When Is It My Time?
My first glimpse of what I came to recognize as a seasoned woman came in a chance encounter at an Oakland restaurant. A popular entertainer who was seated at the next table overheard me talking with my husband about my book. She leaned over to ask what it would be about. “It’s about sex, love, and dating among women over fifty,” I blurted out.
The entertainer’s dinner companion rolled her eyes: “She’s the poster girl for dating and sex after fifty!”
The entertainer, whom we’ll call Bebe to protect her anonymity, was eager to elaborate. Bebe had been raised in the South with parents who were in love until the day they died. She had fully expected that she, like they, would marry for life. And happily, she had enjoyed an extended sexual honeymoon with the man she married in her twenties. It was in her forties that Bebe began to notice the cracks in their marriage. “But it’s like you see a hairline crack in the wall in your California house and you say, ‘Not to worry.’ A couple of years later, you notice the crack is now a quarter inch wide—don’t panic, it’s a plaster thing. Then one big shake and the whole house tumbles down and you say, ‘Wow, how did that happen?’ ”
In retrospect, she understands. Her frustration with her marriage was an echo of the complaint that fortyish husbands used before feminism went mainstream: “I’ve grown and, unfortunately, she hasn’t.” In Bebe’s marriage, as in many more today, it was the husband who resisted taking risks to grow. It took her five years to get up the courage to ask for a divorce. She took that final step a few months before her fiftieth birthday.
“You must be crazy,” she told herself. “You’re going to spend the rest of your life home alone watching reruns of The Brady Bunch.” But it wasn’t like that at all. Quite the opposite, she says; it’s been the greatest adventure of her life.
The sociologist in me cast about for a context into which to fit this revelation. In fact, even while Bebe was settled into staid married life, a new public square of midlife singles was being flooded with divorced and never-married women and men. All the old rules were up for renegotiation. What was it like out there? I prodded.
In the first couple of years after her divorce, Bebe said, she had felt shell-shocked. “I went through a stage of mourning and learning to be alone. But people kept coming into my path. I met men at the airport, the grocery store, at church. Because once I started opening my eyes, there were really men everywhere. It wasn’t like I was shopping, but they were flirting with me, talking to me, asking me out.” Her therapist told her, “You have a neon sign on your forehead that blares: Available.”
“Pretty young women with firm bodies scared me as long as I saw myself as having to compete with them,” she explained. “But what I found is I’m not in the same pool as they are. The older men who are looking for twenty- or thirty-something hard bodies are not the men who would look at me to begin with. These are two different universes.”
Bebe’s first dating experience turned the usual calculations on their head. He was a young man she met in church—and not just a little younger, fifteen years younger than she. “I was flabbergasted,” said Bebe. “I was thinking, ‘This gorgeous young man wants to go out with me?’ ” She bit the bullet and asked him, “Do you really know how old I am?” He said he didn’t care. She told him anyway: fifty. He didn’t seem fazed. He said she was smart and interesting and he just liked talking to her; he wanted to pursue it.
I asked Bebe if it was a revelation to her to have sex with somebody that young after living so many years with her husband. Her eyes danced and her voice jumped an octave.
“Oh, yeah! It was quite wonderful.” Bebe quickly qualified her expectations. “I never looked at him as somebody I was going to spend the rest of my life with. I don’t think he looked at me in that way, either. For six months we enjoyed each other’s company and had a lot of fun. I believe people come into your life for a reason. He was the one who came into my life to say, ‘It’s gonna be okay, you can do this.’ Getting over that hurdle was the big one.”
Most of our grandmothers would find this a strange conversation. Half a century ago, there were certainly exceptional 50-year-old women who had lovers, and married people in their sixties and seventies who still enjoyed each other sexually. But it wasn’t the norm. As the boundaries of our life span continue to expand in startling ways, the social definitions of age have shifted with the force of tectonic plates, altering just about everything.
Not all of us are as flashy as Bebe, nor do we all want to be, but I soon found that she is at the forefront of a trend. She is honest enough to admit that she misses some things about marriage. “When it was going well, we had great companionship.” But like most women over 50 who can afford to walk away from a relationship if it has become a safe but hollow shell, Bebe savors her independence. She may have a neon sign on her forehead blinking Available, but it doesn’t advertise Looking for Husband. She is looking for fun, companionship, maybe intimacy, but definitely satisfying sex.
