Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood


The first editor of Ms. magazine helps women address the three crucial questions ofsecond adulthood: What matters? What works? What’s next?

New brain research is proving it: Women at midlife really do start to see the world differently. Some 37 million women now entering their fifties and sixties—a unique generation—are refashioning their lives, with dramatic results. They have fulfilled all the prescribed roles— daughter, wife, mother, ...
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The first editor of Ms. magazine helps women address the three crucial questions ofsecond adulthood: What matters? What works? What’s next?

New brain research is proving it: Women at midlife really do start to see the world differently. Some 37 million women now entering their fifties and sixties—a unique generation—are refashioning their lives, with dramatic results. They have fulfilled all the prescribed roles— daughter, wife, mother, employee, but they’re not ready to retire. They want to experience more. Suzanne Braun Levine gives us a fun, smart, and tremendously informative road map through the challenging and uncharted territory that lies ahead.

"Levine takes us beyond the frontier of our own expectations and into a new and hope-filled stage of life." —Gloria Steinem
"I found so many resonances with my own experiences in this book… It will have a huge impact and will clarify so many things for so many women."—Carol Gilligan, Ph.D., author of In a Different Voice and The Birth of Pleasure
"Suzanne Braun Levine made me understand why I always envied older women . . . life just gets better—more outrageous, more radical, more passionate, less fraught, wiser, deeper, and kinder." —Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues
"A you-go-girl manual for the menopause crowd."—People

Author Biography
SUZANNE BRAUN LEVINE is a writer, editor, and nationally recognized authority on women, media matters, and family issues.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Levine has a message for aging boomer women: if you're feeling out of sorts, confused, in a rut, there's nothing wrong with you: you're just entering your "Second Adulthood," a time, she says, when women can remake themselves. Levine, Ms. magazine's editor for 17 years and now a contributor to More magazine (and author of Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put Family First), draws on the latest research on hormonal and other physical changes women begin to go through in their 40s, and draws on 50 in-depth interviews she conducted with women in their middle years to show how they can improve their lives. Levine's subjects describe a time of confusion (the "fertile void") that led them to re-sort their lives, revise priorities and make new decisions about work and intimate relationships. Samantha, for example, left an alcoholic husband after decades of marriage. Joanie, a traditional wife and mother, renegotiated her marriage and bought herself an apartment in New York City, becoming a fund-raiser for a dance company. Although Levine did interview some women with fewer economic resources and she discusses the importance of financial planning, much of the self-discovery stories will resonate best with women who are financially comfortable. Her gung-ho go-rappelling-off-the-mountain tone may grate on some women while inspiring others. (Jan.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An upbeat guide for women who are into their 50s or beyond. Broadcast and print journalist Levine (Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put Family First, not reviewed) addresses her inspirational message to the 37 million women in this country who were born in the 1940s and '50s, a generation whose perceptions of what women can do have been influenced and changed by feminism. She conducted in-depth interviews of 50 post-menopausal women of diverse backgrounds, talked with many others more casually, and consulted various researchers and writers to take the measure of what is happening to women in this age group. Her finding is that they are a powerful force, challenging the status quo in their personal lives as well as in society. For Levine, Second Adulthood is a challenging time, a time for asking questions, such as "Who am I now?" and "What am I going to do with the rest of my life?" Through individual stories, she demonstrates what happens when women undertake the tasks of reconsidering their work, their lives, their relationships, and their passions. The results are often unpredictable, sometimes even disconcerting. Overall, though, her view of Second Adulthood is positive and reassuring. Levine has a knack for speaking directly to her readers, adopting the personal "we" to describe common concerns and offering often funny, revealing anecdotes from her own personal experience. Each chapter opens with an inspirational quote (Dorothy Sayers, Erma Bombeck, Martha Graham, et al.) and is filled with short, punchy lines of Levine's own invention. Not much here that's really new, but it's all packaged in an especially easy-to-take, down-to-earth, yet uplifting way. Agent: JanisDonnaud/Janis A. Donnaud & Associates
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670033119
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • Publication date: 1/28/2005
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Suzanne Braun Levine is a writer, editor, and nationally recognized authority on women, media matters, and family issues. Editor of Ms. magazine from its founding in 1972 until 1989 and editor in chief of the Columbia Journalism Review, she is currently a contributing editor of More magazine. The author of a book about fatherhood and numerous articles and essays, she has also produced a Peabody Award-winning documentary about American women. She has appeared on Oprah and the Today show and has lectured widely.
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Read an Excerpt

Getting to What Matters:
Letting Go and
Saying No

CHAPTER ONE You're Not Who You Were, Only Older

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
. . .
Much can be said for savoir-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.
. . .
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

