Uruguay. Most people know about the FIRE movement: “financial independence, retire early.” The idea is that if you work and save early in your career, you can potentially retire on savings invested wisely.
Early on in my marriage, my husband and I discussed different approaches toward work, time, family, and our life trajectory. What if there were other ways of thinking about retirement?
We really hashed out our greatest priorities in life. What’s the point of all this? We knew we didn’t want to be wage slaves, selling our bodies in an office and spending our lives with strangers, our coworkers. We also knew that our highest priority was our not-yet-born kids. We wanted to provide them with the best possible start in life, providing them the best opportunity to flourish.
This conversation was part of a larger approach we had toward marriage that feels in some way traditional: we think of our marriage as a project. Some of our peers center emotional connection as the priority in a marriage, whereas we tend to think of what we can accomplish as two individuals joined into the project of making a family and a home.
Before we were married, I nannied for a lot of wealthy people in Chicago, and they literally left the house at 6 a.m. and got back at 7 p.m. Kids were asleep when they left and getting ready for sleep when they got home. They often had work events on the weekends, too.
By every measure of our society, these people I nannied for were wildly successful. They were extremely wealthy, lived in mansions, and drove fancy cars. But they were slaves to a system that robbed them of their own lives and the relationships that matter most. I truly felt sorry for them.
So Patrick and I wondered: maybe we can work long hours before kids arrive, save up enough to get established in a home, and do a mini-retirement while they are all under 4 years old. Why spend our children’s most vulnerable years at work and retire at 65? It seemed plain to us that our kids really need us when they are young and we are just hitting our stride in our careers, in our late 20s and 30s.
What if there could be a new model for retirement? We imagined a mini-retirement for a period in our life course where we want to be rich in time, and the money can be just enough. Maybe others would like to dedicate a period to caring for young children or a sick parent. Or to spend time in pursuit of a creative goal that is not paid. Maybe you want to build a home with your hands, or go on a sabbatical to write a novel.
Neither my husband nor I are particularly afraid of thinking outside the box. We considered lots of potential options for how to structure our lives in order to maximize our priorities. We settled on purchasing some land in Uruguay and working very part time while our children are under 4 years old.
So this is what we’ve done. We worked and saved before having children, enough that we were able to buy our land and build a home outright. Being debt free with regard to a mortgage affords financial freedom because the monthly cost of living plummets.
We racked up graduate degrees that would open the door for remote work, and after our eldest daughter was born we settled into a work life wherein we both work very part time, live very frugally, and are around for these most essential years for our girls. It’s a trade off. We are constrained financially. But we are rich in time and relationships.
It’s trite to say, but does anyone look back at life and say, “I wish I worked more?”
What is the goal of life? Cultural messaging has tricked many of us into thinking it is wealth and status, or career advancement. For us, it is the project of our marriage, our family, friends, and the good we can do in the world.
No one will ever be able to take those early childhood memories from me and from our children. The first steps, the lullabies as we rocked to sleep, the early words, and first time in a swing and the giggles with glee. We were there. We felt it all. Not only were we there for the kids, we were there alongside one another, sharing in the full glory as a family.
Making this kind of mid-career break work is indeed complicated. Even while being with my kids, my part time work was writing my dissertation/book, completing my PhD, starting an international field school, a podcast, and a writing career. I have not been idle. But working in this way, in the in between moments, I’ve been able to be fully present.
My youngest daughter is two years old, and I am truly looking forward to ramping up my work life as she grows old enough for school. I have a lot I want to accomplish in my life’s vocation, and I want to provide materially for my kids, too. I want to turn my focus toward building a legacy for them to inherit.
And part of my vocation is to empower people: that’s why I offer our story as one example to show that you don’t have to believe the dominant narrative about work, life, relationships, and retirement. Corporations want to keep us in a hamster wheel where they control us. But we get to choose our life.
So maybe we can let go of the standard approach to retirement, and we can also evolve past FIRE, toward an approach to work that balances all our greatest hopes for what our lives can accomplish if we live intentionally.