When we are young, we generally seek independence. We want the freedom to form our own relationships, to discover and to articulate our own thoughts—to find our own way. When we are old, freedom comes almost unbidden and the ties that bind us to activities, relationships, and communities often take flight.
As we move through our sixties and into our seventies, and as we near or enter retirement, we grow increasingly disengaged from family and work. Our children have flown the coop, often settling in other states and regions. We see them as often as possible—as often as they permit, we say—but they no longer fill our daily and weekly lives. Nor does the contact define us as much as it once did. For many of us, this includes grandchildren. We adore them but they are elsewhere. Even when we see them weekly, they are not the center of our lives as our children had been.
In addition to the loving contact and the intensity of relationships within families, there is an everydayness to the lives they required that gave shape to our days, weeks, and months. The teacher conferences and the vacations, the bedtime stories and the meals to prepare—they determined the rhythm and texture of our lives. It was easy to imagine that this, the quotidian, would be the hardest to relinquish.
The empty nest at home is joined by a comparable experience at work. Like family, work is more than a series of activities. It’s a community of sorts, a web of relationships. Many of us may have spent more time within that web than with family and friends. Who we are within that context seems to be who we are. Our identities have been partly forged by our projects, our roles, our ambitions—or lack of ambitions—and by the relationships we cultivated.
Some of us, freed from what seemed like limiting marriages or intractable conflict, were at our best at work. When we have been nurtured by work, it can be particularly hard to separate from it. At the extreme, there were those among us who virtually lived at work and became virtual strangers at home. As strangers, we lost our standing in the family, where the primary relationships were between the children and their mothers—or, in rare cases, with their father. In such cases, leaving work meant leaving our true homes.
Broadly speaking, our sense of responsibility to people and institutions grows thinner with age. And this isn’t just a numbers game. It speaks to the way that the ties have held us. When we know what’s expected of us, when we know the rules by which we succeed and fail—and what will happen in both instances—when even the mostly implicit rules are known, there is a comfort in the clarity. Paradoxically, the very clarity of the constraints and expectations make us free.
There’s another paradox here: even though you choose your work freely, day by day, you don’t choose. You are just there, at work, within the work community, the web that holds you. And, though deeply immersed in these webs, you are free to leave. When you leave, the feeling of freedom and loss mingle in confusing ways.
For most of us, the power of family and work comes in good part from the sense of belonging, the virtually unsought and implicit sense of connection. We don’t have to seek it. We don’t have to risk rejection or embarrassment. We are just a member. And there is a quality of membership, hard to define, that feels larger than ourselves, larger than any group of individuals.
Unlike a contract, which is based on a quid pro quo—you do this and I’ll do that—family and work are based on a covenant or sorts. A covenant is not a two but a three legged stool: you, me, and something larger. It could be shared beliefs, shared goals, an almost religious sense of the ties that bind us together. When this covenant is threatened, we are threatened. We are un-tethered, potentially alone in a vast and uncomprehending world.
That is why you would think that old age and retirement would shake most of us to our core. The prospect of facing ourselves without these twin holding relationships seems daunting. Who are we in the midst of this new and puzzling freedom. How do we nurture ourselves? Do we have only ourselves to answer to and to please? At first—and at second—glance, that seems a flimsy basis for living.
And yet, and yet, this seems like a very good time of life, less needy and more easily filled than imagined. I have been watching my friends bask in the freedom, which most of the time does not seem puzzling at all. In fact, I’d say that they celebrate the freedom: freedom from pressure on the job; freedom from the fear of failure which is always present when you put yourself on the line; freedom, for the most part, from having to please other people; and freedom from having to try to control others. What an unbelievable relief to be responsible only to ourselves and a to few others. And for those of us who have been fortunate enough to retire with enough money to live comfortably, the time for anxious saving is done.
The empty nests mean that we have completed or mostly completed the work of parenting and the long labor to earn a living and a reputation. We have probably taken time to assess our lives, acknowledged our limitations and found gratitude for successes. What’s done is done and it is mostly in the past.
My friends celebrate time to read what they hadn’t had time to read, to take up photography, art, music. To learn. For years, it seemed like we had stopped learning. There was too much to do. And when we did learn, it was begrudging. There was the need to keep up professionally, to make sure advisors weren’t taking advantage of our tax and financial positions. These felt like chores not openings to new worlds. Now Learning in old age becomes a source of delight and deep satisfaction.
My friends celebrate spontaneity. We don’t have to run from task to task. We need sprint right home from work to make sure the kids have dinner or rides. If we want to have dinner or drinks with a friend, we do. Friends become more central to life than they had been since childhood. If and when we want to take a walk, we do. Read a book, go to a movie, take a nap—any time of day, any day of the week. What a privilege this seems. Sometimes it feels illicit but that hardly dims the pleasure.
Maybe the greatest and unexpected pleasure brought on by the combination of empty nests is a sense of detachment. This is a subject that the great psychologist, Erik Erikson, talked about so eloquently. He described our lives as passing through a number of stages, each with its own great challenge. The challenge for the last stage (sixty-five and beyond) is to cultivate “ego integrity” over “despair. Despair represents the fear that our lives haven’t gone the way we wished and there isn’t enough time to begin anew.
Ego integrity means embracing our sense of wholeness, a belief that life as it is, is enough. To achieve that wholeness, people have accepted setbacks and disappointments, celebrated successes, and found meaning in both. Those who find such meaning arrive at a sense of well being, a peaceful contemplation of their own mortality. This, if anything, is wisdom.