ùW. H. Auden, ôLeap Before You Lookö

My first step into Second Adulthood was backward off a ninety-foot cliff. On impulse, I had signed up for an Outward Bound program and found myself poised in full rappelling gearùharness, helmet, and guide ropeùto walk down the face of what could just as well have been my twelve-story apartment building. The terror was pure. I was only mildly distracted by the reassuring words of our leader: ôFear is the appropriate response here. After all, evolution doesn't take much interest in creatures that step backward off ninety- foot cliffs.ö

I made it down, of course. I had learned the lesson the exercise was surely designed to teach, that fear is not an unacceptable response, but it can be confronted. And I fulfilled a personal mission: to find out if I was still a Tomboy. (The very word, I realize as I use it, is a throwback to a bygone era, not just my own past.) My tomboy self, long lost in a marriage to a nonathletic, nonûnature-lover and a busy urban life, played a big part in my personal mythology. Ever since I crossed the fiftieth birthday barrier a couple of years earlier Ihad wanted to reconnect with that rugged, adventurous outdoorswoman, if indeed she was still an authentic component of who I am. If my tomboy was still there, I wanted to share that part of me with my daughter, who was growing up in a time more accepting of the ôbig-bonedö body type we share and as a young woman with an unequivocal appreciation of her body's strength. But first I had to make sure I wasn't perpetuating a myth about myself. Having grown up feeling I was often playing a part written by others, I wanted, as best I could, to get to the truth about my life.

As my feet hit the ground and I looked back up the craggy cliff toward the blue sky and my cheering companions, I was overcome with emotionùemotions really, more than I can identify even nowùand I began to sob and laugh uncontrollably. But it was after I calmed down and had gone kind of limp that a totally unexpected breakthrough of really cosmic proportions hit. The descent down the cliff came on the fifth day of a seven-day program. I had done everything asked of meùjumping into icy water at dawn, sleeping on oars lined across an open boat, climbing a telephone pole, swinging on a rope into a spider-web netùso I was primed to obediently take on the next assignment. It was to keep our harnesses and ropes in place and climb back up the wall. Maybe it was because I was so totally wasted by the emotional and physical exertion, but I would like to think it was overcoming fear on the way down that gave me the courage to say no to going back up.

The only others in the group who declined to climb were two women in their fifties. We realized with some astonishment that, for us, saying no was as monumental an achievement as stepping backward off the cliff. Both challenges were more meaningful to the three of us because we were women of a certain age. Each of us had a different reason for coming to the wilderness, yet we shared an awakening drive to sort out our thinking about the next stage of our lives. In our dealings with that cliff we had encountered two essential themes of Second Adulthood: Letting Go and Saying No.

Letting Go and Saying No

In my lexicon, Second Adulthood is the unprecedented and productive time that our generation is encountering as we pass that dreaded landmark of a fiftieth birthday. If you think of your first adulthood as, roughly, the twenty-five years in which you built your life and set your style, the next twenty-five years can be a second chanceùto do it better, to do it differently, to do it wiser. I say can be because a lot depends on luckù good health, good fortune, good friends. But a lot also depends on determinationùtaking risks, making change, weighing new options.

To seize that second chance requires recalibrating many of the primary forces in our lives and shifting gears. As anyone in our age group knows, to shift gears you first have to disengage the clutch and literally give up control for a moment. In the context of the Second Adulthood transition, letting goùof worn-out demands, of old news, of empty promisesùis like stepping backward off a cliff. It is terrifying, especially for women who have spent a lifetime holding on, keeping things together, planning, coordinating, and prioritizing. It is hard to surrender to serendipity and to risk and change. It is distressing to find oneself having to renegotiate the most intimate relationships. But whether we see it as an adventure or not, we are at an age when circumstances force us to let goùof our children, of our looks, of some of our life goalsùand feel ourselves fall apart, to ease off doing what we know how to do, to look into the abyss. For those who take the leap, letting go is also an opportunity to consolidate, to cherish, and to soar out over new terrain.

Saying no is the assertive form of letting go. If letting go focuses on acceptance and release, saying no focuses on actively shedding baggage that is getting in the way of moving on. Eliminating what doesn't work for us anymore, talking back to people who have intimidated us in the past, renouncing behavior that doesn't feel authenticùall those noes are an important way of taking charge of our lives. They enable us to travel light toward clarity of purpose. Those first defiant noes are the prelude to many a triumphant yes! There's a catch, thoughùthose triumphs can't be anticipated from the safety of solid ground. We have to take the plunge into Second Adulthood without knowing who we will be when we come up for air.

