New And Improved: Fashioning My New Self in Retirement

Last week I wrote a post about aging, and where I fit on what I dubbed the “beauty intervention continuum.” In a nutshell, I’m pro-hair dye and make-up, but anti-Botox. And I said, at the time, that I am not comfortable having “a little work done,” on the outside. I’m busy enough trying to refashion myself on the inside. Because retirement will do that to you. Or at least it has done to me.

That’s what is so intimidating about the prospect of retirement. The idea that you won’t be the same person as you were when you were gainfully employed. And if not, then who will you be? At least that’s how it was for me. So much of my identity was wrapped up in being a teacher, a department head, a mentor to young teachers, in standing in front of a class, chairing meetings, running the school paper, sitting on committees, giving out diplomas at commencement or all the other myriad roles big and small that had been part of my life for thirty years. And if I wasn’t going to be Ms. Burpee anymore… then who would I be?

New and Improved: Fashioning My New Self in Retirement

And, you know, once I got over being sad about the loss of my old self, that lack of identity is what became so exciting about the prospect of retirement. Who would I be? And how would I tackle making myself into who I wanted to become. It was like being twenty and choosing a career all over again, except I was a lot smarter than I was at twenty. And much more financially stable.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past three and a half years. Deciding who and what I wanted to be when I was no longer a teacher. I’ve been having a little work done… on the inside. Doing a little …. self-renovation, so to speak.

Hubby and I have faced some challenging life situations since I retired. I’ve written about a few of those challenges here and here. I think they’ve made me a stronger, more patient, and more empathetic person. You’d think that teaching large classes of teenagers would teach you all you need to know about patience, wouldn’t you? Ha. Living in the Castle of Grumpy Grouch for a few months made teaching grade nines seem like a doddle. But never mind. Things have worked out well for all concerned. Hubby is back golfing, and planning a canoe trip for later this month.

New and Improved: Fashioning My New Self in Retirement

But aside from the personal growth that comes with weathering whatever life decides to throw at us… the exciting part of retirement for me is being able to choose which path to growth I want to take. In choosing which of my interests, on the back burner for most of my teaching career, I can now pursue.

Take reading for instance. I love to read. It seems I’ve spent my whole life with my nose in a book. But when I was teaching English, it was often books I needed to read for my classes that I had my nose in. Now, in retirement I have the time to read whatever I want, as widely as I want, in whatever direction I choose, and I have time to take a detour down those reading rabbit holes that present themselves when you’re reading an engrossing book. Like researching an author I enjoy, or reading all their previous works. Or whatever.

I have more time to pursue my interests in fashion and fitness. I’ve read all kinds of non-fiction books on fashion in the past couple of years. I follow several fashion blogs. I have more time to shop around. See what’s out there. And I have more time to stay fit. I work out in one form or other every day, now. I don’t have to squeeze it in when I get home from school, or go to the gym at the end of a long day. Because let’s face it, early morning work-outs were never going to happen for this mid-morning person. So Hubby and I walk, or bike, or ski together. Or I pedal my exercise bike and do a weight work-out while listening to a mystery novel on my i-pod. And I walk (or skate) once a week with two friends. All this when regular people are at work. How cool is that?

And then there’s art. Last winter I decided to renew my old passion for drawing. With some classes taught by my friend Margaret, and a strong determination to make time for art in my life. And an equally strong determination to not get discouraged, or throw in the towel. Or the charcoal. Phew. That has been tough. Especially for a perfectionist with a very raucous inner critic. But I’m learning to have patience with myself, as well as with others.

New and Improved: Fashioning My New Self in Retirement

And, you see, this is where the growth comes in. Where I’m learning to fashion a new “me.” I’m resurrecting old passions and relearning old and rusty skills. And I’m trying entirely new things too. And learning new skills.

Take blogging, for instance. Writing this blog gives me an outlet through which to explore all my other interests, like fashion, and books, and travel. Not to mention old-fashioned story-telling. And writing. And it has allowed me to develop my interest in technology which was just beginning as my career in teaching was ending. I sometimes can’t believe how many new things I’ve learned to do on my computer since I started blogging. And writing a blog has also spirited me into a wonderful new on-line world, a community really, of readers and other bloggers. And that’s important, since in retirement I no longer have that daily social contact with classes and colleagues. Blogging and writing have become an important part of my new identity in retirement. A very rewarding part.

