Women entering their fifties and sixties today are used to entering the proverbial Uncharted Territory. They have weathered the unexpected (and sometimes the unpleasant) through the successive and adjacent roles of daughter, wife, mother, and employee—and often with grace and aplomb (albeit a hard-earned and well-learned grace and aplomb).
The onset of Second Adulthood, however—a time marked by menopause, retirement, and an emptying of the nest—can be a turbulent and volatile time in a woman’s life. Between all of the physical and emotional upheaval taking place, even the most graceful and poised woman among us all will find herself shaken and unsure of her next move.
Suzanne Braun Levine, former editor of Ms. magazine and current contributing editor to More magazine, has written an insightful and witty book to help women approaching “fifty and beyond.” The key, according to Levine, is not to endure the inevitable shake-up of this next phase of life, but to embrace it. With compassion and humor she provides us with the tools necessary to explore our own consciousness, emotions, environment, and physical well being as we renegotiate the terms of our lives and redefine our interaction with those around us.
In Inventing the Rest of Our Lives, Levine draws on medical trials, gender studies, personal testimonials, and trend analysis to define this idea of Second Adulthood. She proves that while we are ending one stage of our existence, First Adulthood, we’re beginning one with just as much promise, and with a wholly new sense of self. We’re not who we were, only older, she insists. We’re older, and we’re different. Brighter. Better. Wiser.
ABOUT SUZANNE BRAUN LEVINESuzanne 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.
- In the opening chapter, “You’re Not Who You Were, Only Older,” Levine confronts what she says is a common misperception among women going through their change of life: that we remain the same people, with the same likes and dislikes, for the rest of our lives. Discuss the validity of Levine’s claim based upon your own experience, and then consider the evidence she provides, from the studies about regenerating brain cells and gender differences to the testimonials of the women she interviewed.
- Levine asserts that with a Second Adulthood comes a turbulent Second Adolescence, in which (as with the first) hormones rage and inexplicable, incongruous physiological changes begin to take place. She says that in order to get through this second adolescence, we need to see it not as an affliction, but as a necessary transition. Discuss the parallels she draws between this first adolescence and the second—how convincing is her argument, and how valuable do you find her suggestions for coping and learning from this confusing time in our lives? In what tangible manner can this insight change the ways in which a woman begins her change of life?
- In the first chapter, Levine introduces the idea of “Letting Go and Saying No,” and then revisits it in Chapter Three, “Defiance.” She cites Perls’ comment that “maturity is the process of moving from dependency on the environment to dependency on the self.” How accurate is her depiction of today’s 50+ woman, and her former tendency to acquiesce with the whims and desires of others? Do you find this particularly true in your own experience? Discuss this idea of allowing oneself to experience—and voice—defiance, and how it can liberate the woman who permits herself to feel and act this way. Also, consider the ways in which it will effect those around her—from family and friends to coworkers and society-at-large.
- In Chapter Four, Levine talks about the “Fertile Void” as an inevitable hurdle for every woman entering her Second Adulthood, and defined it as “a prolonged state of confusion” that occurs at the same time a woman begins to feel “impelled to take action.” This is juxtaposed with what she labels “Time Tyranny,” our impulse to keep up a multi-tasking, mile-a-minute, scheduled-to-the-last-second pace. Discuss the significance of her emphasis on exploring the “Fertile Void” instead of “just [getting] through it.” How does this suggestion in itself help to slow things down? How helpful are the guidelines for exploration that she lists? Also discuss the difficulty of transitioning from a state of haste, to one of contemplation, and then back into one of action (albeit less harried, more deliberate action –the “daring leap into the unknown”).
- Levine says that the first step in recalibrating our lives is to consider employment, and the role it will take in our Second Adulthood. Discuss the “zig-zag” model of professional development and how it applies to your own life—and how you anticipate it applying to your life in the future. How difficult is it to separate and reconcile financial concerns with what is important to you now, in a job? Evaluate the extent to which Levine covers this aspect of our Second Adulthood—how practical is this section, and what insight has it given you? How will it help you make decisions about retirement and investments? Has it assuaged any of your concerns or worries about employment in this segment of your life?
- How relevant was the chapter “Rediscovering Your Passion, Facing Your Fear,” to you? Discuss the importance Levine gives our interests or “passions,” and the role they can (and will) play in our lives. How did “Joanne’s Story” and “Joanie’s Story” help illustrate the value of rediscovering (or discovering for the first time) a particular passion? What in these stories held the most significance for you?
- Part of recalibrating our life, Levine reminds us, is redefining, and in some cases, rehauling, our intimate relationships with others. She names two new priorities women in Second Adulthood face as they consider these relationships: authority and space. Discuss the pitfalls and benefits that come with altering old loves and friendships according to these new priorities, as exemplified in Chapter Seven. Which stories had the greatest impact on you? In what ways could you relate to these women and their renegotiations of marriage, long-term domestic commitments, and life-long friendships? What did you learn?
- Levine describes Second Adulthood as “a time of delightful serendipity” but “also a time of great vulnerability.” Discuss the “both/and way of thinking” that she introduces in Chapter Eight, and the emphasis she places on attitude, and how these things can help us cope with unexpected adversity. Also, discuss the two different kinds of safety networks she illustrates with testimonials—”the kind a woman builds for herself and the kind she plugs into.” What parts of these stories are universal? How does your own community of friends and family compare?
- Consider Levine’s idea of “Making Peace with What I Cannot Change,” and how it applies to your own life. With what on her list of menopausal changes have you already caught yourself fighting a losing battle? Did anything on her list of “potential sources of catastrophe” catch you off guard? As with the financial chapter, discuss the relevance and importance of the information within Chapter Nine about the aging body and our changing self-awareness.
- In Chapter Ten, Levine confronts the “culturally defined roles” women assume throughout the course of their early lives, and encourages her readers to find and take on, in this latter phase of their lives, a “personal authenticity.” Discuss how we accomplish this by examining our place inside a particular generation, and in contrast to women in previous and future generations.
- When Levine talks about women in their Second Adulthood wielding power as a critical mass, she cites their voting power, economic clout, and leadership skills as evidence of the impact they have upon society. Consider your own “pull” in these areas and how you and your peers may already be changing the world. Would you have ever conceived of this possibility on your own? How many new possibilities does this chapter add to your Second Adulthood, and your perception of it?
- Before reading this book, had you ever before considered the years from age 50, onward, to be a Second Adulthood? Discuss how Inventing the Rest of Our Lives changed your perception of retirement, menopause, and the concept of “aging gracefully.”