HomeLifeTurning a shock redundancy into a positive

Turning a shock redundancy into a positive

Author Christine Sykes shares her personal story about when life gives you lemons …


My journey to becoming a published writer and a tap dancer started with an alarming request.

In May 2012, I was summoned to a meeting by the secretary of my department, then the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. At the time, I was the CEO of a quasi-independent office and had been a senior public servant for more than 30 years. I entered the meeting anticipating the offer of a new challenge.

Instead, I was asked to take a voluntary redundancy, as the public service needed to reduce the number of senior executive staff. I had thought I was indispensable and had much more to achieve. The prospect of leaving the safety of the public service was horrifying. It wasn’t only the regular pay packet and superannuation, which had been critical to me as the sole breadwinner. The public service had become everything to me. It was my identity and my purpose in life. I felt as if all my years of hard work and apparent success were worthless now that I’d been deemed ‘unnecessary’.

Read: Anyone can discover the joy of dance

Many months of financial advice, negotiation and anxiety followed. Gradually, my view of the future shifted and I could envisage a life beyond the public service. Several events contributed to this changed perspective.

Earlier that year, I’d met Megan Etheridge, the convenor of Dress for Success Sydney, a styling and suiting service for women entering the workforce. We talked about the possibility of setting up a coaching program for her clients. As a first step, I became a voluntary stylist with Dress for Success.

Encouraged by my Auntie Peg, I also joined a tap-dancing class with a friend. Auntie Peg had been a role model for me during my early education and career.

When she retired, she took up tap dancing and that had given her a new lease of life. She was a member of a senior tap-dancing group on the Sunshine Coast and performed at nursing homes and community events. I saw some of her concerts and even joined in some classes.

Although I had learnt tap dancing as a child, I found the steps difficult at first. Because I have a fundamental belief that I can dance, I persisted, practising on a board at home, until I mastered the basic steps.

In the last 10 years I have done classes with several teachers, each of whom took a different approach and taught different styles, some of which I featured in the novel.

Read: A retirement plan that’s not about the money

Tap dancing provides an all-round benefit to me. When I dance and hear the beat and rhythm of the music and my tap shoes, I feel joyous and uplifted. In addition, it’s great for my health, being wonderful exercise for the body and the mind. The other women in the group provide friendship and support – during classes and afterwards in a local coffee shop.

While working full-time, my long-held desire to become a writer had been nurtured through short pieces and children’s stories. The prospect of retirement created the possibility of writing longer works. When I discovered the novels of Liz Byrski, I was inspired to write fiction about mature women.

Her novels celebrated women as intelligent and complicated, and her characters faced struggles in social situations that were familiar to me. During a Writing NSW event, I decided to see retirement as an opportunity to explore the craft of writing longer works, like novels or memoir.

My official retirement came at the end of December 2012 and I signed up for a course called Year of Novel Writing, with writer Emily Maguire. Classes were held once a week and gave me a structure that helped me transition out of full-time work.

Inspired by Auntie Peg, I decided to write about a seniors’ tap-dancing group and the friendship of three women. Auntie Peg read the draft manuscript, gave me positive feedback, and encouraged me to proceed. In addition, I wrote a second novel, inspired by my experience as a volunteer with Dress for Success and worked on a memoir.

Read: Is adjusting to retirement easier for men or women?

Towards the end of 2016, Auntie Peg died. She left behind a document, titled The Legacy of a Trailblazer, which she truly was. I was honoured to be included in it.

On my 70th birthday, 1 November 2019, my dreams came true when The Changing Room was released. The novel was inspired by my involvement with Dress for Success and my experience of the power of female friendship.

Being raised in Albert Street, Cabramatta, provided the basis for my memoir Gough and Me, which overlays the social and political events surrounding Whitlam on my life. In this memoir, which was published in 2021, I also cover the impact of Auntie Peg on the pursuit of my dreams.

The Tap Cats of the Sunshine Coast, published this year, is dedicated to my Auntie Peg – my role model in life and tap dancing.

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