My mom and I were having a spirited discussion the other day on the topic of busyness. She is almost 18 months into her retirement and has yet to come to grips with what to do with her time. As a nurse for more than 45 years, she is used to doing two things – solving problems and caring for others. Caring for herself has never been her strong suit; so, while she may have more time now, things like relaxing, learning new skills or hobbies, exploring the world around her (even if it’s in the backyard), or eating (yes, eating) are not on her priority list. What is on that list, you might be wondering (as I was). Problem solving and caring for others, that’s what. If she’s not actively doing either, she feels as if her days are for naught.
At noon on Saturday, my mom made the remark that she “should have been done cleaning her bathroom by now” and that if she wasn’t going to be able to get things done, there was “no point in living”. I know I should have been more sympathetic but, in that moment, her words just upset me, so I asked why she thought she always had to be doing something.
“That’s the way I was raised,” she answered. “It was bred into me. Your work is your worth.”
“That’s crap,” I spewed. “This business of thinking you always have to be busy, that’s your choice.”
Since retiring, my mom is not the same person she once was. She will tell you that she used to work circles around everyone else, spending 8 hours a day at the hospital, taking care of two children, and keeping the house clean all by herself. I know she did all those things, but I also remember a mom that spent hours just sitting on the porch watching the birds, one who read library books and took us on trips to the places in those stories, a mom who biked 15 miles one afternoon just to see if she still had it in her, one who built tents out of tables with her grandchildren, a mom who never met a stranger and most importantly, one who taught me one of life’s most valuable lessons:
You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.
I reminded her of this last part on Saturday. She smiled, as if she could see in her mind’s eye any one of the many times she drilled this into me as a child.
“Yes, I always taught you to be independent and that the only two things you ever have to do in life are pay taxes and die.” After a few seconds she laughed and added, “And now, I don’t even have to pay taxes anymore.”
Somewhere in our conversation, I think it finally dawned on her that I look up to her. Not because of her work ethic or her ability multi-task. These things are as irrelevant to me now was they were when I was a child. I look up to her because she has always lived life on her own terms. She and my grandmother were the strongest, most free-spirited women I ever had the privilege of knowing and those attributes, more than any other, are the ones that I try to model in my own life.
Hearing my mom say that she felt useless when she wasn’t busy felt like someone had turned the world on its head. It took both of us a minute to really understand that what she was trying to say had very little to do with busyness and a whole lot to do with contribution. My mom wasn’t upset because she hadn’t finished cleaning the bathroom. She was upset because cleaning the bathroom was the only thing she had to do, and she just couldn’t make herself want to do it.
When you are engaged in activities that bring you joy, even the mundane is tolerable. When my mom was working, cleaning the bathroom was just part of the routine. It fit somewhere between grocery shopping and ironing her uniform to get ready for her next shift. It wasn’t the be all to end all. If it got done, great. If not, maybe next week. Life was about the adventure of nursing and being a mother and grandmother, not about scrubbing the toilet. With many of these things now missing from her life, the whole focus shifts and yes, I can see how she would feel distraught.
Though my mom will never read this, here’s what I would like for her to know.
You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do – not even clean the bathroom. You don’t have to keep appointments you never wanted to make in the first place. You don’t have to watch the news (I don’t). You don’t have to answer the phone (I don’t do that very often either). You don’t even have to check the mail every day. The world will not fall apart when these things don’t get done. Trust me, I know. And, no, you don’t have to take anyone’s advice, not even mine. But if you do…remember this:
- Naps are good for you. It’s okay to take one every day.
- It’s also okay to do nothing. Being still and present is actually really good for you.
- There’s nothing wrong with what you already have. You don’t need to buy new things just because someone tells you that you should.
- It’s okay to grieve the loss of a job, especially one that you loved. It will help you heal.
- You are still a valuable member of society and you don’t have to do anything to prove that. But if you want to do something, there are hundreds of great ways to feel productive that don’t involve driving yourself crazy on chores that just repeat when you’re done. Try that hobby you always wanted to learn. Become a volunteer. Create something. The options are endless.
As someone who looks forward to the day when I don’t need to lease a portion of my time to money-making endeavors, I don’t always see the downside of retirement. Watching my mom struggle to find her identity again after leaving her job, has brought many things to light for me. I love my mom more than she probably knows and I want her to find her happiness again. To do that, I know I need to be more patient and understanding. She is not a minimalist. She doesn’t have the same ideas and interests that I do, so expecting her to be content just to sit on the patio and knit a hat is unrealistic. I have to meet her on her own terms, and if that means we clean the bathroom together until she finds her mojo again, then so be it. I’ll bring the mop.