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

OK, we admit it. We goofed. Our wide-ranging survey on attracted 1,202 wise, wondrous, wickedly witty women ages 60 through 95-plus who bared their souls—and gave us a piece of their minds. They sounded off about their careers, their kids, their mates, and graded their life’s progress with candor, humor and grace. Then we asked them at what age they’ve been happiest.

“You should have let us pick more than one!” they blasted back. Of course. More is, after all, the bible of second acts. Life doesn’t just go on; it can refresh in the most remarkable ways. Sure, aging ain’t for sissies, as these women well know. But our over-60 sisters are here to tell us: You evolve. You adapt. And you become smarter about finding happiness right here, right now. So read, laugh and learn.

“Forget what they say about the teenage years. There is something about maturity that allows one the freedom to grow without fear or reprisal or criticism—and that is HUGE.

Life on the “A” List
We asked respondents to grade their success in four key life categories. Here’s how many gave themselves an A in each:

Work: 44%
Religious/Spiritual Satisfaction: 38%
Current Marriage/Romantic Relationship: 37%
Parenting: 31%

We also learned that . . .

--Women who pursued activities outside their work and family were 12 percent more likely to give their romantic relationship a top score. They were 25 percent happier with their life over 60 and were 17 percent more satisfied with their entire life so far. Those with outside interests were also 25 percent more likely to say they have found their true path in life.

--Having children did not affect women’s perceptions of how successful their life has been, both in general and specifically after 60. Moms and nonmoms gave themselves nearly identical grades.

--Being part of a couple did not significantly affect respondents’ sense of how successful they had been at their life after 60. (Women in a relationship were only 5 percent more likely to give themselves an A.)

--Women who have worked primarily outside the home were 12 percent more likely to give themselves an A for their success at life after 60. (Not being retired pulled A grades down, but by just 6 percent.)

--87% of all respondents gave a top rating (A or B) to both their life over 60 and their entire life so far.

The Betty White Boost
A distinct spike in confidence occurred at the uppermost end of the respondents’ age group, so we named the phenomenon for our favorite 90-year-old icon of cool. Quite simply, the older the women were, the more likely they were to give themselves high marks and the less likely they were to judge themselves harshly. Women age 80-plus were the most likely to award themselves an A for current relationship success: A full 50 percent did so (and unlike the younger respondents, none of them gave themselves an F). The 80-plus women were the most resolute in the belief that they had made the right choice about parenthood. And they gave themselves the most A’s for work success, followed by women in their seventies (no woman in either group gave herself a D or an F). The older the respondent, the higher her grades for both life after 60 and entire life so far, and the likelier she was to say she’d found her true path in life.

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.”

“Trust your instincts as to what you want to do with your work life,” said another respondent. “It’s not written that you can’t change jobs or even careers. As women, we’re not only tough but adaptable to our circumstances and the challenges they present. As the ‘noise’ of a family quiets down, you may find that you can tap resources you were not even aware of. Be brave!”

“Balance” Begins at Home—So Enough with the Hovering!
"Although my generation tended to be stay-at-home moms, at least until the children were older, we were quite relaxed about our parenting,” said one respondent. “Kids were not the epicenter of our emotional and intellectual lives. Overall, I think this is healthier for them. So I would urge young women to buck today’s trend of helicopter parenting and make time for other relationships. A strong marriage is one of the best gifts you can give your children.” Another advised, “Let the children see how much you enjoy all aspects of your own life both with and without them.”

Nearly Half of the Nonmothers Were Childless by Choice
Three quarters of the nonmoms said they would do things the same way if they could go back in time. “Having children is a decision you cannot undo,” one childless respondent warned. “Once you have them, your life is theirs.” Another urged women not to give in to pressures to procreate: “Many people, including my own family members, told me that I would regret not having children. Nothing is further from the truth . . . Women need to hear that having children is not a prerequisite for a happy and fulfilled life.”

They Wish They’d Had More Children
Ninety percent of mothers said if they could redo their lives, they’d again choose to become parents, and gladly. “I inhale my kids,” said one. “I can’t imagine life without them.” The top thing women said they would change if it were possible: They’d have more children. The second most commonly cited do-over was, “Would have started later” (when they were more settled and/or mature), followed by, “Have the kids with a better partner.”

“Kids are the only reason for anything. When they grow up and leave, cats are the only reason.”

The Empy Nest is a Liberated Nest—and a Launching Pad
Yes, they love their kids and cherished their child-rearing time, teen terror years and all. But our respondents were not singing empty nest blues. Instead, we heard choruses of “I went to law school. I became a lawyer, then a professor”; “I returned to my path as a writer”; “My husband and I started traveling a lot more”; “I studied different religions, went to retreats, meditated, started doing yoga and delved deeper into myself”; “I earned my master’s degree”; “I was able to go forward with what I knew I was destined to do”; “I have time for me now, and this is pretty cool.”

66% consider themselves religious or spiritual . . . and that number increases with age.

     60s . . . 65%

     70s . . . 69%

     80+ . . . 71%

The Fear(less) Factor
They may not have to worry as much about Medicare’s solvency as their grandchildren perhaps will, but 63 percent admitted to having new fears after age 60. Concerns about appearance didn’t even make the top 10 (OK, they came in 11th). More pressing are worries about (1) health, (2) money, (3) mortality, (4) losing their independence, (5) time running out. Still, as one woman observed, by this stage of life, “any fear I may have has proved to be far less likely to happen or far less likely to be really, really bad if it does happen.” 

“At age 20, I was young, beautiful and clueless.”

81% said their happiest decade came after age 40. But they stressed that all life stages have their pleasures.

They Found Their True Path at Age 40-Plus
More than half of all respondents said they had found what they considered to be their true path in life, and more than half of those did so at 40 or later, when they began to trust their instincts and see their potential. “I finally had the maturity and the wisdom to recognize it,” said a woman who’d found her path in her forties. Sometimes the trail was blazed by adversity (“Tragedy brought it to me”) and sometimes by serenity (“I had time to listen to myself instead of everyone else”). Or, as with this woman, by clarity: “It was when I realized and accepted that my true path was exactly the life that I lived.”

They Still Want to Accomplish

    --“Less based on what I do and more based on what I am.”

   --“Wanting what I already have.”

   --“A sense of peace that I can rely on for years to come.”

   --“Nothing: There is a calmness that comes when you no longer have to accomplish or overcome anything.”

   --“ ‘Accomplishment’ no longer defines me.”

“I am today where I am supposed to be . . . at 20 I said that, but at 60 I believe it.

Statistical assitance provided by Elliott Krause, Samantha Lear and Jamie Miles.

Wait—there’s more!

60+ and Learning How To . . .

The 10 Best & Worst Things More Readers Have Done

What Made More Readers Happiest

A Nonagenarian Looks Back—and Forward—at Life

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First Published Thu, 2012-10-11 15:43

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