Reinventing Ourselves and Rewriting History

In many respects, we have been here before. Thirty years ago, at the beginning of our first adulthood, we were also on the verge of big changes; we were struggling to address what Betty Friedan had identified as The Problem That Has No Nameùthe dismissive and restrictive assumptions about women and their role in society. At that time, many women felt isolated and confused and guilty for not being satisfied with what they had been given, but fearful of talking about it.

Time and again, they found that the simple, yet risky, act of telling the truth about their doubts, failures, and fears to someone who appeared confident and accomplished resulted in a reassuringùand amazedùôme too!ö response. In sharing frustration over household demands, impatience with children, anger at husbands, concerns about sexuality, and doubts about measuring up to media images, women found validation for their own perceptions, support, and the emotional high of not feeling like the only crazy woman on the block. One by one, those intimate revelations changed the conversation about women's roles as they changed each woman's own life.

The discovery that the personal is politicalùthat our most private efforts have meaning in the community of women and impact beyondùled to the revolution that got us to this place. Today, motivated by that energy and those achievements, we are confronting a new unknownùThe Problem That Has No Name has been replaced by The Question That Has Many Answers: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Second Adulthood.

Second Adulthood is a journey each of us embarks on, but it is also a stage that our generation is in the process of defining as we live it. This book is about both. Sharing the stories of individual women's journeys gives reassurance to others; describing the parameters of the new life stage highlights the substantial upside of what can feel like a meltdown. There is great promise in Second Adulthood, but there is also an inescapable downside to getting older. A woman turning fifty this year has a 40 percent chance of living to one hundred, but she has the same chance of being erased from her world by Alzheimer's. Hormonal shifts can throw us off kilter into depression and anxiety, but they can also release a heady dose of defiance and energy, a second wind. Despite our professional breakthroughs, ageism is pervasive and insidious in our culture. Poverty among women increases with age. Some of this bad news we have to accept, but every day we encounter situations that can be turned around. As we zero in on what really matters in our lives now, we become better able to recognizeùand make peace withùcircumstances we cannot change and we become more experienced in taking charge of those we can and want to change.

My understanding of Second Adulthood is drawn from the insights of women with diverse life experiencesùfrom the most traditional or ambitious to the most off-beat or spiritual, from celebrities to retireesùbecause I know that the baseline experience for each of us is more similar than different. In addition, it provides needed perspective to hear how others are coping with common problems in unfamiliar situations. I interviewed fifty women in depth and spoke with numerous others in that casual-yet-intimate kind of conversation women often strike up. I learned from every one. As Gloria Steinem has pointed out, ôanyone who has experienced something is more expert in it than the experts.ö

I also sought out the professionals who are following our trajectory. They are finding patterns that illuminate our anecdotal accounts and set our experience in the larger context of social change. The broad message of my research is that both the personal and the societal status quo are being challenged. As we make our individual ripples, we are collectively creating a major paradigm shift that has consequences well beyond our own lives. Just as women did during the years of discovery and rebellion that began in the seventiesùwhether or not an individual considered herself a part of the Women's Movementùwe are now rewriting history as we are reinventing ourselves.

The New Stage of Life

Almost thirty-seven million American women in our late forties, fifties, and sixties are the beneficiaries of scientific and health breakthroughs that are prolonging our active lives. At an average life expectancy of eighty-plus years, we are likely to live as adults almost as long again as we already have. This is a new era for women. The choices we have made so far have set the stage for this new era. The choices we each make will define it. Our numbers will call attention to it.

Born in the 1940s and 1950s, we were raised in a culture that had a limited view of women's prospects; then we spent our first adulthood breaking free of those narrow expectations. During the seventies and eighties, we became acquainted with what women could do, even if we didn't personally achieve all we could have. And many of us have achieved more than our mothers ever could have dreamed. As a result, we bring to our Second Adulthood a double awareness: a first adulthood full of experience in reinventing ourselves; and the conviction that women belong in the public sphereùthe marketplace, the civic arena, the sports stadiumùnot only in the home.

Now the last frontier is before usùthe grandma assumption. In our mothers' generation the conventional wisdom was that once a woman reached the change of life, her life stopped changing. What she had not done by fifty, she would never do. What she did afterward wouldn't matter to anyone but the grandchildren she would spoil rotten. We are already turning those assumptions around.