So where is all this self-analysis going?  Well, you might remember that I read Kate Bolick’s book Spinster last month and wrote about it in a post here. Now, I’m not big on self-help books, those books which purport to show you how to live your life, how to be happy, or how to be successful. But I often find that books whose main intent is not to help you navigate your life, can do just that. And Bolick’s book helped me to understand a bit more about myself. And how I see myself in retirement.

In one chapter of her book Kate Bolick discusses a study by American social psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius which examined thirty subjects who had recently experienced a significant loss in their lives. Markus and Nurius explored how the subjects’ self-knowledge or “understandings of themselves” could be related to how well they were recovering from their traumatic experiences. They found that all the subjects had negative views of their “current selves,” understandable when you consider that their lives had all been recently thrown off kilter. But what the researchers found most interesting was that the subjects who were best able to cope with their loss and make a good recovery were those who saw their future selves in positive terms. Markus and Nurius use the term “possible selves” to describe how we view the “self” we might become in the future. And the subjects who were able to envision themselves as somehow better, more confident, more successful in the future were more able to remain hopeful that their miserable present was “transitory.” Huh. You can read about the theory of “possible selves” in this article if you’re interested.

Dawn on the Rideau River
Five-thirty… A.M. on the river.

So as I read Bolick’s book, it began to dawn on me…. if as retirement approaches, we see ourselves facing a future where we will be somehow less than when we were working. If we see our future “possible self” as unproductive, unemployed, not as worthy as our employed “present self”… then no wonder it scares the bejesus out of some people. And it strikes me that it’s not just those who are “busy” who weather retirement best, but those who see their “possible retired self” as better, more confident, healthier maybe, more active, more able to help others now that they have time… whatever. And as someone who needs to be optimistic, I mean really, really needs to be a “Pollyanna”… this theory appeals to me. And kind of helps me understand how I’ve been approaching retirement. As one big self-improvement project.

So, I may not be “getting a little work done” on my wrinkles any time soon. But it seems that I’m working away on everything else.

Not nose to the grindstone working. I am retired after all. But working nevertheless. Albeit with frequent tea breaks. And a good book. On the deck. In the sunshine. Hopefully.

How about you dear readers? How do you see your future retired self? Your “possible self” after work is done for good?


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34 thoughts on “New And Improved: Fashioning My New Self in Retirement”

  1. This is very thought provoking. I'm 15 years off retirement but starting to plan. I will feel the loss of identity. I noticed when I went back to work after kids that I was once again called by my name. It felt odd at first.

    In my company we seem to have restructure after restructure. This leaves me thinking on what next. I've reached the top of my profession in my sector. Is it time to squeeze more out and move to another sector or is it time to slow down. So if I'm made redundant I still don't know what I'll do or look for. Your post struck a cord. Thank you

    1. It's good that the constant "restructuring" has one upside… that you have mastered the art of thinking "what's next?" It would be hard to be hit with the loss of your position when you'd never considered that possibility. When I first retired all of our plans were shelved because Hubby was diagnosed with a major and totally unexpected heart problem the day after my retirement party at the end of January. He had heart surgery at the beginning of March, and we both had a tough time accepting the loss of our plans and his loss of identity as a jock… i.e. strong and totally fit. That part came back but not for a year. Meanwhile we had to redefine what we thought of as "our retirement." So even though we had planned and thought we were well prepared, stuff happens that can derail everything.

  2. I would love to retire, but probably won't be able to afford to do that anytime soon. But I think if I could, I would love to do some of what you are doing, but also I have always wanted to be a dog walker. I think if I could do that part-time, I would be pretty happy, as I love animals and I love walking, no matter what the weather is …

  3. As I read your post today, I felt you were telling my story- down to the smallest details. I like that you emphasized that this life change is a process. It takes time. I have had to learn to be patient with myself. Like you, 3 1/2 years into retirement, I just now feel ready to step out and tackle challenges beyond identifying who this new "me" is. Thank you for giving voice to this.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I'm so glad that you found something useful in the post… instead of just me wittering on about myself.

  4. Another thought provoking post Sue. I was fortunate to take early retirement and have been retired a few years now and it is still a work in progress. Yes, I have sorted out some things, but am now ready to take on some new challenges/learning opportunities. Someone said to me before I retired that what you thought you would do in retirement may not be necessarily what you end up pursuing and found this to be true for me. As we age health challenges come along and as you have found put a curve ball into plans. However, I have a hard time understanding those people who decide they are old and therefore do not need to learn anything new. As a retired lecturer I have a hard time with this!

