How Would You Rate Your Life?

We asked 1,200 women 60 and older to share what they've learned about love, work, parenthood and finding their true path. Prepare to be amazed, amused, surprised—and inspired about your own life's possibilities.

by Nanette Varian • Editor
illustration woman and owl
Photograph: Illustrations by Juliette Borda

Love is Lovelier the Second—or Third, or Fourth—Time Around
Nearly three quarters of the respondents were currently married or in a romantic relationship, and 66 percent gave themselves an A or B grade on the success of that union. Especially heartening was the sheer volume of women who said they’d found love at age 40-, 50- or 60-plus. “At 85, I am in love again, newly wed,” one woman reported. Another, a cancer and domestic-abuse survivor, said, “My [new] husband loves me unconditionally. We are having world-class sex—because I am comfortable in my own skin, even with reconstructed breasts. People tell me I look 20 years younger—perhaps from the glow!”

One respondent found true love by switching teams: “After two marriages to men who were admirable but not my soul mates, I am currently married to a wonderful woman who complements me in every way.” Another found her “new” love close to home. “I wouldn’t give you a plug nickel for the first 10 years of our relationship,” she wrote. “In fact, we divorced. But we had kids, and when we realized our problems were self-imposed, we got busy and worked it out. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. We remarried and have a good thing going.”

“Be prepared to have no idea what you’re doing.”

The Parent Hood: A Land Where Insecurity Reigns
It didn’t matter how old the respondents were—no Betty bounce here. In fact, parenting is the only category in which any 80-plus woman gave herself an F, regardless of whether she’d worked inside or outside the home. Women are overwhelmingly reluctant to give themselves the top grade for child rearing. One stated bluntly, “Nobody deserves an A in parenting.” Women who worked outside the home consider themselves about 16 percent less successful at child rearing than those who worked mainly inside.

Those who did give themselves the highest grade said they chose it because their kids are now happy, productive, caring adults. As one respondent put it, “If I’m grading on outcome, I give it an A, but if I was grading on how I thought I was doing at the time, it would be much lower.” Others bemoaned the lack of an instruction manual: "I love my kids more than life itself. But as I have always told them, they were not born with a handbook. Mistakes are made. I learned they grow up in spite of us.”

“Soar, baby, soar. But stop trying to have it all now. That is just a recipe for burnout, for divorce, for disenchantment.”

Having it All is a Crock
You can't have it all—at least not all at the same time, respondents told us again and again. In fact, this was one of their most common refrains (along with “Pick a profession, not a job”). Our survey went up on six months before Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial and widely publicized Atlantic cover story on the elusiveness of work-life balance hit the stands, so clearly this was already very much on respondents’ minds. But, they added, you can—and should—ask for what you need. Many had been pioneers of flextime, working from home, off- and on-ramping, etc. They were angry to see the perpetuation of what one woman called the “huge lie” that we can do everything at once, at full throttle, and urged their younger counterparts to explore options that would leave them less stressed and depleted.

“I shared my job with another young mother for 13 years,” said one respondent, adding that it was the “absolute best working decision of my life. I worked half the week, she the other half. We shared the salary, benefits and responsibilities of a full-time job and moved from administrative positions to professional work (as instructional designers-developers) within the job-share arrangement.” After being downsized, she ran her own business from home. “Both situations enabled me to spend time with my kids as they grew up and also provided a role model for them of alternative work styles.”

Originally published in the November 2012 issue

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