Friends who know me will know I rarely get work out of my mind. I like to be in touch with what is happening every day and am berated by friends when checking emails late on a Saturday evening out. However for me I feel more comfortable if I know what is going on. Work issues float in my mind when it is unoccupied and I enjoy my work so it does not feel out of balance. I also have a great capacity to switch off from one activity to another and therefore find I achieve my own work-life balance by this mechanism. The only time this changes is if I have a lay-off from work and then I find the reverse is true – I have difficulty switching back into a work context.
This only used to happen when my children were youngish and we would take off for holidays camping in Dorset, always at the same campsite near Weymouth – Sea Barn Farm.
When J and H were 9 and 10, I would go to bed around 5 pm in the evening with the car loaded ready to go. They would stay up and watch TV and be in charge!! At around midnight they would come and wake me up and we would set off. It was a long journey over 5 hours and a nightmare during the day. By midnight they were tired out and would snuggle in the back of the car with their sleeping bags and be asleep within minutes. I then had a peaceful, usually road-free journey down to Weymouth. During this time I managed to get work out of my mind, (remember lap-tops and mobile phones were not there to jog my memory), and looked forward to lots of novels, hopefully some sun and sea and nearly 4 weeks travelling the Dorset coast and just unwinding. Apart from one year where a flooded campsite and a ruined tent forced an early abandonment of our holiday we always had a great time there. The kids got the know every nook and cranny of the coast and we would take turns to choose the destination for the day – Studland Bay, Warbarrow Bay, West Bay, Bridport, Lyme Regis (my personal favorite), Weymouth, Preston, Charmouth, Swanage, Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door etc etc – we met people easily on the site and year on year renewed friendships, particularly the kids, who played contentedly most of the time. Work disappeared into the sea and I simply relaxed.
It was only when returning to work that the struggle began. I found that length of time off whilst recuperative and enjoyable and my memories of those simple holidays are some of my best memories, I did struggle to get back into work. Often this would take me a couple of weeks to get fully immersed into my work before getting back into my routines.
I don’t know whether subconsciously these experiences have encouraged me to guard against such detachment since then but now even when away I do keep abreast of what is going on back at the office. Communications are certainly easier to make this possible and since I got my blackberry a perfect and easy way to keep in touch. The one exception to this is christmas. As the university shuts this forces me into a period away from the office and the festivities take over. This year, despite the fact that Hong Kong really keeps on working between christmas and new year I decided to follow the UK pattern and not return to work until 4th (tomorrow). I have not done anything on my to-do lists and have let work remain well back in my thoughts as I have read novels and relaxed. I feel good and do feel ready to work but know that it will be difficult to click that switch and become enmeshed again in my work.
I have been thinking that this is getting harder each year. To return to the hurly-burly of work, which I enjoy, is laced with uncertainties about what I want to do with my future. The desire to keep performing at my best is tinged, only slightly I made add, with thoughts of what the future might hold. What will life after work be like? I find even typing these thoughts a little dangerous as I have never really contemplated retirement before.
There are three main reasons for this reluctance to think of retirement – out of reach, money and work enjoyment. The ‘out-of-reach’ bit comes from my illness with cancer in 1982 and the loss of that sense of immortality which pervaded my thinking for many many years. My goals were realistic for many years – just keep going until the children are adults; until they have left home etc etc. Now those goals are nearly complete I can now see the possibility of retirement and ought to at least contemplate it or understand it more deeply. Money is another obstacle to retirement. I have never really organised my finances to protect my old age having never really believed I would get there and not having spare cash to invest etc. So I am not sure I can afford to retire. Fortunately up to now work has been so absorbing retirement has not seemed like an option even to consider. Unlike many contemporaries who are looking to retire and are relieved to be away from work i enjoy the stimulation of work and cannot see me leaving it yet.
I have always wanted to be able to retire completely. In other words if I finish work I want to be able to leave it behind like I did on all those holidays I described above or as I do at christmas time. I don’t want half measures. To retire then come back and work casually would not work for me as I would become too embroiled in the work. I need to finish, move on and find new challenges.
The other issue though looming larger is the possibility of being bumped into retirement given the cuts in the public sector and the attacks on HE. I may not want to retire but I may find I am expendable precisely because of my experience and organizational position. This would be a sad way to exit but one which could happen in the next couple of years. I may think I am indispensable but probably only in my own mind!! Maybe I need to consider new horizons and I must say this period in Hong Kong is offering me glimpses of another existence and maybe I am not too old for new horizons if they were to open up. My friend J and his wife have moved to New Zealand to take up work there and I will look at their experience with great interest.
For the immediate future, I need to start work again tomorrow. Christmas is over, H goes off to Vietnam for 2 weeks tomorrow and I must start writing some of the articles I am here to achieve. I am looking forward to the challenge and just need that kickstart to get me thinking work again and then i will be off and ready.