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The Impending Disaster of My Parents’ Retirement (and How to Ease Them Into It)

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What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

I know. We all know. They can’t both exist. Only in separate planes. (Universes. Timezones? I’m a bit unclear on the terms.)

What is clear, however, is their singularity. I know this because my parents have been our recent house-guests. My parents are singularities. (You might recall the last time they visited I was mistaken for a prostitute had a house full of urine drinks and ended up seven feet from the Queen. This time, it’s been more academic.)

Singularity A: (we’ll call her “Mom”) is a doer. Industrious, self-sufficient, dynamic, and capable. If it cannot produce something, she has no time for it. She’s too industrious to be bothered by speculative thinking.

Singularity B: (we’ll call him “Dad”) is a thinker. Curious, intelligent, engaging, and entertaining. If it cannot enlighten him, he has no time for it. He’s too intellectual to be bothered by quotidian duties.

I won’t spend effort considering why they are thus; genes, social roles, sibling order, being the first post-WWII generation. Plus marriage itself has exacted a force that pushes them to the extremes of instinctive behavior, as marriage often does.

They are unstoppable and immovable but exist in equilibrium because they are in different planes (and by “planes” I mean spheres of influence, duties, and roles).

All that will change when Singular B’s plane ceases to exist and he is forced to enter Singular A’s plane. Let’s call this “Dad’s retirement.“ Otherwise known the impending disaster 2-3 years down the road.

I don’t know what will happen when their planes collide, but I have a pretty good idea based on what transpired in our flat this past week.

It started with Mom, as always. (Dad never starts anything, except books and contextual discussions.)

In the interest of being useful, Mom decided to clean our flat. The desire to be useful sits in her gut next to undigested red meat and disapproval of people who get manicures, a nice solid platform against which I could always be trusted to rebel.

So we entered the realm of chores. And as we will see, per usual for my parents, for my own marriage, and for just about every couple who has ever lived together, deep, repressed issues percolate on the battleground of chores.

I let her clean because I had shot down her offer of going to the store to “stock up on essentials.” Reminding her this isn’t America: we have nowhere to put five years worth of fabric softener. And there is no such thing as Bulk. Quantities in Britain are ‘one’ or ’two.’ And you never buy the last of anything lest someone else might want it.

So she offered to clean. She conscripted Dad. Not something she’d normally do, for reasons that will soon become clear, but as they know they are moving fast towards this impending disaster – Dad’s retirement –  they are making slight adjustments.

Slight.

For some unknown reason, they both look forward to this retirement. Mom looks forward to “no longer having to do all the chores.” Dad looks forward to “having all the time I want to read, ride my bike, and nap.”

Am I the only one who foresees this disaster?

Like all couples, each one has been trying—their entire shared life—to make the other more like themselves. And like all couples, they fail to notice this has not worked and will never work.

But Mom – being the industrious one – doesn’t give up. She’s introduced “cleaning” into my Dad’s routine. As a murderer would mercury into her victim’s tea.

It was proving difficult. Dad – who sometimes really does need to be murdered – falls back on two truths:

  1. Mom would always do it when he didn’t, and
  2. he’d always mess up, she’d do it anyway.

I don’t know if this was strategy or consequence of marrying a woman who is ten times more industrious and capable. Either way, it’s been SOP for 40 years.

Another wrench in Mom’s plan is the light-year of distance between their definition of “clean.” A fundamental issue in the “why can’t you be more like me” battle that all couples face. Their scales aren’t synchronized.

“If he thinks I’m going to clean the baseboards while he sits there and reads, he has another thing coming.”

“Mom, Dad doesn’t know you clean the baseboards now. He doesn’t know what baseboards are. You can stop cleaning the baseboards.”

She informed me that was ridiculous and, by the way, mine needed cleaning. So I let her.

Dad’s assistance . . . I was less exuberant about.

Dad operates in what I can only call a complete absence of spatial awareness. For years, I was convinced he was deaf and blind.

To be fair, it isn’t entirely his fault. If you are blessed with a capable wife, life usually also fails to gift you the knowledge of how to do things. Had I not seen him feed himself, I would have thought that she did that too. And at times, we wish she would. My Dad attacks the feedbag like the reigning champion of the “which ogre can eat the most villagers in a minute” competition.

He doesn’t care. Learning table manners might oust knowledge about the Treaty of Ghent or something equally intellectually esoteric. Not a chance he is willing to take.

Back to our dirty house. We (Mom and I) decided that she should clean the kitchen.

We decided to let Dad vacuum. Mom felt bathrooms were too much. I suggested windows—since he does clean his glasses—but our windows weren’t dirty. Mom had cleaned them.

I showed Dad our Dyson handheld. It is the coolest thing we own. For any sentient being with opposable thumbs, it’s cake.

I handed it to Dad, showed him THE ONE button, showed him how to hold it with THE ONE handle and how to suck with THE ONE nozzle.

I returned to the kitchen.

“DEAR! IT’S NOT WORKING!”

Mom, like a polar bear whose cub is caught in a snow drift, ran towards the screams. I arm-checked her, “No. Wait.” I wanted Mom to see Dad could do this. He wasn’t asking for help. He is vocally relieving the stress of feeling stupid.

She made a face. I could hear her thinking, “He’ll set fire to the house.”

