“I keep returning to the central question facing over-50 women as we move into our Second Adulthood. What are our goals for this stage in our lives? There really are no more ‘shoulds.'” ~ Gail Sheehy
In the cozy house of my childhood, my bedroom was only a short hallway’s distance from the living room, and, after bedtime, my brother and I sometimes crept to where we could stealthily watch whatever prime time television shows our parents thought inappropriate for us.
On January 8, 1972, the sitcom All in the Family aired an episode titled “Edith’s Problem” (the episode would win an Emmy for the scriptwriter). I was seven years old. My brother was five.
The next morning, I asked my mother what “menopause” meant. When she told me I didn’t need to know, I looked it up in the dictionary. For reasons I do not fully understand, this moment—asking my mother, opening the dictionary, reading the entry—remains as clear in my memory as if it happened yesterday.
I’m sure I didn’t fully understand the definition. My own mother was not yet thirty and far from menopause at the time. In my seven-year-old mind, the women I knew were either young women (my mother and her friends) or old women (my grandmothers and other children’s grandmothers). What happened in the interim remained a mystery to me for many years.
It is a mystery no longer. At age fifty-one, I have a new vocabulary word (and one my spell check program does not recognize): perimenopause, the years leading up to menopause (technically, menopause doesn’t occur until a woman has not menstruated for a full year). Every woman’s experience of perimenopause is different and can include everything from hot flashes to increased migraines and even sleep disorders.
But this post is not just about the years of perimenopause. It’s about what comes afterward, what Gail Sheehy calls Second Adulthood.
Second Adulthood: More Than Happiness
In her book The Silent Passage, Sheehy describes the life transformation of Second Adulthood that she found in her research, a transformation that goes beyond relief of the physical aspects of perimenopause:
“[A] mobilization usually begins shortly after menopause, and a profound change in self-concept begins to register with rising exhilaration for many women as they move into their fifties. They often break the seal on repressed angers. They overcome the habits of trying to be perfect and of needing to make everyone love them…. Many women, during the decade of the Mid-Forties to the Mid-Fifties, find the sustained courage to extricate themselves from lives of desperate repetition.
This sense of well-being is more than happiness, the latter generally conveying relief from pent-up frustration or deprivation. Well-being registers deep in our unconscious, as a sustained background tone of equanimity—a calm, composed sense of all-rightness—that remains behind the more intense contrasts of daily events, including periods of unhappiness. On the life cycle graphs plotted from results of my 60,000 questionnaires, that sense of well-being gradually rises for women through the mid-fifties, reaching a high point around fifty-seven, when it takes off and soars. The issue of trying too hard to please is, for most, surmounted. Women begin at last to value themselves. [emphases added; Gail Sheehy, The Silent Passage, Pocket Books, 1973, pp. 121-22]
I’m reminded of a lunchtime conversation with a friend a few years ago. In her sixties, she talked of a physical energy she now has that she had never had as a young woman. As she spoke, her eyes sparkled, and she sat with the confidence of someone entirely at home in her own skin.
I’m also reminded of my mother, who once told me that life for her didn’t really take off until she was in her forties. My mother died at age fifty-six of multiple myeloma, so her final years were tinged with the fatigue and worry and pain of cancer and chemotherapy. However, in the post-menopausal years leading up to her diagnosis she thrived as she started a quilting business, got up early to piece together just the right combinations of color blocks, published a newsletter, spoke at conferences, and became the woman she was always meant to be in her brief Second Adulthood.
Men, Women, and Change
George Eliot published Middlemarch when she was 52 and her first novel at age 40 (public domain image)
Do men and women experience this life transition differently? Men do go through a similar “male menopause” as their hormones adjust to the aging process, but Sheehy writes that while many men view their latter years as a time to slow down, many women are just beginning to gear up.
When I posted the quotation at the top of this post on my Facebook page, the lone male response (from someone I have affection and respect for) was “The saddest thing in your career is the 50th birthday of a young person with potential.” With the caveat that growing older is of course affected by health and socioeconomics and other circumstances, I see middle-aged unfulfilled potential as more exciting than sad. Sure, it is far too late for me to be a mathematician or concert pianist or prodigy by any stretch of the imagination. However, perhaps because of my mother’s example, I have always thought of womanhood as a life of expanding rather than diminishing possibilities.
Do people change in fundamental ways as adults? Can they? While I know men who would answer an unequivocal “yes” to that question, women grow up knowing that, at least physically, we will and do change in profound ways all the time. Perhaps that better prepares us to enter a Second Adulthood—regardless of whether we worked outside the home, married, divorced, or have children—with an eye toward engaging our potential in new ways. This is our new challenge, our new purpose, one that is as individual as our thumbprint.
Consider Joy Navan, who, after earning a PhD. in her fifties is, in her retirement as a full professor, getting a Master’s in Clinical Psychology. She writes of potential on her blog, ongiftedelders:
When is enough, enough? To continue growing, learning, and achieving is part of the nature of giftedness for many adults and elders. The intellectual imperative we might call it, or the impetus to self-actualize oneself – to fulfill the blueprint of potentiality with which we were born.
Engaging our potential does not always involve accomplishments visible to the outside world. Christi Craig, a friend and fellow Wisconsin writer, leads a writing group at a retirement home/assisted living facility. Her students are in their seventies, eighties, and nineties. When I recently attended a reading they gave, what struck me most was how present they all were. No one was checking cell phones or waiting impatiently to do something else. Their writing was sharp and witty, lyrical and thoughtful, polished and poignant. They worked on their pieces, revising, stretching themselves, taking creative risks. It was clear that the product of their work went well beyond the page. More and more, I find myself looking ahead to these models of inspiration rather than back to who I was in my twenties.
Learning To Value Ourselves: Ready for the Next
In the Downton Abbey episode “Open House” (S6 E6), Cora and Robert discuss her being offered presidency of the local hospital. “I’ve had one career already, bringing up my daughters,” Cora explains to her husband. “They don’t need me now, so I’m ready for the next.”
Robert’s response is, “The girls still need you. But anyway, isn’t it time for a rest?” Note that “the girls” are in their thirties.
Being a fifty-something woman can sometimes feel like the epitome of uncool. We are not yet old enough to be a wise elder. We can remain young at heart and childlike, yes, but—let’s face it—we are no longer in our youth. Our bodies change as dramatically as they did when we were adolescents, and, like teenagers, we are not quite used to this new skin, hair, and shape. We can feel embarrassed to talk about what is happening to us, even more twenty years after The Silent Passage was first published (see, for example, “The Workplace Wellness Issue No One Is Talking About,” as well as the revised and updated edition of The Silent Passage).
Sheehy explains how we can unwittingly adopt a cultural bias as our own, a “fear and envy of the physical, mental, sexual, and spiritual energies of fully evolved women—women who are beyond being objects defined by the male gaze and now fully conscious keepers of their own bodies.” (1973 Pocket Books edition, p. 152)
We have choices of how to think of this time of our lives. Learning to be a fully conscious keeper of ourselves is perhaps the greatest gift of aging.
The unpredictable years of perimenopause get us ready for the next ____ (you fill in the blank).