Personal Best: 'Inventing the Rest of Our Lives'

ByABC News via logo
January 5, 2005, 3:03 PM

Jan. 19, 2004 -- -- Suzanne Braun Levine, the first editor of "Ms." magazine and a long-time journalist, draws on personal stories, science and her own life experiences to explain how women fundamentally change they grow up and grow older.

Read the following excerpt from "Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood."


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.
--W. H. Auden, "Leap Before You Look"

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 gear -- harness, helmet, and guide rope -- to 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: "Fear is the appropriate response here. After all, evolution doesn't take much interest in creatures that step backward off ninety- foot cliffs."

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, non–nature-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 I had 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 "big-boned" 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 emotion -- emotions really, more than I can identify even now -- and 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 me -- jumping 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 net - -so 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.

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 chance -- to do it better, to do it differently, to do it wiser. I say can be because a lot depends on luck -- good health, good fortune, good friends. But a lot also depends on determination -- taking 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 go -- of worn-out demands, of old news, of empty promises -- is 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 go -- of our children, of our looks, of some of our life goals -- and 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 authentic -- all 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, though -- those 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.

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 Name -- the 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 reassuring -- and amazed -- "me too!" 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 political -- that our most private efforts have meaning in the community of women and impact beyond -- led to the revolution that got us to this place. Today, motivated by that energy and those achievements, we are confronting a new unknown -- The 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 recognize--and make peace with--circumstances 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 experiences--from the most traditional or ambitious to the most off-beat or spiritual, from celebrities to retirees--because 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, "anyone who has experienced something is more expert in it than the experts."

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 seventies--whether or not an individual considered herself a part of the Women's Movement--we are now rewriting history as we are reinventing ourselves.

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 sphere -- the marketplace, the civic arena, the sports stadium -- not only in the home.

Now the last frontier is before us -- the 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. "I feel like I have taken a lover," a doting grandmother confessed to me. "My heart flutters when my granddaughter calls. I daydream about her at work. I shop for the silliest gifts for her." It's just that the momentum of our eventful, busy, productive first adulthoods is propelling us past an all-consuming granny role. "I'm a doctor, a teacher, a lover, a political activist, a friend -- and a grandma," another woman protested. "But as much as I adore my grandchildren, they are not the defining part of my life."

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:

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 question -- a 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 "not worrying about what other people think" and "being more self-confident" and even "no more menstrual cycle." 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 and -- at last -- growing 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.

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 "everything you always wanted to do." 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. "Everything you always wanted to do" 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, "to enjoy success"? 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. "I just want to stay home and paint and take courses," 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 foods -- or new sexual interests. Others found themselves "behaving badly" 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 "more mystery" 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. "Old women are different from everyone else," wrote novelist Ursula LeGuin. "They tell the truth."

The reconstructed you is not a figment of your imagination. The dynamic that many women are reporting--new outlook, new confidence, new dreams--is 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 "these days, remembering a name is better than having an orgasm"), 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 emotions -- not sweating the small stuff--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 Adulthood--not 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 "every man for himself" 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. "There was this joke that when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came in, cleaned the lab, had coffee, and bonded," recalls Dr. Klein. "When the men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own." 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 oxytocin--best known for its role in labor before birth and lactation afterward--which has a calming effect and is produced in both men and women. The difference is that in men the effect of oxytocin--also known as the hormone of love or the cuddle chemical--is 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. "I don't know what I would do without my friends" 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 "the 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 women" who, he added, "are going to become the power group in our country!"

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 feeling--like the first inkling of pregnancy. It is a mixture of dissatisfaction and fear--and 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 being--our intimate relationships and our public selves, our professional commitments and our secret dreams, our drives and our fears-- 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, "a person who isn't expanding is a person who is contracting."

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, mother-- 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 "I am woman, hear me roar!" but in laughter, our secret weapon. I cannot imagine getting through the day, let alone Second Adulthood--or this book, for that matter--without an ascerbic "are you ready for this?" 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.