Everything I Did Was Extra

I was raised to be secondary.

That never occurred to me until the other night when I was talking with a friend about his possible retirement. It’s a big challenge for anyone whose work life has been central to their identity.

But I realized that it was less of a challenge for me than I thought it would be. And it wasn’t because I didn’t love my work. I did. Almost more than anything. 

When I quit, I felt like I had nothing left to prove. I’d already exceeded people’s expectations of me. Actually, I’d probably done that five minutes after taking my first professional job forty years ago. 

All I was supposed to do, all I was shaped and raised to do, unwittingly, just naturally because that’s how it was, was this: get married and have children. And maybe help my husband if he was in a situation where my help would be needed which, if I made a decent match, would be unlikely.

Remember I am a person who took shorthand in college. I wasn’t a gal in the aim high club.

So when you think about how I was raised and what was expected of me, I’ve done okay. Moreover, being raised with low expectations gave me a weird kind of freedom. Nobody expected much of anything from me. So in that context, my whole professional life has been gravy. 

In contrast, my male friend, having been raised to be primary, feels burdened by the expectations laid on him by his parents, by society, by himself. Though he has done an extraordinary amount, he can’t be finished yet. There is a pinnacle he thinks he hasn’t yet reached. It’s burdensome, those expectations.

I think things have changed for women and men but I don’t know that to be true.  And until this conversation it never occurred to me really that I was raised to be secondary. But I was. And it has had its peculiar benefits.


3 Comments on “Everything I Did Was Extra

  1. Remember how when you were a small child the adults in your life would ask you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We all had exciting things we wanted to be. In some cases we became those things. In other cases those dreams were compromised by practical problems like needing to be able to pay the rent, which is OK.

    One of the great things about retiring is that you once again get to ask yourself, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Except this time for most of us we’re in no danger of having to worry about paying the rent, so we have this wonderful freedom to do whatever we want. So part of the trick of retirement is not to grieve for that job we no longer go to, but instead to take joy in this new “job” we have the freedom to fashion for ourselves.

  2. When I was a senior in high school I asked my parents about the possibility of me going to college. At the time I was dating my future husband who was in college and on track for a good career as an engineer. I remember my mom saying” Oh you won’t have to worry he will make good money and you won’t have to work. You will be able to stay home and take care of the home and children.” I adored my parents, but she completely missed the point. My parents did not set high expectations of us B’s and C’s were acceptable, college was not encouraged and being the best at anything was not important. Fortunately my husband recognized the value of an education and he supported my decision to go to college and graduate school. Any of my successes have been like you stated “gravy” since no expectations were set.

  3. I thought, when Garry retired, that he would really miss his work and the prestige it brought. Surprisingly, he LOVED retirement, even when we were dead broke and had no idea how we’d ever get back on track. His blood pressure dropped, he slept better. He relaxed for the first time in 50 years. And now, every time he sees some horrible story on the news he looks at the screen and says “Better you than me!”

    I was surprised.

    As for me, I just wanted to write. I got to write. I didn’t write one of those Great American Novels, but I wrote professionally and made a good living doing it. I liked (but didn’t love) my work. I LOVE retirement. This kind of writing, I truly love. No editor. No “report for duty and get that book to the printer on time” stuff. I just write what I want to write.

    Is there anything better than that? If there is, I don’t know what it is, unless it involves millions of dollars and a Porsche.

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