He’s retired, she's still working

Despite their husbands’ retirements, many women continue their careers
Sunday, July 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:40 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Shortly after her inauguration, Stephens College President Wendy Libby proudly displayed the inaugural outfit her students made for her. A stunning, colorfully embroidered black silk fabric, it glistens in the light. But even more beaming is husband Richard Libby’s face as he proudly talks about all his wife has accomplished at Stephens.

“It’s almost mind-boggling now to think that Wendy is doing what she’s doing,” says Libby, a retired educator who moved to Columbia with his wife when she took her post at Stephens in 2003.

Baby boomers have left their mark on every stage of life, and as they enter retirement age, they’re doing it again. Women are hitting their career peaks as their husbands head into retirement, and many women have decided they’re not going to join them for the moment. Many of their mothers didn’t work, and when they did, they tailored their careers to their husbands.

But not these women, and it hasn’t been an easy decision.

No matter how social trends have changed, managing a successful career and maintaining marital harmony is a delicate balancing act. Not every woman finds it a simple one because not every husband is as supportive as Richard Libby.

Debra Condren, founder and president of the New York-based Business Psychology Solutions, says it’s not uncommon for husbands to go from cheerleader to churlish when it comes to their wife’s career. “Many older, retired husbands prefer that their wives adopt more traditional roles where both spouses enter retirement together,” she says.

Condren, who works as a women’s business coach, has seen women step into the traditionally male world of career success — and then have to step right back out.

She recalls one female client who gained an elected seat in her state’s house of representatives and then gave it up again four years later after her husband objected. Even after staying home for 20 years and raising two children, the woman was asked by her retired husband to give up her lifelong dream because he wanted her back home.

At 55 years old, she wasn’t willing to endure the stress that her husband’s wishes were putting on their marriage, and she’s not alone. According to the Retirement Living Information Center Web site, “When a husband retires and his wife continues to work, many couples find it to be a source of marital tension.”

Condren also serves as a business psychologist, president and founder of the New York-based Women’s Business Alliance, a group that helps female entrepreneurs succeed in traditionally male-dominated careers. She says the tension a woman feels between the fulfillment she gets from her career and the discord her working creates in the marriage is sometimes just too much. Some women ultimately give up their careers to satisfy their husbands’ needs.

But not every spouse is so inflexible. Just as women have sacrificed or delayed their personal needs for their husbands, many men are now willing to do the same for their wives.

Vicki Burton Dunscombe, 58, has one of those husbands. As the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Boone County National Bank, she has continued working even though her husband, Terry Dunscombe, 67, retired four years ago from State Farm Insurance.

Vicki Dunscombe says when her husband retired, she couldn’t imagine ever retiring herself. The decision to keep working came easily to her. She says she has always thought she’d work her entire life. For Terry Dunscombe, the idea of his wife taking a financial retirement penalty just to join him in retirement was ludicrous.

“The fact that she’s still working doesn’t interfere with my life,” he says.

The reason these women choose to continue working after their husbands retire is simple —they enjoy it. “Study after study demonstrates that women who work outside of the home score highest on measures of psychological well-being,” Condren says.

But Vicki Dunscombe thinks there are other less clinical reasons their non-traditional arrangement works. They married later in life, when she was 42. Terry Dunscombe, who lost his first wife to cancer when he was 39, was used to taking care of himself and two children.

Perhaps more importantly, however, he’s found things that make him as happy individually as Vicki Dunscombe is at work. While at first he tried working part-time as a real estate agent, he soon found that helping his children with their new homes was more fulfilling. And now that he’s found a new passion in triathlons, he doesn’t know how he ever had time to work in the first place. Despite his busy schedule, he’s taken on more of the household responsibilities, a change Vicki Dunscombe sees as an unexpected benefit of their joint choice.

“It’s been kind of interesting because we pretty much always shared household chores, but now he does pretty much everything,” she says. “He makes my life a lot easier.”

She admits, however, their choices have had one unexpected side effect. She says her husband has inspired her to consider retiring herself someday because she now sees how much fun it can be. This is a change that makes Terry Dunscombe smile, because although he supports her career, he looks forward to the day they can spend more time together, particularly to travel.

“I think it’s probably brought us closer,” she says. This evaluation of what life choices make a person happy would make a life coach like Ann G. Kramer proud.

Kramer, 48, wrote “Life Puzzle: Putting the Pieces Together,” a book about figuring out how to make the best choices in each area of a person’s life so the individual feels as complete as possible.

She also has coached men and women about career and life choices for more than 15 years. But when it comes to the wife working and the husband staying home, she finds now she’s practicing what she’s preached.

Kramer’s husband retired from corporate America 18 months ago. They were careful to think through what they wanted versus what they felt was expected of them. It’s been a learning experience for them both, she says, while he’s enjoying the benefits of being home.

She feels they are working it out successfully — if not always easily. “We are living the retirement transition and also working to redefine it without any of the old baggage ‘retirement must be this way.’” Keeping stereotypes and societal expectations separate from what they both really want, she says “is a challenge and we are learning, trial by fire.”

In Columbia, the Libbys also are trying out something new, but their relationship seems anything but a trial. Sitting in her office at Stephens, both Richard, 61, and Wendy, 52, spoke about her role as president. “I think it takes a really special man to pick up stakes and move somewhere,” she says.

“But think of how many women do that,” Richard replies.

“And this society is still surprised by that,” she adds.

But Richard Libby isn’t surprised at all. And far from wanting his wife to come home, he’s her biggest cheerleader. “For me, it’s just been a wonderful dream come true, 20 years with Wendy, to see her build such a wonderful body of work and her success,” he says.

It helps that Richard Libby understands what it takes to be president of a higher educational institution. He spent his career in the same field and has held similar positions himself. He’s still busy, but now he’s focusing on hobbies, family and taking care of the home, and Wendy Libby says he doesn’t mind taking on the lion’s share of the household responsibilities.

He doesn’t see that as a big deal. Your external responsibilities, he says, determine whose turn it is, and you just have to learn to adjust. In the end, he says, both spouses have 100 percent responsibility to make the marriage work and make one another happy.

Women are thrilled by this concept. And sometimes, so are their husbands.

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