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“When I sleep, I dream of being at the office,” says Cory in The Morning Show¹ and I make a note of his workaholism on my phone, along with all the other quotes and insights and revelations I gather there that might someday allow me to make a point about something.
On a flight from Belfast to Faro, I have one of those revelations. Apart from one brief trip up the aisle to queue for the toilet and a few moments negotiating milk sachets, it takes me the whole journey time, 2.5 hours to read the weekend supplements in The Times.
I go for a coffee with a mum who is on maternity leave with her second child. She asks me how I did it. She has two but I had double that. She is at that juncture where she is simultaneously dreading and looking forward to being back in the workplace where she might get the chance to be herself again. But she’s wondering how she’ll manage with the splitting of her identity. The motherhood load is real. She has just about enough hours in her day as it is. She gets up at 6am to go to the gym. I think back to eighteen years ago. “I didn’t do anything I enjoyed,” I say.
I arrange to meet a man for brunch. We were once paid by the same institution. “I’m semi-retired now,” he says. He reckons we might have things in common. He is interested in my deinstitutionalisation, my reconstruction into whatever I have reconstructed myself into. He talks about his buckets. There are three he wants to fill up. He intends to broaden his social activities, perhaps take up photography alongside regular tennis. He will reconnect with people from his past. He plans to focus on his marriage. He is preparing for the next stage, that final exit from a career that has lasted four decades. He tells me that often men have no network beyond their colleagues. They have nothing to cling on to when that goes.
I listen to the horse trainer, Lucinda Russell on Desert Island Discs². She explains that some horses don’t want to be a racehorse. “They don’t have the competitive edge,” she says. “You’re much better letting them go off and do something else and become eventers or family horses or whatever”.
I meet a rector on Zoom. He has invited me to be a guest on his podcast. I will talk about faith and church but also about leaving. He gives me a glowing introduction and I am momentarily startled that he is talking about me. He asks me about my hobbies. I share at length about my exercise habits. I mention how I like to lift weights. I extol the virtues of fresh air. I tell him I have read 120 books this year but maybe that looks like I have too much time on my hands.
I am doing a course on ‘Mark-Making, Care-Taking: On Ritual, Reconnection and the Recording of Motherhood’. The facilitator gives us a prompt. “I had been looking down for so long….” she says. I think of looking down at the sh*t on the wheels of the double buggy, the never-ending pavement ahead, the floor strewn with objects that were never in the right place, my watch because I was always running out of time and that there were never 2.5 hours to read the weekend supplements. She describes the ambivalence of motherhood. “You don’t notice that the birds have stopped singing until they start up once more,” she says.
It’s 11am on a Tuesday. I meet a woman who was once an HR director. We bond around our loss of identity, leaving our careers behind. We discuss whether we are semi-retired. But that language doesn’t work for us. Both of us have started new things. We’re not part-time either. We are just not consumed by our work. We consider what we have gained. She talks about having an extra glass of wine on a Sunday night. I think of no longer having that anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I called it empty belly. And I reckon we are not the losers here.
The rector recommends a podcast to me. Kate Bottley on The Mid.Point with Gabby Logan³. She is processing her midlife. Her mother died recently. “You realise there’s no one ahead of you now,” she says, “you’re at the front of the queue, on the edge of something”. She has conducted numerous funerals. “There are three things nobody will say at your eulogy,” she says - “how much you weighed, how clean your skirting board was and how much you earned”. “They will talk about your character, your enthusiasm, where you found your joy and who you were loved by. People will remember the tune, not the lyrics of your life. It’s about who you love and who loves you”.
I watch the season finale of The Morning Show. Even though her identity as a journalist remains intact, it hasn’t worked out for Alex with her hot billionaire lover. She has packed his bags and left them in the hallway. “I so wanted a partner, one I could trust,” she says. I look at mine trying to keep his eyes open and I am glad to have him as one of my buckets. Things are crumbling for Cory too. All those years spent building his empire and now he has to fight off the media magnets who are trying to steal it. He bumps into Bradley in a corridor. She has been giving evidence. He is being investigated for once telling her he loved her. She didn’t think she was worthy of being loved. She is leaving. “I’ll miss you,” she says. “Me too,” he replies as his voice cracks. He turns to straighten the picture behind him so we can’t see him cry.
The rector tells me it was a brave decision to leave my career. And I know people are interested in my loss of identity because they fear it will come to them eventually too and maybe there is some secret to making that transition and I want to tell them that I still haven’t really got over it, that loss of title and status and that there are little stabs, deaths by a thousand cuts that come from time to time that remind me of what I have given up. I see my daughter’s preparations for her GCSE French test sitting on the worktop. On a page, she’s written, “mon père est responsable informatique depuis vingt-trois ans”. Her mère isn’t mentioned. I think about bumping into two professors on my way to meet the man who is semi-retired and how they asked me what I was up to. As they waited in anticipation, I could see they were expecting something better. And I wanted to say I’m walking round some gardens in the sunshine because I can, but it sounded like I had too much time on my hands.
“I hope you have found some ways this week to tend to your tender heart,” says the facilitator of the course and I think about my body and how I used to ignore it but now I respond to the warning signs it sends me about over-committing and under-resting and we all need to know that our bodies will warn us well in advance that our minds are about to break. “There’s a hole in my bucket,” says Henry. Liza tells him to fix it. And I think about all my buckets, how much I have fixed them and then filled them and that I was never meant to be a racehorse.
There’s another note on my phone, a revelation. “I want to go someplace where I can marvel at something,” it says, and I think how ridiculous it is really that I don’t have to go anywhere else to do that now and how wonderful it is to have time on my hands.