Tradition has it that a person stepping down from a senior role eulogises about the joys of spending more time with their family. Most people I have worked with over the years have been of the opinion that I only worked so much in order to spend less time with my family. That’s a little bit unfair on me, and a very big bit unfair on my family, but it might well have been an impression that I tried to give.
When I started the stepping down process, I had a fairly clear plan in mind: sort out some urgent family stuff; take the opportunity to travel for more than the usual frugally-given two weeks; then find another senior job. The advice that I was given was basically to use the same notes but in a different order: find another job, then take some time out before I started work again to travel and do the family stuff. It was good advice. Things just didn’t work out like that.
The first working day on which I no longer had to go into work, I was stalked by a stranger. I had wandered into town to enjoy my freedom by having a leisurely walk around the shops. This stranger started to follow me around, smiling at me as I passed each shop window. I crossed to the other side of the precinct, changed direction again, but the stalker was always there.
Disconcerting, it certainly was. After a few minutes of this brazen friendliness I decided to shame him into moving on to some other hapless shopper. At the next smile I turned round abruptly to confront my shadow. It was my shadow. It was me, my reflection, smiling back from the glazed shop window displays. I had never seen myself smile so much before.
That was the first day. At this rate I would be smiling my way into another job by the end of the week. What I hadn’t reckoned on were two minor complications. Firstly, although I had spent many years successfully selling the virtues of the services provided by my organisation, I had had very little recent practice in selling myself, selling what I had to offer to any prospective employer. Secondly, smiling uncontrollably on my first day out of work was not necessarily a good sign. In a baby, smiling is a symptom of wind, not happiness. In me it might be a sign of the ‘bends’ as I surfaced from years of striving and structure without the use of a decompression chamber.
The good thing about spending more time with my family, though, would be that even my nuclear family has become such a large and dispersed entourage that to spend time with it could be a time-consuming affair that would keep me well occupied into the near future.
First of all there was a bit of honouring of my father and mother to do, always sold to me in my youth as a precursor for my days being “long upon the land that has been given to you”.
My dad was selling his house in Ireland and moving the rest of his effects to join him on the ‘mainland’. That was guaranteed to consume some high quality family time. There was also the small matter of clearing the carefully assembled contents of his garage.
Or more likely just closing the garage door quietly and tip-toeing away.
I also had an outstanding commitment to my mother to keep, to speak at her memorial service and then to join with the immediate family and cast her ashes into the sea off her beloved north coast of Ireland.
My eldest daughter would suffer next – be visited next – and serve her right for all those years complaining that the eldest child in a large family never got their full quota of parental attention. I spent time with her and her piers and tried not to envy the Bohemian lifestyle that shamed my middle-aged staidness.
Then my youngest daughter was graced with a visit. She had just received her first ever full-time pay packet and the least she could do was buy her parents a Sunday roast and then a pint of something warm in the oldest pub in England. She was after all living, and now working, in the city where they stole from the rich to give to the poor.
My elder son didn’t escape either, even though he thought that he had finally escaped the parental nest by going to uni in another country. We crossed the Severn Bridge and gladly began to explore Valleys and docklands and stadia and a hundred and one shops selling dragons and daffodils. His younger brother, like the poor, was always with us.
And then I hit a problem. There were two other offspring to spend time with, but they weren’t living just a short trip down the motorway. One was working somewhere in northern Japan, and the other living somewhere near the set of Neighbours. Visiting them was going to take a little more planning. And in the middle of this I had the on-going decompression to decompress, jobs to find and apply for, and the care of my dad, who by this stage had moved effectively from my brother’s house and into our local hospital.
This was not going to be easy. I needed inspiration. I found it in an unexpected place. I ended up asking myself the question that very few other lifelong Manchester United fans have ever asked. In this situation, I wondered, what would Denis Bergkamp do?