Sex and the Seasoned Woman is a book about a new universe of lusty, liberated women, some married and some not, who are unwilling to settle for the stereotypical roles of middle age. We are rediscovering who we are, or who we’d set out to be before we became wrapped up in the roles of our First Adulthood, when our primary focus was on nurturing children, husbands, or careers—or all three.
Millions of women today have struggled through all the predictable crises of their Tryout Twenties, Turbulent Thirties, and Forlorn Forties, and are bursting out into a whole new territory. Men, as they approach their fifties and sixties and start feeling the push to retire, often get a little shaky, wondering, Who will I be once stripped of the robes and powers of my position in the workplace? Women have changed robes so many times, they’re ready to strip down and start fresh, feeling a boost of independence, exhilaration about what could lie ahead, and a surge of new powers.
What makes a seasoned woman?
A seasoned woman is spicy. She has been marinated in life experience. Like a complex wine, she can be alternately sweet, tart, sparkling, mellow. She is both maternal and playful. Assured, alluring, and resourceful. She is less likely to have an agenda than a young woman—no biological clock tick-tocking beside her lover’s bed, no campaign to lead him to the altar, no rescue fantasies. The seasoned woman knows who she is. She could be any one of us, as long as she is committed to living fully and passionately in the second half of her life, despite failures and false starts.
Single boomer women like Bebe are not the only ones who are actively, even aggressively, seeking romance again, declaring their right to sexual satisfaction, and dreaming new dreams. Their boldness has caught on with “ladies” of earlier generations who were taught that their role was only to oblige their husbands and pick up after their children.
Margaret, an old friend and former radical who was still married to her only husband and living in rural New Hampshire, confided to me how shocked she was to hear stories from her contemporary female friends who are divorced or widowed in their sixties or seventies. “They’re having romantic escapades with young guys, they talk about erotic discoveries, a couple of them have fallen in love again, but they want relationships beyond conventional marriage.” Margaret still thought of herself as the free spirit who had walked the wild side in the 1960s. “I was the rebel, and they were the stick-in-the-muds. Now I’m the old married fuddy-duddy.”
But you do not have to break up your marriage to change your life. Long-married women are also waking up to the possibilities of postmenopausal sensuality and proposing new contracts to shake the staleness out of their relationships and release their deferred creative energies. I met a California couple in which the husband had given up a stressful career as an attorney to help his wife pursue her dream: opening her own bookstore. Life partners who help each other feed and grow their passions can enjoy the magnified rewards of a marriage revitalized in middle life.
Just how old is a seasoned woman? I define it very much the way Auntie Mame’s friend Vera did when asked, “How old are you, anyway?”
“Somewhere between forty and death.”
It’s not over at 45 or 50, “it” being sex, intimacy, discovery of a new identity and a new passion in life. On the contrary, it begins all over again. Today, 50 is the start of a whole new cycle. You may have already lived an entire adulthood, but now you are at the beginning of another one—a portion of the life span that I identified in 1995 as our Second Adulthood.
Women’s lives are long and have many seasons. As contemporary women, if we’re healthy, we will likely be around longer than our mothers were. As I first reported in New Passages, epidemiologists say that a woman who reaches the age of 50 free of cancer and heart disease can expect to see her ninety-second birthday.
In our First Adulthood, we are consumed with just getting from A to B to C: pulling up roots from our parents, testing and proving ourselves as provisional adults, developing the capacity for intimacy, gaining the skills and credentials to support ourselves, and putting down our own roots. Given the prolonged American postadolescence—which for many middle-class women and men now stretches to the end of the Tryout Twenties—the First Adulthood today runs roughly from the age of 30 to 50. The years from 50 to 80 or 90 represent an even longer span. What to do with all the time left? People who try to hang on for dear life to what they had in their First Adulthood—the same dewy looks, the same high-energy job, the same steamy sex—may become their own worst enemies. A positive anticipation of our Second Adulthood allows for much less anxiety and greater flexibility.
