When I formally announced that I was going to retire, reactions from colleagues at my own and other universities fell into the following categories:
1. Surprise, followed by ‘we’re going to miss you’ (some people said the sort of things one normally only gets at one’s funeral – so it’s good to have been around to hear them! Why are we so reluctant to praise and to thank each other?). Some of this surprise was focused on my age, but I’ll be 59 when I go and 59 really isn’t that young. The reduction to my pension, in my opinion, isn’t worth getting anxious about.
2. ‘Knew this was coming and don’t blame you’ – from people who were thinking back over any recent comments I’d made and finding hints of my plans, often even before I knew about them myself. We all have days of frustration but the announcement of a retirement or resignation leads to revisiting those and rewriting the story.
3. ‘Good for you – hope you’ve done well from it’ – from those who assumed I must have ‘done a deal’ and made some fabulous financial arrangement with the university to pay me to go [for the record, absolutely not; I tried to reduce my hours but that idea wasn’t supported, and then I was told I was ‘too expensive’ for the only scheme on offer. So I thought, OK, I’ll just go, then…].
4. ‘How dare you undermine the rest of us by leaving now?!’ While nobody said these actual words (in contrast to reactions 1-3), the subtext in some comments was clear. My university is going through a lot of major changes, and it feels odd in some ways to be saying ‘enough is enough, I’m out of here’ when some people I work with are making huge efforts to adjust, and are sometimes dealing with far more changes than I ever was. It’s clear a few people think I’m wrong to ‘give up’. And it does feel very odd to be going, while simultaneously encouraging colleagues who are staying. In 2012, the American Historical Association ran an article by one of my favourite historians, Caroline Walker Bynum, ‘Time to retire?’, to which I’ll return in future pieces here. She observed that ‘over the year in which I prepared for retirement, I found that the term . . . induced reactions of such astonishing anxiety and bitterness [among colleagues] that I became hesitant even to mention my plans.’ I wouldn’t go that far, but I have 5 more months of notice to work out…!
An earlier experience of mine has helped me make sense of all this. I had a hysterectomy in my late 30s. I had known for some time that this was on the cards, due to my very severe endometriosis. It had been managed via the contraceptive pill, but then my blood pressure started to soar and I was taken off the medication, and reassured that I’d been on it for so long that the endo was probably going to take a while to resurface. Wrong – it took just 28 days for massive blood loss to begin. My gynaecologist didn’t give me any options – it was hysterectomy time.
My reaction to this? OK, then; bring it on. The inevitable was happening. I’d get through it all somehow. And I did, and it was mostly fine.
Other people’s reactions to this? Everything from ‘How terrible, you poor thing, you’ll never know the joy of children’ (let’s weep together) to ‘Lucky you, I wish I could get rid of the whole set of organs and be done with it’ (let’s have a party).
I realised very quickly that very few of these reactions were about me. They were all about the speaker. Many people had little idea what my feelings were about children, or wombs, and even less idea what endometriosis had done to my life in the preceding 20 years or so. The various speakers were simply projecting their own feelings about their reproductive organs on to me.
And I suspect the same thing is happening here. ‘Knew this was coming’ people – maybe they want to go themselves? ‘Good for you’ people are perhaps saying that they’d leave like a shot, if only they could afford it – I know I am very lucky to have been in a final salary pension scheme and to have joined it when I was earning a mere £5000 p.a., a very long time ago. Even the lovely ‘we’re going to miss you’ reaction can translate as ‘but who’s going to listen to me/take my side/advise me when you’re gone?’ But this is my retirement, and nobody else’s. How do I feel about it? Not sure yet.