Heritage

Executives on parenting, retirement

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Prof Catherine Gachutha is a counselling psychologist. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

I wish my children and I would meet more often. I wish we could meet without having to schedule for it,’’ Professor Catherine Gachutha tells BD Life.

Her daughter, 26, and banker, was married last year. Her 25-year-old son is a trained lawyer.

She adds: ‘‘We hang out every second week of the month. To meet, we have to plan for it in advance. We meet to cook together, eat, chat and bond. There is never any serious talk. Just a social family time.’’

For Lucy Waruingi, the director of Africa Conservation Centre, and a mother of two, it is the reality of being unable to make plans freely with her daughter and son, both young adults, that she is now having to confront as her retirement approaches.

‘‘When they were younger, we went on holidays together. We would simply take our sleeping tents and go camping on weekends. It is now difficult to plan a vacation with my son. He has a different timetable in university,’’ says Waruingi. Her son and daughter are 22 and 17 respectively.

After building a successful career working in local government and finance and banking for more than 30 years, S. T. Wainaina took early retirement in 2014. Now he spends his days reading, writing books and doing extensive community work.

The former and first CEO of Women Enterprise Fund (2008-2014) is also a director at Dream Credit Limited and an author. He has published five books so far, with more in the pipeline.

‘‘Retirement has allowed me to write about my experiences in career and social life,’’ he says, adding that his wife, a teacher, will be joining him in retirement later this year.

Build a successful career. Raise a family. Impact the world. This is the dream of many professionals. In reality, though, this remains a pipedream for many. With work and travel commitments, spending time with family is often compromised. But these are necessary sacrifices that must be made.

By the time most parents have gone up the career ladder and even taken up leadership roles, their children usually have left the nest. Some will have joined college and others gone abroad to pursue their own careers. Still, others will have started their families.

Meanwhile, retirement beckons. When it comes, the parents go back to homes without children. It is at this point that the reality of their children’s independence smacks them right in the face.

Granted, some will have joined boards of various institutions to keep themselves productive and active. But with sometimes only a handful of sittings spread out across the year, there is usually little else left to occupy them.

Responsibilities shrink. Days become longer. Loneliness kicks in. Some professionals take up sports, others go for volunteer work while others start businesses. There are also those who spend their retirement days travelling.

Every morning on any given day, Parklands Sports Club in Nairobi is a hive of activity. As Nairobi’s working class is settling in at work for the day, some men and women drive here for breakfast, to catch up with friends and read the day’s dailies. Or to work out.

Some of them stay on for lunch before driving back home in the early afternoon. This is how their days are spent.

But what is it like to build a career in a senior role while parenting? What relationship do retired parents have with their adult children? How do they spend their surplus time before and post-retirement?

Wainaina is living his dream retirement. For him, leaving employment before 60 was a masterstroke. With his children in college, this allowed him to focus on community service.

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Former Kenya Women Enterprise Fund CEO and Dream credit limited Director Samuel Tiras Wainaina. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

‘‘Writing and training has occupied me. I have four manuscripts awaiting to be published.’’ Besides, he has weekly programmes on local radio and TV stations on entrepreneurship.

‘‘My parents are departed. I converted their old house in the village into a community library where people go to read.’’

He notes that most professionals struggle in retirement for failing to prepare themselves in advance on useful activities to take up when they leave active employment.

‘‘It is stressful in retirement regardless of the money you have. From my observations, idleness is the biggest cause of premature death for most men and women in retirement.’’

He adds: You wake up in the morning and go to the gym for a few hours. After only a few hours, your morning routines are done. You cannot read the newspaper or talk about politics with friends all day. How then do you spend the rest of the day?’’

Wainaina, though, observes that most professionals are disinclined to volunteer work.

‘‘Some people feel that it is embarrassing to go back to doing what they have done all their life. You must be busy. Dr Myles Munroe said that you must utilise your body so that you go toe the grave empty. Our bodies are meant to be used. You need something to engage you to remain relevant to your family and community.’’

Says Prof Gachutha: ‘‘I wanted to start a family with someone who could take care of our children whenever I travelled abroad for studies. This balance was important for me so that our children would never have to be left without a primary caregiver.’’ As such, whomever she would marry mattered.

Both her children went to boarding school in upper primary. ‘‘Even as I built my career, I needed to assure them that I was ready to drop everything else for their sake. There are times I would cancel overseas assignments for them even when the ticket was ready.’’

But even with she and her husband stepping in to parent whenever either of them was away, some gaps were hard to seal.

‘‘I had to ensure that our domestic helps were well trained. They were taking care of my best investment in the world: my children. To do this, I had to make sure that they felt my confidence and trust in them to discharge this duty.’’ She says all helps that have served in her household would end up becoming part of the family.

For Waruingi and her husband, it was all about deliberateness. The couple prepared themselves by enrolling for a parenting course on biblical principles long before they had their first child.

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Lucy Waruingi is the director of the Africa Conservation Centre. She is a mother of two. PHOTO | POOL

She narrates: ‘‘When our firstborn son was born, we went back for another course. It is one thing to learn the theory or parenting and another to learn it in practical terms.’’

Like Prof Gachutha, Waruingi, a director for seven years, has been travelling extensively for work. In her absence, her husband would steer the home, taking care of the family.

‘‘He never felt like it was my role to play. We had committed to do this together. It was very reassuring to have him play this role. Either parent can make a big difference when they are intentional.’’ The family took their children to day school ‘‘so that we would get to more spend time with them.’’

She adds: ‘‘In the earlier years, I had to make certain sacrifices such as not going for studies outside the country. In more recent years, and as they have grown older, I have made the decision to disconnect a bit and build myself.’’