It's not that we aren't reveling in the joys of participating in a new life. ôI feel like I have taken a lover,ö a doting grandmother confessed to me. ôMy heart flutters when my granddaughter calls. I daydream about her at work. I shop for the silliest gifts for her.ö It's just that the momentum of our eventful, busy, productive first adulthoods is propelling us past an all-consuming granny role. ôI'm a doctor, a teacher, a lover, a political activist, a friendùand a grandma,ö another woman protested. ôBut as much as I adore my grandchildren, they are not the defining part of my life.ö

We are mature achievers and late bloomers. We are taking on challenges and taking care of ourselves. Far from fading into the woodwork, we are full of surprises. Most of the women I talked to about the onset of Second Adulthood reported at least some of the surprises that I experienced on my Outward Bound adventure:

ò an impulsive decision to do something out of character
ò a willingness to take a calculated risk into the unknown
ò a determination to make contact with one's authentic self and tap into the true passion there
ò a desire to become a source of truth about women to the next generation
ò the delicious freedom of looking the latest expectationùin a lifetime of expectationsùin the eye and saying, ôNot me. Not now!ö

I don't think it is an accident that the triumphant tomboy I longed to reconnect with dates back to an earlier stage when I felt power and confidence and then lost it. Like just about every woman now over fifty, I experienced adolescence as a time of increasing self- doubt, of abandoned not-for-girls dreams and of limitations closing in. For girls today, and even for us, it is hard to conjure up the time when girls had to wear only skirts and play jump rope and learn to giggle and make every statement into a questionùa time when they had to rein in the high spirits of grade school days and start concentrating on the serious business of learning to please other people.

When readers of More magazine, a publication for women over forty, were asked about their age, the majority said they felt their best years were ahead of them. What they liked about being older was ônot worrying about what other people thinkö and ôbeing more self-confidentö and even ôno more menstrual cycle.ö Their words sound like a celebration of the girlhood sense of power and independence that our generation had to renounce. Second Adulthood is, in part, about recapturing that earlier state of mind andù at lastùgrowing with it. For women of our generation, this is a unique moment, a second chance at growing up strong.

When we gather for fiftieth and sixtieth birthdays, we ask each other if we are grown up yet. The answer is: Yes, we are grown up, but at the same time we are only halfway there. We are about to grow up again.

You Are Not Who You Were, Only Older

The most important discovery I've made about Second Adulthood is that a woman entering this new stage is not the same one who set up her first adulthood life. We are approaching the next frontier as women with new ideas and responses, whose priorities are changing. That's why answering the question what's next? is not as easy as it may appear. For example, despite all I had riding on that wilderness challenge, outdoor life is off my agenda. The tomboy trip has become irrelevant, as have many of the other long-standing items on my to-do (in life) list. It would be easy if what Gail Sheehy first identified (in New Passages) as Second Adulthood were really about the opportunity to do ôeverything you always wanted to do.ö But like me, many women find themselves staring blankly at their life lists and wondering why they are not enthusiastic about fulfilling those long-standing dreams. The truth is we have outgrown them. They are dreams of a past adulthood. ôEverything you always wanted to doö has little bearing on what you are going to do next. Because you are simply not that you anymore. You are simply not who you once were, only older.

This can be terribly confusing. Allison, who considers herself a clear-thinking woman, found herself awash in mixed signals. After only a year at a job that should have felt like the crowning achievement of her career, she couldn't believe she was thinking about, of all things, retiring. Where had all her ambition gone? Why was she not able, as she put it, ôto enjoy successö? Why did she suddenly want to be home for the high school years of her youngest child, when she had always maintained that the stimulation of work she loved made her a better mother? She felt she was losing her convictions as well as her drive. ôI just want to stay home and paint and take courses,ö she said flatly, as if talking about someone she barely knew.

Other women described their own experiences of getting off track with equal bewilderment. Some could not explain new tastes in foodsùor new sexual interests. Others found themselves ôbehaving badlyö but not inclined to apologize. Several described behavior that ultimately opened up new prospects, but looked and felt inexplicable or flaky at the time. Sylvia, for example, comfortable in a midlevel executive job, was in the midst of sending out an e-mail to her friends and colleagues about an opening at the top of another organization when instead of pushing send, she picked up the phone and proposed herself (and got the job). And Sara, who fought like crazy during her divorce proceedings to keep her rambling apartment with the dark velvet furniture and towering bookshelves she loved, but the next thing she knew, she was longing for sunshine and cozy spaces. She now lives in a small suburban high-rise where she can grow geraniums in every window. Patricia, a nonpracticing Jew all her life, felt an inexplicable longing for ômore mysteryö in her religious life and, after much soul- searching and study, ultimately converted to Catholicism. Madeline retired in order to escape the city and spend more time making her garden grow, yet found herself drawn toward a different kind of gardening. She now teaches English as a Second Language in an inner city homeless shelter.