    1. Me too, Christy. I don't understand people who can't get excited about learning new things. My mum used to be disdainful about computers and the internet and then turned around and said she wanted a computer for her 84th birthday. Now she e-mails, reads my blog and surfs the net. Cool, eh?

  5. I like the concept of a possible self. Really key I think, as long as we have options and possibilities what's not to like. You paint a very appealing picture of retirement. I'm not at that stage yet but it seems to me that the people who enjoy retirement best are those who have the imagination and ability to see those possibilities. Maybe a little courage too in embracing change. Thanks for your insights Iris

  6. You've put a lot of my feelings into words there . I opted for a redundancy package at forty nine & , having been born into a family with a serious work ethic , I had some qualms . I had no major life goals in mind but I knew I wanted dogs in my life at last , some further education & voluntary work of some kind – which I am still involved in . There have been other pluses – If you have a good relationship with your partner, it is lovely to spend more time with them on shared hobbies & interests , as well as having the time for other family & friends . Also the Internet is a world I never anticipated & , whilst it has its murky side , it is an amazing facility if you have an enquiring mind . I do love to hear of life in other parts of the world via blogs like yours . Plus a little pleasure for me is enjoying the daylight & the weather . In the depths of a UK winter I would only be outside in daylight at the weekend & in the summer I would often be working whilst the sun shone , only for the rain to arrive at the weekend – not now . Really it's all about me making my own choices . It's rather like being an aristocrat but with a lot less money & no staff !
    Wendy usually in York

    1. I love that analogy, Wendy. We're just aristocrats with less money and no staff. And … we never have to face that annoying problem of how hard it is to get good help:) Well, except for when Hubby tries to find someone to cut our lawn.

  7. Hello Susan,

    Your post here was great for me to read, Right This Minute. I'm in France, as you know, on vacation, this time with fewer plans, less cycling, and more need and desire to think, reflect, write about what is next in my life .. retire? When? Not now? How to make work less of an exhausting 3-ring stressful circus? Wanting more time to pursue non-work activies, can I devise a plan to incorporate that. I guess … is there a happy step to be found in between where I am now, and retirement. So … your post was very helpful, thanks!!

  8. OH, why, why must you write these insightful, thought-provoking posts when I'm right in the middle of No-Time-For-Anything-But-Tomorrow's-Yard-Sale And-Packing-Stuff-in-Moving-Boxes!!
    So much here that's borne out by my experiences in the first year of retirement, and right now, I'm trying very hard to visualise a possible future self who lives happily, retired, in a new city home with a rich network of friends and activities (none of these three are a reality — yet!).
    I knew I had to retire last year, after several years of feeling, too often, on the edge of fatigue and sadness . But I was terrified of doing so for exactly the reasons you cite. Finally, I decided that the work of letting go of that career identity was something I was going to have to do sooner or later anyway, and that if I tried to do it with gusto and muster joy where possible, it might be better than being dragged into it later (when all the gusto was gone!;-)
    Which I had time to chat more but had to steal the minutes to add this to the convo — which I will be following with interest. Thanks!

    1. I remember your post about the decision to retire, Mater. After all the years of juggling family and grad school, and then finally having a job in your chosen field… I know it was hard to walk away from that. But it's NOT the teaching or prepping that drives you out… it's all the other crap that no one ever sees and which makes jobs in education such a drain on one's energy and stress level. But you can't retire happily if you're only looking at the negative…as in "I can't wait until I don't have to do this or that." Much better to be able to say "I can't wait until I CAN do this or that." Or as you say, better to go when you still had lots of gusto. I felt the same.

  9. The title of this pulled me right in. Oh that "getting a little work done" can be hazardous and many women never look into the negative side of it. We all change and have to adjust. I think it all starts in our mind. We need that self acceptance. Then going out and finding more flattering cloths …Things that we get excited about like we used to when we were very young.

    We even change locations when retirement comes in. For me, I don't ever want to "retire" because I have always had and still do have my own business. It keeps me young at heart. But hubby and I did move to a different place about three years back. We always wanted to live by the beach so we did.

    Although I can't wear heels here much, I did get used to it lol.

    Great and refreshing share!


