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Helen J. Doyle – Design Your (Retirement?) Life

Five years ago, I participated in a Designing Your Life for Women workshop taught by Kathy Davies and Susan Burnett during a gorgeous and generative weekend in Monterey, California.  Five years is a long time.  Then again, in the arc of a life, five years isn’t much at all.

At the time, I didn’t realize that I was actually designing — and preparing for — life after retiring from full-time work. I felt then that I had one more career in me, one more leadership perch from which I could continue to influence the issues I care about and to mentor up-and-coming colleagues.  I didn’t know what that next perch would be: perhaps in higher education, where I’d worked for the last 16 years, or perhaps in the non-profit or government worlds.  Hence, Design Your Life for Women beckoned.

Soon after my Design Your Life experience, events in my personal life influenced my trajectory in ways I didn’t appreciate at the time.  My younger sons graduated from college, and our kids all seemed to be on their way to supporting themselves (whew!).  And my mother passed away, peacefully and fully satisfied with her life.  My financial responsibilities for kids and caregiving responsibilities for parents suddenly diminished so I was no longer wedged into the caregiving “sandwich” where so many of my friends and colleagues find themselves.

But on the professional front, things got complicated.  Our unit was getting a new leader, which meant a new supervisor for me.  I wanted to help that transition succeed, though at the same time I felt too “seasoned” to have a new boss.  And then the Covid pandemic threw everyone’s lives and plans out of whack, including my professional transition.

As work and life settled into a new normal, I revisited my ideas from Design Your Life. Wow, I’d actually accomplished, or at least explored, many ideas from the individual and collective brainstorms.  And I was taking on new identities — as a certified California Naturalist, a nature educator, and a nonprofit board member — that satisfied my heart and brain in ways that work didn’t.  Although still in the same professional role as when I participated in Design Your Life several years earlier, I’d actually taken major steps to re-design my life.

A year or so into the pandemic, as work settled into controlled crisis management mode, I arranged to take a full month of vacation (reaching that “use it or lose it” limit as many fortunate to have paid vacation did during the lock down), a stretch when I could finally visit my kids back East, spend time away from the computer, and consider my future.  Again, my Design Your Life materials reinforced for me that my non-work commitments were true to my values and passions.  Instead of outlining possible career trajectories, my “Odyssey Plans” had laid out a thoughtful transition to a new stage of life, my “third trimester” as my nurse-midwife sister refers to “the 60+ years”.  I’d been “prototyping” these plans without really realizing it.

I’m grateful that I’m able to retire from full-time work, and recognize it’s a privilege that many don’t have.  I also recognize that many of us dedicate so much time, energy, and compassion to work that exploring, much less prototyping, our “third trimester” feels out of reach.  Too many friends and colleagues tell me they don’t know what they’d do if they weren’t working and don’t know how to start preparing.

I hope that as a society we give people permission and support to explore their own “Odyssey Plans” and new life paths.  Design Your Life for Women gave me inspiring, crowd-sourced material to guide me into my third trimester. I hope it and perhaps, a new Design Your Retirement Life workshop will do so for others.

Helen J. Doyle is a San Francisco-based educator, writer, and California Naturalist 

Crowd-Sourced Actions from Design Your Life For Women