As the journey goes forward, this unfamiliar persona, this mischievous Tinkerbell at our ear, matures into the voice we count on most. It gets stronger, more authoritative, more philosophical, more courageous. ôOld women are different from everyone else,ö wrote novelist Ursula LeGuin. ôThey tell the truth.ö

You Are Not Who You Were. Literally.

The reconstructed you is not a figment of your imagination. The dynamic that many women are reportingùnew outlook, new confidence, new dreamsùis supported by scientific research from many disciplines. What we are learning about our bodies tells us that nature has by no means abandoned us at this stage, and what is becoming understood about our style of behavior tells us we are not programmed to fade away. On the contrary, we might be as well or better suited to new challenges at this stage of life than before.

Some of the most spectacular news I will report comes from neurology labs where researchers are concluding that, contrary to conventional thinking, the aging brain is not just degenerating. In fact, it is generating in ways that are supportive of big achievements after midlife. Until very recently, it was thought that brain growth stops even before physical maturity and, in middle age, the brain begins a decline into a series of senior moments. While it is true that certain kinds of memory processes get rusty (I have a friend who claims that ôthese days, remembering a name is better than having an orgasmö), other capabilities begin gearing up at around age forty-five and continue for a decade or more. Specifically, in that part of the brain responsible for making judgments, finding new solutions to old problems, and managing emotionsùnot sweating the small stuffù there is a great leap forward.

I will also describe how medical science is only just beginning to address the ways that women's bodies get sick or stay well. Until now most of what we knew about heart attacks, for example, was based on the male model. It is now clear that heart attacks in women have been going undiagnosed because we present different symptoms. Our bodies age and adapt in ways we are just beginning to understand. Every day there is more to know about our physical ability to engage and manage the experiences of Second Adulthood.

Another research frontier particularly relevant to understanding the reinvention process of Second Adulthood is the relatively new academic discipline of gender studies. After thirty years of activism against stereotypical gender distinctions, the playing field has become level enough to begin looking at the real behavioral differences between men and women without imposing restrictions or value judgments on them. Sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, and feminists are exploring those traits, be they nurtured or natural, that take women and men down different roads to the same goal. A wide range of studies are analyzing the way men and women deal with moral questions, with power, and with the demands of daily life. Early analysis suggests that women's multifaceted thinking process and more improvisational approach to problem-solving are particularly suited to the challenges of Second Adulthoodùnot to mention the twenty- first-century world.

My current favorite example is how women and men deal with stress (that is, the modern-day form of danger once represented by a menacing jungle predator). We have always been taught that the human animal is equipped with a fight-or-flight response in which adrenaline mobilizes the body for enhanced speed to escape or enhanced strength to strike out. It turns out that those conclusions were drawn from studies done on men. According to University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) psychologist Shelley E. Taylor, it is now clear that ôevery man for himselfö is primarily a male response; women exhibit what scientists have labeled tend-and-befriend behavior. Our impulse in times of danger is to join with others in our group to make peace, to reach out to friend and foe, to defuse the situation. The genesis of the inquiry into women's behavior came, appropriately, in a casual girl talk between Taylor and her colleague Dr. Laura Cousino Klein. ôThere was this joke that when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came in, cleaned the lab, had coffee, and bonded,ö recalls Dr. Klein. ôWhen the men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own.ö Their study is the result of their determination to find out why.

The notion that women seek safety in a social network is confirmed in animal studies. Another UCLA study found that while crowding made male rats more stressed, it calmed the females. An important source of this different behavior is the pituitary hormone oxytocinùbest known for its role in labor before birth and lactation afterwardùwhich has a calming effect and is produced in both men and women. The difference is that in men the effect of oxytocinùalso known as the hormone of love or the cuddle chemicalùis diminished by the release of testosterone, which promotes aggressive responses.

There is an interesting corollary to this discovery. Previous research shows that when adrenaline is rushing, as in the fight-or-flight response, cognitive functions are focused on the body's mobilization against danger. But those rational faculties are actually enhanced in a calmed-down state, which the tend-and-befriend mode is, and they can be called upon to think through a problem rather than attack or flee it.

These insights also offer a new perspective on women's friendships, which play an enhanced and crucial role in Second Adulthood. The network of friends we instinctively turn to is more than a support group; it is a significant survival technique. Not only because women are hard-wired to confront adversity better in groups, but because the combination of trust and respect we practice with each other is a model for the new intimacy that our changing circumstances call for in our other relationships.

The importance of this bond was confirmed by how often the women I have interviewed say that it was their friends that talked them through a crisis and, in general, kept them going. ôI don't know what I would do without my friendsö is a mantra we all chant. Few men have that kind of intimate support network; that may be one reason why they become less adventurous than women in Second Adulthood and why many seem to be going through a second childhood instead.

