Not long ago, I invited 20 women friends to get together to ponder the question "What will I do with the rest of my life?" Someone asked for a show of hands from those who had a dream or a passion they couldn’t wait to get to. Only two hands went up, and the rest of us looked on enviously. How, we worried, could we move forward if we couldn’t identify a driving force?
As we commiserated, we realized that we did, in fact, have inner voices that whisper "Do this" and simmering interests that are heating up; we just didn’t consider them big enough ideas. Those less torrid impulses are simply a different source of guidance: a pilot light. It’s a flame that doesn’t consume but doesn’t burn out either; instead, it leads us through the shoals and currents that accompany the new stage of life we are about to enter.
Although the changes we make may not be as dramatic as parachuting out of a plane or as soap operatic as running off with the cable guy, they might feel as momentous. And because no previous generation of women has felt compelled to make this transition to a second adulthood, it’s important that we tell one another what we learn. After countless conversations, I’m convinced there is no how-to that will clear the path. But there are woman-tested don’ts and dos.
You DON’T Have To…
(though you may find that you want to…)
...Leave Your Job
Many women sense a loss of professional drive as they move toward their 50s and worry that there is something wrong with them. But it may just be that you like where you are, that you are ready to shift gears from climbing the ladder to settling on a plateau of accomplishment. Or you may find that a longstanding hobby is rising to the top of your priorities.
...Leave Your Husband
Changes are taking place that may make couples more compatible now than they have ever been. For one thing, our hormonal balances are shifting toward each other: While men’s level of testosterone is going down, making them a bit more mellow, our testosterone is being unmasked by the decline in estrogen, making us a little more assertive and outspoken. Our ability to multitask declines (along with memory), so that we become more in sync with the male inability to do more than one thing at a time. But best of all, many men and women find themselves experiencing a renewed curiosity about themselves and those they thought they knew so well.
...Leave the Country
The most commonly voiced passion is travel. But many don’t really want to leave their (newly empty) nests; instead they want to feather them with cozy experiences and newfound intimacy. Others may want to make more internal, spiritual journeys. And still others may find that their communities hold unexplored possibilities — say, running for office.
...Leave Your Senses
Change is a good thing, but it can come in small but potent doses. Learning to scuba dive, taking up Chinese, or moving into a yurt may sound like the degree of transformation you need, but you may find that taking tango lessons, doing a family tree, or testing the market for your homemade chutney becomes the first step toward the rest of your life. One woman I met went from being hooked on the food channel to signing up for culinary school to finding her real calling in ice-sculpting, making more money and getting more satisfaction in a line of work that she hadn’t known even existed.
...Leave Your Body
Sure, it would be great to lose those 20 pounds, and it might feel very daring to let the gray grow out or get plastic surgery. On the other hand, that might make you feel less like your true self than you do now. Our bodies are the front line in the confrontation with aging, but as one woman put it, "I’ve gone from focusing on being fat to focusing on being fit!" Beyond that — and despite our generation’s devotion to the gym — just imagine how many good laughs we would miss if our bodies weren’t giving us so much hilarious material.
You DO Have To…
...Let Go of Old Baggage
Especially expectations — about yourself, about others, about how your life is supposed to be. It is easy to look at this stage of life as a period of loss — of our youth, our looks, our fertility, our waists. But it is also a time of liberation from shoulda-woulda-coulda thinking.
Just about every over-40 woman I have met is relishing the "I don’t care what people think" impulse that is increasingly overtaking her, freeing her to pursue that passion-finding mission. It’s the freedom to reject the advice of know-it-all friends, to shut out the employee who gets on your nerves, and turn down demands for time you need for yourself.
To your impulsive, stubborn, feisty, problem-generating (as opposed to problem-solving) self. Take it as a compliment when people say you are acting out of character.
...Take a Risk
Which doesn’t have to be a life-threatening act. Risking failure or looking foolish can be just as daunting. Attempting a watercolor, proposing a new direction for your business, or suggesting that your grown children move out can be a big step. The alternative to this kind of risk is not safety, but lost opportunity.
...Be Patient with Yourself
We are so used to prizing efficiency above serendipity and to managing busy lives by making a list and checking it twice that we find it almost impossible to let go, but drifting may be the only way into the magnetic field where the pieces of this confusing transition come together. It takes time. Many say it took a year or more before they began to feel a sense of purpose. By then, though, they have found out something they hadn’t expected — that making the journey is where the real action is.
Originally published in MORE magazine, April 2006.