Finally, we hear noise. Dad found THE ONE button. All was well. (As well as could be with Shrek wielding an electrical apparatus in my living room.)

A bit later, Mom had repainted the kitchen, rewired the oven to the exact temperature, and cleaned the vent fan.

(Have you ever cleaned your vent fan? Don’t. Get my Mom to do it.)

Dad? Well . . .

He had made it through two rooms downstairs but somehow missed the carpets.

“I didn’t know if carpet gets vacuumed.” No, Dad, we have goats who come in and lick them. He missed the stairs. “Oh, right, I guess that is floor too”, and hadn’t gone under any furniture, lifted shoes, or moved chairs, etc.

In short, he cleaned about five square feet of hallway.

He went upstairs without anyone telling him to, but quickly stopped because he had gone into our study and had gotten distracted by a book he felt needed his immediate attention. Which he then read voraciously and digested for future conversations.

He came down later asking “Where did I leave the vacuum?” Another one of his SOPs: “locate this thing that I was using – unbeknownst to you – immediately”.  Which Mom immediately hears as “I’m incompetent. Redo all of my work.”

Which she did. Baseboards and all. Meanwhile Dad educated us on the perils of Napoleon’s early life from the books he had read and synthesized in about a half hour.

Victory for all.

OK, so to sum up: the immovable object and the unstoppable force can exist. Clearly. They just have to not EVER meet in the same London flat.

In business school, I learned about specialization. Do the thing you’re good at and do whatever makes sense.

Here’s the thing with specialization: you cannot resent the other person for doing what they are good at. You cannot keep score. Mom takes care of home, and Dad takes care of non-home. They are happy with this and have been throughout their relationship. Except, retirement means that Dad no longer has as much of his responsibility and Mom has more.

So they have to figure this out, find equilibrium in this new state.

Equilibrium (not balance) matters above all.

As I am perfect in every way and free to judge, I’ve decided to propose solutions:

To the Dad singularity:

  1. Learn self-sufficiency. You will feel stupid (a new concept). You have to be OK with that. Not knowing how to vacuum doesn’t reflect your worth as a person.
  2. Respect Mom’s standards. She isn’t cleaning/cooking because she’s OCD. She’s doing it because she has pride in her world. Sans her, you’d be on Hoarders. Respect that, respect her.
  3. Engage Mom on her terms. Help her Mom-retire. It won’t be easy for her to stop “doing.” Encourage her to do things that make her happy. Don’t judge these activities—ask her about them. (And not in the voice you used to ask us about our grades.)

To the Mom singularity:

  1. Allow Dad to fail. Make it OK that he doesn’t know things. Don’t expect him to do things like you do them. Encourage his effort and don’t fake praise him for stuff he should know.
  2. Learn how to retire. Let go. It doesn’t reflect your worth if you hire a cleaning lady. If you want to.
  3. Engage Dad on his terms. He loves to teach, advise, and solve problems. He’s great at it. He does this at work, but soon there will be no work. Learn from him, ask for help, ask him what he thinks. (And not in the same voice you use for the cats.)

And most of all, EASE INTO IT and plan to spend time in London. We can’t wait to host you and separate you into the areas in which you thrive. That is what we do as adult kids, nurture you into your golden years.

There. I’ve assessed it, figured it out. I can’t wait to tell my siblings all the changes we should expect my parents to make instantly.

Goes without saying, my husband and I are NOTHING like this.

  • Eivind Drivdal

    Reason #73 out of #3912 for why “traditional gender roles” suck. I’ve lost count of the couples I know were their roles used to be that the man does 2000 hours a year of income-generation, while the woman does a similar amount of work in the household ranging from vacuming floors to buying christmas-presents for grandchildren.

    Then the husband retires … and nothing at all changes for the wife. While he, as you say, expect to have tons of time for reading and riding his bike. (I originally typed “for riding and reading his bike” here, but I fixed it before you saw it, hah!) Hardly fair.

    Of course there’s also the reverse situation: The husband works long days in the office to earn money, while the wife works long days at home to keep on top of a 5-person household in a large house with a garden that probably has a cherry-tree in it and were the 3 kids probably attend 2 different schools and in a average week needs transportation to 8 different leisure-activities.

    Then the kids move out; and the couple move to a modern apartment with half the area. The wifes workload drops by a factor of 4 … and nothing at all changes for the husband, while the wife takes up Yoga and becomes on a first-name basis with all the baristas and personal trainers in town.

    These problems does not arise, at least not to the same degree, for couples that share both chores and income-generating work reasonably evenly.

    • Oh absolutely agree. And the woman also, because of the nature of her “work” never had the same amount of social connections and activity that the husband had and thus, feels even more isolated in retirement. It requires completely new patterns of behvaior. I wrote this article glibly because I love my parents, but i ONLY scratched the surface of what this actually means. I’m working on another piece that is about space and how it defines us, specifically the wife who is made to stay at home while others leave her and return to her – the home is much more than a space, it’s her self-worth. Mike and I are very rigorous abotu sharing chores, of course it works easily because we gravitate towards different things, but even if not, yes. I don’t generate income of course, and I will never generate as much as him due to his career and we talk about that too. I feel very confident that I have a husband who respects what I do as much as he respects what he does, but of course you just have to work through this as they come up.

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