Women arrive at the frontier of this new stage with impressive credentials. Although we are flying under the radar, obscured by the wildly flawed expectation that we will become less and less who we were as we get older, we are poised to take off into the unknown. Futurist Ken Dychtwald, a consultant on what he calls the age wave, issued an early warning alert to a group of business executives about ôthe most amazing women our country has ever seen. They are living the most complex lives, managing households, managing jobs, dealing with in-laws....We haven't come close to understanding the complexity of the mind, heart, and soul of these womenö who, he added, ôare going to become the power group in our country!ö

The Journey

So, we are a new kind of generation. At the same time each of us is a new woman to herself. No wonder the journey begins in a torrent of confusion. Many women find themselves at the edge of the cliff before they even realize something is happening. And looking down, they can't imagine what ropes and pulleys will guide their descent.

They are propelled only by a funny feelingùlike the first inkling of pregnancy. It is a mixture of dissatisfaction and fearùand a panicky sense that it is time to do something. Sooner or later each of us does do something. The something is different for every woman I talked to, as minor as throwing out that pillowcase full of mismatched socks once and for all, or as major as interviewing for a new job, getting divorced, or going back to school. But in each case, the ripples set off by those first almost random acts move out into unexpected corners of their lives. In the course of Second Adulthood every aspect of our beingùour intimate relationships and our public selves, our professional commitments and our secret dreams, our drives and our fearsù will be washed by those ripples; some may even be washed away. But the momentum that has been generated, disorienting as it might be, is driving us toward a wider horizon. As my friend Elizabeth reassures me when I feel atomized by the centrifugal force of events in my life, ôa person who isn't expanding is a person who is contracting.ö

Since my week in the wilderness, I have switched careers, though not entirely by my own choosing. I have endured the tumultuous adolescence of my son while on the alarmingly parallel track of menopause. I lost twenty-five pounds (and, alas, gained a few back) and have begun to work out in a gym for the first time in my life. I have become a feisty big-mouth, in stark contrast to the conciliatory smoother-over of my first fifty years. I have undertaken the renegotiation of a thirty-five year marriage. I have made as many sardonic jokes as anyone about sagging flesh and memory lapses. And I am still trying to figure out how I am going to cross the shifting tectonic plates that lie between who I have been in my assimilated roles of daughter, friend, employee, wife, motherù and who I am becoming as I tap into my inner resources.

To illuminate my own journey and to clarify the promise and pitfalls of this stage of life, I have asked practically every woman I encountered over the past two years to tell me about her life at this moment in time. Even the experts I was consulting about their research dropped their professional distance once I explained what I was writing about and shared their personal expertise as well. Each is in the midst of her journey. Their stories are as worn around the edges as yours and mine. They have no neat endings or surefire tricks to offer; in most, the plot line meanders and doubles back and even disappears for a time. There are highs and lows. When I talked to them, some were euphoric because I caught them on a day when they had glimpsed a light at the end of a tunnel or when some piece had finally fallen into place or when they were simply having a good day. Others were feeling lost, desperately searching for a pattern, for a game plan.

But everyone found our conversation a rare opportunity to share personal discoveries, connect with what other women were experiencing, and take strength from that. And I'm sure you know how that strength expressed itself. Not in choruses of ôI am woman, hear me roar!ö but in laughter, our secret weapon. I cannot imagine getting through the day, let alone Second Adulthoodùor this book, for that matterùwithout an ascerbic ôare you ready for this?ö from a friend or a hysterical dead-on observation about forgetfulness in an e-mail or a collective guffaw with my best once-a-month dinner friends over one of aging's absurdities. I would never leave home on any kind of journey without the friends I laugh with. They, along with the women I interviewed, and you the reader, are on this adventure with me. By sharing information and telling the truth, we will figure things out together.

So, with the understanding that this is a process and not a program, I can assure you of two things: you are not alone, and the trip will definitely be worth it.

An Itinerary

However much of the statistically projected quarter of a century any of us actually does get, it will be spent wrestling with The Question (what am I going to do with the rest of my life?) in its serial formùwhat matters? what works? and what's next? If I am not who I was, we inquire with apprehension, who am I now? Who do I want to become? How do I get there? What will that person make of her days?

The answers are different for every woman and even for the same women at different points along the way. In many ways, Second Adulthood is a mystery cruise to an undisclosed destination in wildly unpredictable weather, calling on ports dangerous and idyllic. And while The Question may drive the ship, the answer for many of us will lie not in a particular harbor but in the journey itself.