  10. All of my work was accomplished in-home, so my identity hasn't changed much. I went from 'Mom' to 'Grandma' with relatively little pain or discomfort! And retirement is looking wonderful. And, strangely familiar!

  11. Thank you for this most thoughtful and engaging post. I have restarted my comment about five times now…so many thoughts coming forth. I am thankful for close role models who have gone before me and thrived in these retirement years. I have had rich examples of how to take on the "possible self" and, unfortunately, examples of how not to. These are sweet friends who have so much more to offer, explore, and live but much of their self-value is based on their past.
    I am thankful for our two sons who have moved onto their own fulfilled lives and have allowed me and my role to evolve with their own maturity. What a gift to be given in my late sixties! My retired husband, too, is in a renaissance period. 🙂 We do currently have good health in comparison to my husband's severe heart attack nineteen years ago. Thank you to modern medicine/technology…again, we have much to be thankful for.
    So…how do I see my possible self now that "work is done for good"? Actually, "the work" is never done. 🙂 I still "work" at fitness, at cooking/eating healthy, at new hobbies and crafts, at new studies, at deepening relationships, etc. Oh…and like you, at a much more relaxed pace! Not squeezing it into a weekend!
    Thank you, Susan, for having us all think of this "retirement re-definition" of ourselves. This is such a rich topic! I look forward to future comments by you and others.
    Charlene H.

    1. Thanks for the very thoughtful, comment, Charlene. Our work now is on things that we don't "have" to do, but that we "get" to do… that's the best part.

  12. I've been retired from teaching for nine years already and I can't believe how fast the time has gone by! I loved teaching, but retirement is absolutely the best! I've traveled and taken on new challenges including teaching English in Japan for one year and China for several months. Like you, I get to read books that are for me now instead of for school and I can explore interests that I didn't have time for when I was working. Blogging has also been a wonderful addition to my life since I retired.

    Elaine @ Following Augustine

  13. My husband and I are both five years away from retirement and we have been thinking a lot about this lately. He definitely has more hobbies to keep him occupied when he is all done. I have my gardening, but that is only good for part of the year. Now that I am blogging, I really feel like it is going to be an even bigger part of my life when I retire. I never discuss my work in my blog, but when I am retired, I feel I will have greater freedom and might even start a second blog. I love how much you and your husband have travelled and that is definitely something we want to do more of as well. Retirement is something I absolutely LONG for some days, but at the same time it feels like it will be the beginning of a "second half" to my life, or even a "second half" of my marriage, as our kids will both be either done or almost done post secondary education and we will have more time to spend with each other. This was a great post. Thanks! -Jenn

    1. So sorry I missed replying to your comment, Jenn. Not sure how that happened. I know exactly what you mean about some days longing for retirement. I felt that and, at the same time, wasn't ready for it until the last year or so. It is the beginning of the second/next part of your life. Although it took me a while to come to terms with that.

  14. The start of a new beginning or a new lifestyle to be excited about and look forward to definitely seems to be the best way to look at Retirement. I finished work a few years ago and hubby is taking a gradual approach to retirement by working a day less, each week. Which I think is an ideal way if at all possible and is certainly working well for him/us. We love to travel and feel we have lots to look forward to. The idea that we can do things on impulse, as the day takes us feels great! I feel it's interesting that no one here seems to be looking after grandchildren full time … ie leaving one job to start another 🙂 albeit one that hopefully brings much pleasure! We don't have grandchildren yet but I've always thought I'd be happy to help out if needed. Now I'm of the frame of mind that I'm still happy to help but I hope I'm not needed "full time" as I'm looking forward to some time just the two of us 🙂 reading Maters blog it always seems they have the balance right. Enjoying lots of time with their grandchildren whilst also travelling and enjoying their other interests.
    A really well written, thought provoking post Sue. I've really enjoyed it.

  15. It sounds like you're finally enjoying retirement. I do love a good book, I wish I had more time for it. Enjoy that reading honey. xx

  16. Am deep into retirement, as you know, and find myself trying to move BEYOND my self. If that makes sense.

    1. I think I do get that…. as in moving beyond our own limitations? Pushing past old boundaries? Oh no…wait… do you mean as in looking beyond our selves, not focusing on our self but on others, or other things? Gad. Thought I had it there…now not sure at all. Probably because I haven't had my morning cup of tea yet. Under-caffeination syndrome.

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