Retirement and the loss of identity

Work has always been a refuge for me. It signified perhaps more than it should have – that I was valued, worthwhile, accomplished. Like many Baby Boomer women, when I first began working in the early 1970s it was still unusual for women to have careers outside of nursing or teaching, or to plan to remain in the workforce for an entire lifetime.

I began my career as a journalist. Later, I worked in corporate communications largely because the pay was better and the jobs more secure. Outside of a few months off when my daughters were born, I’ve worked steadily for 44 years. So thinking about giving up my profession was very disorienting and scary.

Last August, I finally pulled the trigger. After much angst and second guessing, I left my secure position as a corporate editor. Of the many things that kept me up at night before I retired, the loss of my professional identity was the most worrisome.

Eleanor Vincent

Eleanor Vincent, picture by Lynn Watson

I was leaving behind the accomplishments of four decades — awards, professional contacts, raises and promotions. A biweekly paycheck is very motivational! Who would I be without those tangible markers of success?

During the final years of my career I wrote and edited health advice and information for the nation’s largest HMO. Our work was used by patients on a daily basis. I found that very satisfying because I was helping physicians communicate in plain English in ways that directly affected the health of our readers. I worked closely with many Kaiser Permanente physicians and health educators across Northern California for almost a decade. Whenever I got a note of appreciation, I felt as if all my hard work was worth it.

As I crossed days off the calendar in preparation for my retirement party, the questions swirled. Who would I be without my work? How would I cope with the loss of routines, colleagues, and all the perks of my corporate identity?

Luckily, I had a second career in waiting. I’d never stopped writing while I was working. I went back to graduate school and got an MFA in creative writing from Mills College in my mid-40s (concurrently working full time) and began writing a memoir. Swimming with Maya was initially published in 2004. That cemented my identity as a writer and gave me hope that once I could afford to retire and live on a fixed income (which I viewed as my own personal “genius grant”) I’d be able to write full time.

So from my mid-50s onward I was planning my escape from corporate work. The book was republished in 2013 and was quite successful as an e-book and paperback so that caused me to dream even bigger.

I had another ace up my sleeve. My father always had a dual career as a college professor during the academic year and actor during the summers. After he retired from teaching, Dad moved to Manhattan and pursued his acting career full time. I saw my father enjoy his years in active retirement enormously. From childhood on, I had a role model for how this might look.

About a year before I retired, I began seriously envisioning how I’d invest my time once I was no longer in a gray cubicle. I spoke with fellow writers Susan Ito and Louise Nayer about the San Francisco Writers Grotto, a writing center and co-working space for writers where they are both members. The Grotto would provide the office space and support of colleagues I’d be giving up when I left corporate work. I initiated the application process and after some months was accepted. In the weeks immediately before I retired, when my anxiety was at its highest, I knew I’d have a place to land.

In retrospect, my corporate identity was a prop. Had I been more confident in my abilities as a writer, perhaps I would not have had the career as an editor I had. On the other hand, having that professional persona gave me a lot — the ability to raise kids as a single mom, something to fall back on after two divorces, financial stability, and a sense of empowerment and self-esteem.

Now with the financial foundation I put in place over four decades, I am carving out space for my identity as a writer. I started at the Grotto one month after I left Kaiser. In the ten months since, I have worked steadily on drafting a novel and am now working on revisions and shopping for an agent.

I always knew that one day I’d devote myself to my creative work but I couldn’t have dreamed how satisfying it would be. Being willing to take the leap and leave behind my old identity means my days are now spent in celebration of my creative freedom — and a lot of hard work!