If it was possible to chart the journey in a formulaic way, it would go something like this: The You're-Not-Who-You-Were, Only-Older phase is totally discombobulating. Not only do you not know what is happening to you, but you don't even know what words will come out of your mouth next. You may hear yourself accept an invitation you were sure you would decline; or, instead of abjectly apologizing for a misstep, you hear yourself simply acknowledge it and move on. My early encounter with the euphoria of saying no is characteristic of the surge of defiance many women experience at first.

The confusion that results from such inappropriate and out-of-character behaviorùthe sense of fallingùeventually gives way to a floating sensation in a gravity-free zone I call the Fertile Void. That is where we begin the process of sorting things outùand shaking things up. We shed the voices of shoulda-woulda-coulda thinking and begin to sense the presence of an internal compass, our own voice. With its guidance, we can zero in on our personal truthùto distinguish between the fire of an authentic drive and the drone of automatic pilot. Little by little, we get in touch with that elusive essentialùour passions.

Emboldened by these important discoveries about ourselves, we enter the recalibration phase. There we become engaged in the delicate business of revising our priorities and renegotiating our relationships. This is when we look at our worklife and our love life and take stock of our circumstances. Initially, most of us think the decisions we need to make about the future are practical ones, along the lines of changing jobs or taking up woodworking, making to-do lists and cleaning out closets, but the Fertile Void soul searching reveals that we are really confronting multiple versions of The Question. Some versions are metaphysical, some practical, some emotional: How do I take care of my body for the rest of my life? How will I manage my finances? What activities will make me feel productive and successful? How do I cope with adversity? And, most painfully: How do I love? There is nothing harder than trying to convince a bewildered partner or child that you are discovering new ways of loving them. But we are.

As the pieces of self-knowledge and self-determination begin to fall into place, what at first appeared to be a chaotic and sometimes fool-hardy enterprise morphs into a more philosophical and authoritative frame of mind, a phase I call making peace and taking charge. This is when we implement some changes and begin to believe that we can handle whatever life throws at us. At this point it becomes inviting to look beyond the limits of our inner voices and our immediate concernsùto the world around us. Some women become galvanized by community activities or go back to school; others take a new look at the impact of their work or at the spiritual component in their lives. Many are drawn to the generations ahead or behind them and come to feel more grounded in the human family.

Ideallyùwhich means rarelyùthese stages build upon each other so that a sense of mastery meets the riptides set off by the painful, and invigorating, and inevitable business of recalibrating every gauge in our lives. For most of us, though, it seems to be happening all at once. Still, with every risk we take, we become more confident that we can cope with and even embrace conflict and change. And as we meet the challenges described in the chapters that follow, the discoveries we make about our inner resources empower us to take on the next one.

Margo's Story
There's Just No Static on the Line

You will meet many complex and exciting women in the pages that follow, but I do want to introduce you now to Margo (whose name, like some of the others in this book, has been changed to protect her privacy). Her story struck me as a paradigm for the Second Adulthood process. Margo's husband died twelve years before we met and her two sons had only recently moved on into their own lives. For thirty years, Margo, now fifty-five, had worked as a high-powered corporate executive and had relished the excitement her career brought. But suddenly, she was feeling claustrophobic, a condition many women experience in widely differing forms. ôI felt my world was small and getting smaller,ö she told me. Margo was bewildered. ôI had always had a lot of ambition and aggression. And then I didn't. What happened?ö

As she continued to push herself to meet the job demands that used to feel like a welcome challenge, she tested out alternatives. Since she'd always loved antiques, she thought she might try being a buyer for other dealers, but a few courses in antiques convinced her she ôdidn't want to go back to school,ö and several months scrounging flea markets convinced her that she couldn't earn a living as a ôpicker.ö She tried to push her imagination further; she even ôthought it might be fun to be a character actor in commercials. But,ö Margo concludes, ôone by one, I eliminated all those ideas.ö

Then serendipity struck. A young woman her son was dating was about to leave for the Peace Corps, and everything she described about that program sounded just right. Margo, the urban executive; Margo, whose lifelong hobbyùaround which she planned her busy scheduleùwas ballet classes; Margo, the driven, bossy, power broker; that very Margo found herself a year later in a tiny village in the Ivory Coast, speaking fluent French and designing latrine-building projects. What does Margo say about all this? ôI have no idea why I had so little trouble adjusting. There is just no static on the line!ö What a glorious prospect: a stage of life that brings clarity, confidence, and purpose!

