Retiring not Retired

Being unemployed is not the same as being idle

I seem to be caught in a conflict, the source of which relates to my new resolve to work. Not that I didn’t work, and resolve to work, in Australia, but since coming to London something has struck me, stuck with me, stuck in my craw. A few weeks back, a bare week or two after we arrived here, something my mother-in-law said helped galvanise me. We — my wife, my three stepsons and I — had been invited, along with my mother-in-law, to a lunch with old neighbours/friends of my wife’s, and at the last minute I’d decided not to go after losing my cool with one of the children. I’d just had enough, I guess — it happens — and the last thing I wanted was to make polite conversation and try to act the happy family man. My wife explained this to her mother, but her mother (according to my wife) seemed convinced of her own reading: (a) that I suffered from “social isolation” (true — see “Isolation”, handwritten April 27th 2017), and (b) that I feared social interaction because it would force me to reveal my status as unemployed.

Now, for me this possibly casual comment of my mother-in-law’s pushed all sorts of buttons, not least because since my wife lives off her mother’s income from a family trust, and since I live off my wife, I’m essentially living off my mother-in-law — but never having discussed this situation with my mother-in-law (who, I’ll make clear from the outset, seems understanding, generous and open-minded), I’m constantly in a mild state of apprehension as to whether she’s frowning on me, despite the general consensus that I’ve been nothing but good for my wife and stepchildren. Hence her claiming that I would fear judgement re my unemployment made me, and my wife, immediately fear her judgement — made it seem, in fact, that she may have been keeping that judgement in reserve for some time.

So I wrote her (my mother-in-law) an email — a funny thing to do, maybe, since she lives just down the road, but it was late and I don’t like phoning and we had emailed each other before. I addressed both the topic of my frustration as a step-parent (“I feel as if I’m wasting my life sometimes,” I wrote, “trying to accomplish a task that I’m not cut out for and never would have chosen if not for my love of Ciannait [my wife]”) and the issue of my unemployment. But in the end I sent her only the first part, I can’t remember why; I think because the second part seemed defensive or overbearing. Thankfully she replied quickly and kindly, reassuring me that my positive influence on the children was appreciated and broaching of her own accord the topics of my isolation and unemployment. All of which I read with gratitude, except for one line: she likened my lifestyle to that of “a retired person in a neighbourhood where people in your age group tend to be in full-time paid employment”.

Now far be it from me to make of my personal correspondence a public entertainment — I did that before, in my early twenties, and it left a bitter taste. So I don’t quote my mother-in-law in order to tell her story, but only to show the effect of her comments upon me. I replied to her email: I tried to explain to what degree I felt far from retired, to what degree I struggled, on the contrary, to find time and space and quiet for everything I was working on. I’d have troubles until I “found something to focus [my] days on”, she’d said, but I had and have plenty to focus my days on, as I told her. I don’t know what she thought of my reply, except possibly (this is what I would have thought) that it proved I was socially isolated, given that I hardly knew her yet was treating her like a shoulder to cry on. In any case she didn’t reply (I don’t blame her) and we didn’t talk about it in person, and it’s entirely possible she felt I missed her central point (a valid one: that she fears the health risk of my social isolation) because I was defensive about a peripheral issue (my unemployment). But why rehash this now? Because I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and because this morning the same issue (or both issues: the whole tangle of issues) cropped up again.

The empty Hanbury Hall

It’s school holidays, a time I dread for its deleterious effects on my creative work, my sense of peace and my relationship with my wife (who, unable to “switch off” from her kids, is physically, mentally and emotionally eaten by them, thus leaving me with scraps of herself, which she herself is inclined to fight over, since they represent her only chance of self-immersion). Luckily, it’s only what the English call a “half-term break” — a week off. But since our arrival we’ve spent so much time settling in, and then travelling to Germany, that I’m increasingly desperate to get down to work. I can’t build momentum. And of course, whatever my wife agreed to in principal (ie: that she doesn’t mind if I spend long days away from the house these holidays), in reality it’s not so easy. She has creative work to do too, for one thing, and though she doesn’t prioritise it like I do, she suffers if she strays too far from it. But also, I can’t leave her alone with the children when she’s suffering. (In a way, I’ve felt that from the moment I first met her: “I can help her,” I thought.) No, they’re not my children, and to a degree that absolves me, but I want the best for my wife — of course I do! — and I’m getting paid for nothing except for helping her. So yesterday I offered to babysit when she told me she had work to do, so long as today I could spend a long day out working. The deal was struck, or so I thought.

Come this morning I took longer to get ready than I’d hoped, and was still hanging round at 9:30 with an old school-friend of my wife’s due to arrive, with two children, at 10 for a day out and a picnic. My plan: to be long-gone by 10 — partly, sure, from shyness, but also just to get my day underway. I hadn’t had coffee yet — I was planning to get one at the Hanbury Hall Café, a favourite writing spot about a 20-minute ride away — and I couldn’t imagine extricating myself from polite conversation in a hurry without appearing rude. Worse, for me, was that my wife sprung this on me at the last minute, when we’d agreed long before that I wouldn’t be part of the event. But today suddenly she says she’s worried I’ll seem like an imaginary being! Which is where I’m reminded, again, of the “retired person”, and this notion that virtually everyone my age (males especially) would be at work on a weekday at 10am, school holiday or not. I mean, hadn’t we talked about this? Haven’t I brought it up two or three times lately: that this is what I want, to be working? Not (as I said today) to be a “stay-at-home school holidays parent”! And hence wouldn’t it seem natural to my wife’s friend if I wasn’t there? Wouldn’t it, possibly, raise more questions if I was?

Maybe I was too impatient on arriving here: maybe I should have given over the first two weeks, at least, to getting to know my wife’s friends. After all, I want to meet them; they’re part of what made her who she is, and when I arrived in Byron Shire (when we first met) I tried to meet all her friends. But when I first arrived in Byron I was on holiday — relieved to not be working in retail or hospitality and without a pressing artistic project or any real expectations for the less pressing ones. When I arrived in London, on the other hand, I was champing at the bit: it had been a good month since I’d last had the chance to sit down to anything without feeling rushed or worried (re packing/moving/travelling) and all I really wanted to do was to get back to work, maybe especially because of that feeling identified by my mother-in-law — that everyone else here is working so why can’t I?

So yes, maybe I’m anti-social (of course I am, and I’m sorry for it) but I’m also hungry, desperately so. I need to make a mark, and quickly. Unfortunately I can’t do it by rote. I’m ill-educated (I made it through high school, reluctantly), ill-connected, ill-able to do pretty much anything people are offering money for. “Content is king,” they say, but that’s all I’ve got — content — and I feel far from kingly. So to me these questions of whether I’m going to meet x or y friend from high school, I’m sorry, are peripheral. I’m in a life-defining struggle here. I’m in London; it’s motivating me; I need to make contact before we return to Australia. (Why are we returning? The children — we promised them we would.) I need to make contact, not just with my wife’s friends but with my people — people who care about what I care about, people who share my interests, people I can work with. Maybe sitting here in Hanbury Hall with my headphones on scribbling this seems a strange way to achieve that, but it’s all I’ve got. No-one’s paying me, but it’s my job, or part of it. And I’m far from ready to retire.

(Handwritten Tues May 30th)