A seasoned woman is not defined merely by her chronological age. Her inner image, including the ability to shed many of the roles that defined and confined her in earlier life, is equally important.
By the time you are 50, you have probably come to know yourself pretty well. You are better at separating possibilities from illusions. It’s possible to learn to fly or start medical school or launch a cable TV show—we’ll read about women who did—but illusory to assume that you can keep winning air shows or delivering babies or looking as foxy on TV as younger competitors. At some point you will probably want to change the emphasis of your work and take on the additional role of teacher, mentor, or guru.
Time is perceived differently after 50. People begin counting backward, thinking in terms of years left to live. But that may be forty years or more, and we can elect to make something magnificent of it. This is a huge cultural shift, making possible what I call the Pursuit of the Passionate Life.
When you stop to think about it, you probably know a seasoned woman who has embarked on a new life. Maybe it’s an old college friend. Or perhaps it’s your own mother and you’re having a “Mom’s run wild!” reverse-roles reaction. I’ve interviewed enough women whom I describe as WMDs—Women Married, Dammit!—to know that many wrestle with a rhetorical question almost as vexing as Hamlet’s dilemma: to leap or not to leap? Is it nobler for a woman to stick with a stultifying marriage or better to step off into the unknown? Or perhaps you’re widowed or divorced but not really “out there”—and wondering what it’s like for women who do take the leap.
The Wild-Haired Years
The widow who first came to my mind was Peggy, a professor of political science at a prestigious college, whose story I told in New Passages. A flaming redhead with an infectious laugh, Peggy waged five years of a gallant battle with her husband, Chuck, against his prostate cancer. Once widowed, Peggy was forced to learn to be alone. Her first solo vacation she spent in the Canadian Gulf Islands, plunging into the chilly sea every morning at dawn and rising, refreshed and tingling with life, like Venus from the sea. “It made me feel like I could be a spicy woman again,” she told me. “It’s ironic. When nothing bigger can happen to you in a negative sense, you feel invulnerable. Since he’s gone, I’m more me than I ever was. I dare more. My first question now is always ‘Well, why not?’ I call it my wild hair. When I don’t have my wild hair, I’m sad. But when I have it, there’s a certain elation.”
After passing her sixty-fifth birthday, Peggy met an interesting man at a political rally. They saw each other a few times for dinner and conversation, though “having another romance was the furthest thing from my mind,” she told me. “But one day the fun-loving Peggy in me picked up the phone on the spur of the moment and invited this man to go to Big Sur for a weekend. I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ ”
When Jack pulled up at her house in his dashing black Lexus, Peggy was in jeans at her sink doing dishes. At the last moment, hearing her mother’s censorious voice in her ears, she couldn’t step over the line. She kept her hands plunged into hot soapy water and mumbled, “I can’t do this, I’m sorry.” Jack suggested that it would be just a relaxing getaway weekend. Peggy demurred: “I know, but we both know where this is going.” Jack kept gently filibustering. She asked him to wait in the car.
“In a wild-haired moment, I grabbed the first thing I could find—a big black garbage bag—and stuffed some clothes inside before I could change my mind again.” When Peggy emerged from her kitchen, Jack wondered, No suitcase? Had she chickened out after all? He just hadn’t noticed what she was dragging behind her.
Jack laughed. He caught her spirit of spontaneity, and on their arrival at the exclusive waterfront inn, he handed the garbage bag to the doorman with a flourish. He watched with a sexy gleam in his eye as Peggy swept into the lobby with the light-footed grandeur of a duchess.
Less than a year later Peggy agreed to marry Jack, provided they both accepted an agreement: she would continue teaching, and each of them would keep their own home and sense of community. Peggy shifted her emphasis into creating reentry programs at local colleges for women who have been divorced, abandoned, or widowed and have to start over again, as she had. In their eight years together, she and her adoring new husband have traveled just about every continent and shared adventures. Most recently, they sailed the Croatian coast with Jack skippering and Peggy and her children as the crew.
The most indelible change has been in Peggy herself: she hasn’t lost her wild hair again, not for a moment.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Sex and the Seasoned Woman by Gail Sheehy. Copyright © 2006 by Gail Sheehy. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.