But her journey doesn't stop there. In a couple of years Margo plans to come home and become a consultant on economic development to international corporations. And lest anyone think she's thrown over her old self altogether, she expects to pick up ballet again (though a few classes when she came home for the birth of her first grandchild showed her that she ôcouldn't do a turned-out pliT as gracefully as beforeö). And she intends to make the most of her new self. ôI have a nest egg,ö she explains, ôbut I do need to earn money. I'm used to earning and dressing and being and goingùbeing chic. You can't do that on a fixed income. Maintenance is expensive. Being a jazzy older woman costs money. And that includes plastic surgeryùwhen I get back from the Peace Corps.ö

Margo and you and I are the first generation of women nurtured on a recognition of women's independence; that gives us the chutzpah to go for a Second Adulthood. We are the first generation to be recipients of new levels of health and longevity expectations; that gives us the time for a Second Adulthood. We are the largest segment of the largest population demographic in U.S. history, and that gives us consumer and political clout to shape a new social experience called Second Adulthood. And science is producing breakthrough research showing brain changes that suggest our outlook is literally being redesigned from the inside; that gives us affirmation for what we are finding out about Second Adulthood.

What we don't have yet are role models or road maps for the journey, and that can make freedom feel like chaos, and promise feel like wishful thinking. I offer the brain research news, sketchy as it is, as a metaphor for Second Adulthood. If a woman looks at what is happening to her as a learning curve of her new brain power, she will be more receptive to the impulse to reconsider her experience, revisit her decisions, and reorganize her emotions. Willing to step off the cliff and meet the not-yet-known.

Like our first adulthood, Second Adulthood begins with a turbulent adolescence.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Getting to What Matters: Letting Go and Saying No

1. You’re Not Who You Were, Only Older 3
2. Second Adolescence
A Second Chance at Growing Up Strong 25
3. Defiance
Speaking Up, Speaking Out, Speaking Your Mind 40
4. The Fertile Void
Taking Your Time 56
Finding Out What Works: Recalibrating Your Life
5. Reconsidering Work and Beginning to
Recalibrate Your Life 81
6. Rediscovering Your Passion, Facing Your Fear 106
7. Redefining Intimacy
Love, Sex, Friendship, and the New You 123
8. Confronting Adversity 149
Moving On to What’s Next:
Making Peace and Taking Charge

9. Health, Beauty, and What You Cannot Change 179
10. Generations: Graduating from Our Child and
Parent Voice to (at Last!) Our Own Adult Voice 203
11. Becoming a Critical Mass
The Personal Is Still Political 223
12. Riding the Spiral 235

Bibliography 243
Web Sites and Organizations 249
Index 255
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 16, 2011

    Women in Your 50's - READ THIS!

    My God, someone knows exactly where I am in life and how I'm feeling! And, there's a name for it...which means I'm not the only one. It's got a name, it must be close to normal. And it doesn't last forever. Whew! LOL! But, that's how I felt while reading this. I recognized myself throughout. Levine interviewed hundreds of women, and many scientists and other experts, to understand what really happens to us, psychologically as well as medically in our 50's and 60's, as we navigate these years. She makes a good case for her thesis, which is that not only our bodies are changing - our brains, needs and priorities are, too. The "fertile void" is a brilliant and spot-on description of the chaos and confusion of second adulthood as we sort out where we are now, what's missing, what works, what we want to do next, how we want to contribute, and where the energy will come from. The book is about rediscovering your passion and how to get there. Very practical and inspiring. This is a great book for women in their 50's but, frankly, if you're any younger, don't pick it up, you won't "get it". It would be a good book for a bookclub discussion group if all members are in their 50's.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2010

    An Eye Opener!

    Before I read this book, I thought I was suffering from deep depression. I could not understand why I wasn't interested in my usual activities, why I went from being a social butterfly to wanting some alone time, etc. Being well past menopause, I never gave that another thought. While shopping with family, I spotted this book on a Barnes and Nobles sale table. The title grabbed me, so I bought it. Oh My Gosh! Everything finally made sense. Humor amidst facts. Wonderful information in an entertaining format. Learned much, gave up my antidepressants, and began planning my second adulthood. What a wonderful experience to look ahead to new things instead of trying to maintain status quo on the past. This is a must-read for all peri-menopausal women. Thank you so much, Suzanne. Life is Grand!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2006

    What a pisser!

    This book is a fabulous read for any woman in her mid 40's and older, married or not, childless or not...... heterosexual or not! The stories of these women are insane, hilarious, frightening, and just so damn easy to identify with! I have bought several copies of this book to give to all of my middle aged women friends....... I wouldn't even think of lending MINE out!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2006


    Too few books are written on this subject--hince my interest! I'm an empty nester with more time on my hands. I was impressed with the authour's insight in this periord of life. She nailed the need to reconnect to your self. One needs to redefind your role in life. I've reccomended to all in my age group.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2009

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    Posted February 27, 2010

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