Stuck in the Middle
Singing the woes of being unable to retire
Baby boomer and Boomer reader Karen Czuleger Strgacich sings the “unable to retire” blues, looks at the causes of her circumstances, and determines how she can overcome the regrets.
Stuck in the middle! Yep, that’s what it feels like. Stuck between working like a demon and retiring.
I am over 60. I am a woman. And I am a single mother. As I sit here on a spring Saturday morning sipping my coffee, I remind myself again that I am over 60! I’m not 35 anymore, even if my life and career do reflect the pace of a Millennial and not the boomer that I actually am.
Do I want to slow down? God, yes! But the deck of cards I got dealt in my life were not the most ideal. So what’s a woman to do? Well, there’s only one thing to do. I guess I just have to reshuffle the deck! That and exercise the word most overused during the pandemic. I need to “pivot”!
My friends and relatives are all entering their blissful retirements, the rewards of fruitful careers and lifetimes of successful financial planning. In most cases, planning included two people in a marriage who teamed up to create a future they both dreamed of. It was a scenario whereby two people had each others’ backs as they raised their family and planned their future.
I too have a successful career, a career that I have been working in for 30 years. Twenty-three of those years have been as a single parent raising a family alone in one of the most expensive cities on the planet: Los Angeles.
Visions of early plans and dreams … dashed
I remember sitting at the dining room table with our financial planner who reviewed the various IRAs with my then husband and me. We talked about savings plans for our children as well. We had one child at the time, and we strategized on what college costs would look like by the time our son was at the age he would apply. It all felt so grown up, so responsible. Oh yes, we had a plan for the future.
Fast forward four years and we were in the middle of remodeling our home and had a second child, a baby girl born in the midst of construction. And that’s when it happened.
That was the moment my husband, the man who had prided himself on planning our future, decided on a different plan – a plan that included just him. Well, actually, it was a plan that included just him and his girlfriend. I was suddenly a single mother with a 4-week-old infant and a toddler, in the middle of a home remodel that was nowhere near completion.
Maternity leave would have to be abandoned. I had to go back to work in order to finish our home and rebuild a life within a new family dynamic.
When you are raising a family – a very young family – alone, you are faced with what appears to be mountains to hurdle. And they are around every corner. There is so much care to be given to such a young family when you are a couple. But when you are a single parent, that care comes at an extraordinary price, a price that isn’t just monetary. And by virtue of that, your personal energy dollars also become a precious commodity all on their own.
The financial demands placed upon me made me soon realize that there just were not enough corks to fill all the holes in the leaking dike. I was faced with what felt like life-and-death decisions. I had a home to finish building so that we had a place to live. I had an infant who required around-the-clock feeding – feeding in the way of very expensive formula. I had a toddler, too, who required intensive care. And I had to work full time through it all. I had no choice but to continue with the childcare we had always had from our dear nanny – a woman who not only represented basic childcare skills, but who also restored my very sanity in giving me the peace of mind I needed in knowing that my children were safe when not in my care. That too comes at a cost. And though that can be looked at as extravagant, it was critically important to me.
And thus a new family is born. Though I was forced to sell the home I had just built, I was able to buy one on my own and give my children as close to the foundation as I’d had growing up: a good school, a good community, and family close by. But, again, I was doing so while living in the most expensive real estate market where the cost of living is extremely high.
Which brings me to …
The past 23 years represent a lot of physical and intellectual growing. Clothes, shoes, books, and tuition all were put on my plate to bear alone. And those IRAs we talked about? Well, my ex-husband held me for ransom when I was forced to sell our home. He wouldn’t sign the escrow papers and waited until that last day of the closing to tell me he wouldn’t sign unless I gave him the IRAs and his retirement. In my “Oh My God” state of mind, I relinquished them all to him in order to gain back my nervous system. Regret of my actions is way too light of a word to explain my feelings now. Because now is when I need that retirement. When we were married, we made a deal that I would not participate in a 401(k) plan because we needed all that I earned. We would be fine with the IRAs and his retirement.
Which brings me full circle to today. I am reaching the age of retirement, and yet I am unable to retire anytime soon. Through my career, as I raised a family alone, I was unable to save an adequate amount of money to even dare to retire. I was thinking day-to-day survival, not decade-to-decade. I sacrificed me, in order to care for them. That should be on my headstone. So I am pivoting. I am working like a nut to make up for lost time. The pandemic didn’t help matters either. As people were being laid off left and right, I was able to retain my position but at a 20% pay cut.
How can I relate to my peers who are all retiring and taking the vacations of a lifetime? How can I relate to my contemporaries who have nothing but time on their hands? How do I relate to the younger people in my work who are just starting out on their respective career journeys? Even the dating apps that are focused on older people means they want a woman who is retired. I got off the site because I found myself almost apologizing for working still. I am at a place where I feel like I should actually work for Cirque du Soleil because of my constant contortions. And so I am stuck between two worlds.
“Think, think, think, Karen.” So here are my slogans:
“Keep calm.” “60 is the new 40.” “Keep calm because you love what you do.” “Keep calm because you are still doing an amazing job, and if what you have already experienced on your journey equals gasoline in your tank, then you have enough to drive around the whole world and perhaps even conquer it!”
I also tell myself:
“Okay, so you got dealt a lousy deck of cards. Okay, so you had to spend a lot in order to raise that family. You put your son through Berkeley and your daughter is now in film school. You may not have been able to invest in a 401(k), but you did invest in something that will yield a return for lifetimes to come.”
I know there are others like me out there. And to you I say:
Keep calm. Keep moving. And keep believing in yourself! We are boomers after all! We are one of the most fortunate generations ever to come out of a world war. We are here because of the sacrifices of our parents and their parents.
Maybe those sacrifices are in my DNA, as I now see what the results of them look like in full technicolor in my seventh decade of life. But I believe I still have an amazing future and purpose! I have to. And I think I got this!
If you too are experiencing something like this, I hope you do, too! We do still have secure futures! We may just have to do a little reinventing and roll up our sleeves and “pivot” our way to that security!