At the age of 21, my mother gave birth to her first child, the first of five daughters. Me.
At the age of 21, I turned my tassel and shook the college president’s hand as I received my Bachelor’s degree, taking the first step towards my dream of becoming a writer.
When my mother was 35, she gave birth to my youngest sister. I am 33 and have no children (yet).
Our lives as adult women have been worlds apart, although now, as women of my mother’s generation enter a completely new era in relationships, reinvention and romance, that may change.
Suzanne Braun Levine just published her third book on what she calls the “second adulthood” for women. It’s called How We Love Now: Sex and the New Intimacy in Second Adulthood, and we recently had a wonderful conversation about it.
“This is a new stage of life not available to women ever before in history,” said Levine. “Most women now have 25 years or more after turning 50 to explore another adulthood.”
Things really begin to change when women reach what Levine calls the “f- you 50s”, when they finally say to themselves and to the world, “I don’t care what people think of me anymore.” This is a powerful moment for good wives and good girls everywhere, says Levine, as they embrace an “attitude of defiance and daring.”
In a transition similar to adolescence (rife with raging hormones, identity crises, and more), the shift is not always smooth. As women across the country blow out the candles on their 50th birthday cakes, many anxiously wonder, “what am I going to do with the rest of my life?” Those who have been restricted by gender/societal roles and family expectations have an especially trying time moving into an adulthood that is more about them and less about their children, spouses, in-laws and anyone else who have come to rely on them over the years.
Another crease in the fabric of this new life is presented by emerging and complex caregiving roles, where daughters become caretakers for their parents and older relatives.
The uncharted territory is exciting even in the face of these changing roles, and most women revel in the opportunity to redefine themselves, to assess their friendships and relationships and figure out what they want to be when they grow up…again.
Levine says Gloria Steinem defines this attitude adjustment as a necessary twist on the old Golden Rule: “It’s time to do unto ourselves as we have been doing for others.” Adds Levine, “We just have to unlearn this guilty sense of needing to devote every ounce of our being to caring for other people at the expense of our own well-being.”
Women also should carry an awareness into this new age, says Levine, that you’re not just who you were, only older. “You’re looking for something different, and the surprise in looking for something else is always fun. Your sex life can become more experimental, and you also bring the relationship skills you developed in your first adulthood, changing the way you love the important people in your lives,” said Levine.
But again, in the midst of exploring these new career opportunities, new hobbies, new priorities, new romantic relationships and friendships (many of which are made possible by the reconnections happening via social media and online dating sites, a phenomenon also covered in Levine’s book), and an entirely new identity outside of the “mother, wife and daughter” boxes, many woman still face sandwich generation demands from the kids who are still at home, the adult kids who have returned home, and the parents who can no longer be home without help.
And while there is a growing number of male caregivers, caretaking is still primarily women’s work, says Levine. An intriguing tidbit in her book solidifies this reality: “Statistics show that the chances of being cared for at home rather than being sent to a nursing home improve significantly simply if the one who is in need of care has two or more daughters or daughters-in-law,” she writes.
“This is the new frontier women are dealing with,” says Levine. “How can you care for the people you love without giving yourself away?”
Her solution: care getting.
Care getting is based on an assessment of “really figuring out what you need to give and what demands that the person who loves you has gotten used to making,” and Levine teases out this shift in priorities for self and others, along with techniques for asking for help more effectively, in her book.
Though we need more, there are quite a few innovative approaches to “care getting” out there today, evidenced by the growth and popularity of urban villages, online support groups and caregiver forums, and caregiving “banks” (look for a future post on this one).
Caregivers must learn “how to ask for someone to drive mom to the doctor, and how to ask someone to help figure out how to decipher the Medicare application.” She continues, “And it’s realizing that you need someone to sit with your husband while he takes his afternoon nap so you can work out, or that you need more of your siblings to help you cope with caring for your mother. It has to be a conscious thing to develop the ability to know what to ask for and ask for it.”
So back to me and my mom, who is learning the necessity of reinvention as she enters her second adulthood with an empty nest and the battle scars of being the primary decision-maker when my grandfather wrestled with and eventually succumbed to Alzheimer’s three years ago. She may be looking to me now, seeking my advice as she applies for jobs (her first ones ever outside of the home) and emailing me resumes and cover letters to proofread. But what she may not realize is that, while our experiences as young adult women have been on completely opposite ends of the spectrum, she is now paving the way for me to know how to navigate my second adulthood when I get there. (Something Levine talks about in her book too.)
Levine and I talked for nearly an hour, and probably could have talked all day if time allowed, about the themes covered in How We Love Now — intimacy fostered by technology, finding fulfillment in work, sex after 50, the value of intergenerational relationships, innovative approaches to care getting — and all the fascinating rabbit trails these topics led us down. Want a taste of what we talked about? Get a copy of Levine’s book and follow the path to your own reinvention.