaps too much, resentments can fester. Unhappy wives can realize with shock that there’s less time left in life than we might think, and no more time to lose in care-taking. Two-thirds of all divorces in the U.S. are instigated by women. And “Grey divorce” is growing.
According to Goodman, the Japanese, who are ahead of the demographic curve, are experiencing unhappy marital fallout in retirement to such an extent that the stress-induced illnesses being suffered by wives seeking medical help have been named “Retired Husband Syndrome.” The nasty word “sodaigomi” is now applied to certain newly retired Japanese men. It means “bulky trash.”
All the more reason to recycle ourselves in retirement and get ready, wittingly, to have the time of our lives. While pulling our weight.