Retirement makes mum a happier person

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 11, 2013

In a premature twist of fate, I've become the only gainfully employed member of my family in Singapore.

A year ago, my father scaled back on his work as a freelance tour guide to study for a law diploma.

Last month, my mother lost the job she has had for the past 15 years.

 She saw it coming: The management had changed and were bringing in a slate of new, young, staffers.

It was also a fairly painless parting since her own discomfort had been growing for months as her colleagues departed one by one. She was the last one standing and considered resigning, but my sister and I insisted that she wait to be fired.

What came as a surprise to us was her announcement, post-retrenchment, that she had no intention of getting another job.

Conditioned perhaps by capitalism and self-reliance, I had always thought of retirement as the moment dementia starts to set in.

At 58, she is sprightly. It would be one thing if she intended to turn her focus from work to another, deeply personal endeavour, like my father had done.

But it seemed like what my mother wanted was only to live a more indolent version of her current life of line dancing, housework and chit-chat.

Various unloving predictions sprung to my young-ish adult mind.

I would have to give her a lot more money every month. Her brain would turn to mush on Korean drama serials. She would always be around, fussing the way mothers fuss, but now at turbo level for a sheer lack of other things to do.

I might be jinxing it by calling it early, but none of these things - save the first, pity my bank account - has come true.

Instead, my mother has made retirement look a lot better than I ever thought it could.

I think what a lot of people my age don't realise is just how much our parents have on their plates, and how exhausting it becomes, as energies wane and bones start to ache, to hold it all together.

Now that my mother has time for her full life and sufficient sleep, she has become a much happier person - and a much nicer one.

This reverberated in several spheres. The nastiness of a mother's fussing, I believe, is directly proportionate to how harried they feel.

So, if they barely have time for a conversation with their children, those five minutes can get sucked into a black hole of nagging and criticism. I think of it as anxiety infecting every aspect of their lives.

And so it has been that with every new day now blooming before her, unencumbered, my mother's fussing has become exponentially more pleasant.

She's always bringing me drinks. She reads the newspapers and talks to me about articles. She asks about my friends and is inordinately interested in the twisting, tortured tales of their relationships.

She is indeed always around, but it's actually improved our relationship.

Conversation is a habit with momentum of its own. When we barely saw each other, communication was often terse and transactional.

Now, I chat with my mother all the time, so much so that when something ridiculous happens to me or a development occurs in something I've told her about, I feel a tug of impatience to get home to update her on it.

She seems to enjoy her life so much more now, too. Once, after sending me to work (another child-of-retiree perk), she ambled over to Toa Payoh market and texted me gleefully about encountering all the food stalls she remembered from youth.

She's built a mountain of baby goods to await my niece's return from East Africa in a few months.

It's early days yet, and perhaps boredom, or financial vulnerability, will set in, and she has to look for work.

But I can't help but think all of this as the reward for a tough, oft-grinding life of working motherhood.

Her middle age has not been marked by empty-nest syndrome; all this space and time has instead been a revelation, a rediscovery of life's simple pleasures.

Chief among them is not having to rush everywhere all the time, but instead to have the freedom and the bandwidth to linger, to reflect, to notice.

If this is what retirement is, then sign me up.

Too bad there's 40 years of drudgery, heartbreak and sleep deprivation to get through before I get there.

For now, I'm just glad that after years of enjoying the fruits of my mother's labour, I get to see her enjoy the fruits of rest.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 11, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to