‘‘I became busier when I became a director due to the oversight role I play. Running an institution takes more time. Even so, I have to make those moments when I have to be home.’’

Part of creating time with her family involves sharing transport. ‘‘My son drives, but his father and I will drop him wherever he wants to be during the weekend. I try to be available for them more nowadays, not in a parenting way, but in an interesting way. I am more conscious about not carrying work home these days, which I did a lot before.’’

So, how has the relationship between these professionals and their children evolved over the years?

Wainaina’s sons and daughter are in their early 30s and already working. Two of them are now married. ‘‘We speak every week. Occasionally, we meet for lunch,’’ he says. He adds: ‘‘Whenever I have big decisions to make, my wife is the only person to consult.’’

As her children grow older, the professor has had to cede control over them. ‘‘My husband and I do not want to appear to police them or to impose ourselves on them. We have accepted that we must let them take a lead role in their lives. We are receding as we allow them to move forward. They need us now more for comradeship and support.’’

She goes on: ‘‘My daughter is my best friend. We have been able to cultivate a good relationship where we freely challenge each other to take up opportunities. After finishing law school, our son said he does not want to practice law. He has chosen to work with vulnerable populations at an NGO. He wants to learn about programming.’’

Says Waruingi: ‘‘We love their company and they love ours too. We find it difficult to do some things without them. Our son keeps saying he is an adult now and that we should [relax our grip on him]. That said, we try not to be in their space all the time. But we have to be able to cover for each other.’’

There are also times when difficult conversations happen in the family. ‘‘They (son and daughter) will make decisions that we do not agree with. But we have to come to an agreement. Unless they have put themselves in certain undesirable situations, we do not stop them from making their own decisions. When we are wrong as parents, we apologise.’’

On whether their outlook on parenting would have been different had they not been career women, Prof Gachutha and Waruingi believe so. ‘‘I would not have depended on helps to take care of my children as much as I did. I would have done it myself. Obviously, I would have been more available.’’

There is a caveat, though. Prof Gachutha says she was careful not to create overdependence among her children on their mother by being too available. ‘‘Your children need to continually build their independence of choices and what they want to do in life.’’

Wauringi agrees. During the pandemic, she decided not to have an in-house help anymore. ‘‘When you do not have someone doing everything for you, you will be more available to get things done in your home. I have found this very fulfilling because it has also made my children take up roles in the household.’’

What do these parents miss about when their children were growing up? Spending family evenings to catch up on the day, Prof Gachutha says with nostalgia.

‘‘They would tell their dad and I about their progress and struggles of the day. We would pray together before everyone went to bed. I miss that.’’

The scholar would also keep journals whenever she was travelling, detailing how her family would be taken care of, and for how long she would be away. ‘‘I do not keep journals anymore.’’

While she has no regrets about her performance as a working parent, Prof Gachutha wishes she had balanced between the different parenting methods. ‘‘My children hated scheduled meetings with an agenda when they were younger. They felt they were being grilled. They liked it when meetings were free and unstructured the way we are doing it now.’’

Soon, her children will be out of the household. Has she prepared herself for it? Waruingi calls it the looming emptiness.

‘‘My son keeps reminding me of when he will leave the nest. I do not look forward to this. I hope they will be in the city and that we will get to spend time during the weekend and probably have Sunday lunches, even without being overbearing to them. I am mentally aware that things will shift.’’

Her daughter, she says, has her eyes on college abroad, which will further limit the frequency of family hangouts. Waruingi has been reflecting lately. Says she: ‘‘Have I prepared them well for adulthood and to be on their own? What do I need to improve on? I hope I will be fine,’’ she says, adding that her preparation during the earlier years is paying off.

Adds she: ‘‘I am confident they will do a good job managing themselves.’’ Has she prepared herself, though, for the time they will leave? ‘‘No. my husband and I will probably wake up and go do what we need to do. I haven’t spent much time thinking about it. I think I will be fine. But I know it will be a difficult kick-off. I will probably be miserable when the reality hits.’’

With their children leaving home, retirement approaching and professional engagements becoming fewer, these career men and women are now having to find other activities to fill their time.

Since the pandemic, Wainaina has been making his hands dirty developing creative works and now has a public park and a retreat garden in the village.

Prof Gachutha describes herself as a community person. ‘‘Community work gives me a lot of joy and fulfilment. I do not exist in the classroom very well. Now I can give more time to communities and the church through the activities that I do,’’ she says and adds: ‘‘I love to sing and to tour places to refresh. But I do not dedicate as much time to these activities as I would want to. It is something I am working on. I do not want to be too engrossed on the same activities.’’

Waruing too volunteers in her church and community in different capacities. ‘‘I also sit in a few boards and groups. I am a member of the civil society movement on conservation. I guess these activities will take much more time.’’

‘‘My husband and I always ask ourselves: do we want to stay here when we are older? Do we want to move to a smaller space? If we want to move elsewhere, were would that be? Do we need to live simply? How is a future without children in the household like? Is it time to give time to society? We have asked ourselves these questions but we have answered none of them. these are looming decisions that we must make.’’

The conservationist is considering going back to school in the next five years. ‘‘I would like to study. I hope to lecture about conservation. My plan is to study environmental management.’’ Already, she is enrolled in a short course.

Wainaina could not be happier about his retirement. ‘‘Besides keeping me engaged, these social enterprises have created jobs for other people and attracted funding and other forms of sponsorship.’’

He says his post-career days have allowed him to reflect on the meaning of life. ‘‘Just do good. At the end of it all, you will have your good deeds to be remembered for.’’

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