Barbara Presnell: How are you since your husband retired?
These days, people keep asking my husband, “How’s your retirement going?” But nobody asks me.
The magazines, newspapers, Internet articles and books don’t talk about the other side. They give lots of advice to the new retiree — how to spend your time, how to keep from getting too busy too soon, how to avoid over-volunteerism, how to redefine yourself after your work has defined you for so long. They give advice on taking up new hobbies, travelling, reestablishing friendships, exercising.
What they don’t talk about is the spouse, the one whose life suddenly and drastically changes all because the other one’s job ends.
“He is underfoot all the time,” my friend Diana said recently of her husband, who retired after a long and successful law career. “I don’t have any peace. And when I do sit down to be by myself, he interrupts me.”
“We almost divorced,” my friend Gail added. Her husband retired almost 15 years ago, and they’ve worked out a smooth coexistence, but as she said, “It’s hard, Barbara. It’s very hard.”
My husband retired, for the second time, at the beginning of this year. Back in the fall, when he first said, “I’m thinking about retiring,” I mumbled something like “That’s nice, dear,” and quietly panicked.
I have a full-time job. I have a nice office away from home (though it is an hour away from home, too far to retreat to when I need it). I have friends of my own, organizations I support, activities outside of work that I pursue with vigor. So, you’d think his coming home to stay wouldn’t matter that much.
After 34 years together, patterns form.
My working husband was a workaholic, and 33 years ago, I learned how to fill my time so I wouldn’t be waiting around, lonely, for him to come home. I waited one time, and the result was burned chicken, limp broccoli and a bottle of wine I emptied by myself.
My working husband would go off in the morning to his job — whether it was the newspaper, the food pantry or the other work he’s done in our time together — and not think about dinner until he sat down to eat it.
The feminist in me complained about this years and years ago, but finally my pragmatist convinced me that this gave me total control. If I felt like a hamburger, we’d eat hamburgers. If I wanted baked chicken, baked chicken it would be. I mastered the art of slipping out of the kitchen when the plates were empty, leaving him with the dirty dishes, pots and pans. It’s a pattern that has worked well for years.
Mostly, though, my working husband was not at home. He worked eight-hour days that easily turned into nine, 10, 11 or 12 hours, and on weekends, he’d often go to the office or some community event all day Saturday or Sunday.
A woman needs a room of her own, so said Virginia Woolf almost a hundred years ago. My job gives me summers off, an occasional Friday and every evening from 6 p.m. until dinner time. This is my quiet time, it’s when I write — poems, mostly, and the occasional column — it’s when my brain unwinds and enables me to be human again.
What I feared most from his retirement was losing my time. My time. That’s what’s driven my friends to the brink.
“I won’t bother you,” he promised me. Still, just his being in the house changed things.
He retired once before, six years ago. From my perspective, it was a disaster. He started cooking, but he cooked banquet-style meals every night. No longer was it a burger or baked chicken, it was braised short ribs with apples and cabbage one night, turkey curry over raisin rice the next.
We had kitchen wars. “It’s way too much food!” I’d say when I came home from school to find him over the stove stirring up stuff. And, “You’re using every pan in the house!”
And, “Those are MY knives,” I’d remind him. “You’re not taking care of them.”
He went back to work in a few months, and we fell back into our comfortable patterns.
You can see, though, why I was worried about this second retirement.
We’re barely two months into it. He cooks dinner almost every night — sensible things like burgers and baked chicken. I rarely think about dinner until I sit down to eat it. I’m keeping an eye on my knives.
If I write something down on the grocery list, I come home in the afternoon, and it’s been bought.
When I retreat to my study in the afternoons or weekends, he doesn’t interrupt me. Not much, anyway.
But I’ve lost a lot of my quiet time. Dinner’s at 7 p.m. on the dot, so there’s little down time after I get home, as I’m used to. I miss it. And there’s way too much TV — basketball games, movies, news. Noise pollution, it is to me. I shut my door and am trying to learn to block it out.
He’s not getting as much done as he hoped. I’m not getting as much done as I used to.
But, he’s happy, and I’m doing OK, so far.
Thanks for asking.
Barbara Presnell is a poet and teacher of writing who lives in Lexington, N.C. Contact her at barbarapresnell.com.