Yesterday, I had a milestone-ish birthday. 55, which means I can no longer say I’m in my early 50s. Boo to that. I’m not generally one to find age markers to be difficult—I thought 40 was a blast, but this one, for whatever reason hit me harder than any other in awhile. I decided I really needed to let go of the self-doubt and irritation that’s been dogging me recently and jump into this new year. To find out exactly how I accomplished that there’s a photo at the end of this review of Inventing the Rest of Our Lives—a book I thoroughly enjoyed when I turned 50 and still appreciate five years later.
Although not a new release, Suzanne Braun Levine’s Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood is still relevant for mid-life women. The book explores what Levine calls the Second Adulthood, the years from fifty forward, years that are often portrayed as a winding down time. She posits that while twenty-five to fifty may hold a myriad of possibilities and excitement it is also a time when we are firmly entrenched in labels designated by society—wife, employee, mother, daughter, boss. They may or may not provide us with life satisfaction but it is very likely that as we approach 50 they will start to bind and become increasingly unsatisfactory. In many cases, they will also change or disappear.
Inventing the Rest of Our Lives is divided into three parts, each one dealing with a certain aspect and stage of the process. Part One defines what’s happening, what you may be experiencing, and even what you can expect. Here Levine discusses the work of psychoanalyst Erik Erikson and his wife, Joan. Erikson explored the cycles of life and human development but it was Joan who, in what Levine calls the first adulthood, defines two compelling motivators: the need to make a mark and the fear of being incompetent or irrelevant. In Second Adulthood these motivators fade and a new one appears: the need for integrity. It can be harder to define for each individual but is often a growing feeling of quiet acknowledgement that this is who I am and how I will live my life. Or as Erich Fromm said, “Integrity simply means a willingness not to violate one’s identity.”
Part Two moves into Finding Out What Works and explores rediscovering passions in life and work. The book was published in 2005 which is its only shortcoming because it focuses on the options and opportunities for women who continue to want to define themselves by their career. It’s a positive message but with the economic crash the game has changed. For those who are working they may feel unable to think about niceties like ‘what do I want to do? What has meaning for me?’ as they’re faced with the reality of ‘can I ever retire?’ For those who have lost their jobs the statistics are fairly harsh for women between 45-64. Returning to the work force may not be possible or may mean only something to pay the bills. This is difficult and complex for either side but Levine goes deeper, looking beyond economics to how our changing needs and growing mind (discussed in Part One) can throw old paradigms out the window. The desire for integrity can override all and lead down new roads to different and totally unexpected opportunities.
Part Three is making peace and taking charge and nowhere is this more apparent than in our beauty and health. Despite skincare claims to the contrary there is no going back. Resistance is futile and graceful acceptance the best attitude. Not so with our health, where Levine is an advocate for aggressive management of our aging bodies and being a strong advocate within the medical system for our care. She points to scientific research that shows that in virtually every system of the human body there are sex-based differences, differences that have been largely ignored by the medical community. Drugs are often designed for and tested on men with only an adjustment to dose size for women. This should not be accepted by any of us but can be combated by vigorous involvement in our own care.
In closing Levine talks about what she calls the “riding the spiral” aspect of second adulthood, the contradictory feelings of being ready for change but having no idea what to do. Terror mixed with elation, ennui with action. As in the rest of the book she strikes a perfect blend of reassurance and common sense. Her calm yet authoritative voice seems to be telling the reader that there is no action plan as none is needed. You’ll figure out what to do, so relax and enjoy the ride.