"On the other side we will be something else but we have no idea what."
“What’s wrong with me?” I thought. “I’m so unhappy. Is it that I don’t like my job anymore, my home, my life? I can’t be having a mid-life crisis—that’s for people who lack confidence, self-esteem, people who aren’t psychologists and analyze themselves to death like me. Plus, I’m not in mid-life yet.”
Every day for two years I just kept thinking, “I’m stuck–I can’t seem to go forward, I can’t even go backwards.” Gail Sheehy to the rescue–and I’m not being facetious, she really did rescue me. I learned in New Passages that it truly wasn’t a mid-life crisis. It was what she terms “2nd Adulthood”, “a new life to live, one in which we could concentrate on becoming better, stronger, deeper, wiser, funnier, freer, sexier, and more attentive to living the privileged moments.” Sign me up for this!
But why wasn’t I feeling all those benefits? Now here’s the real rescue–the book taught me that I wasn’t moving into this new and beneficial part of life (transitioning/passaging) because I was trying to stay in my old life. Sheehy said that it’s common for this to happen unless you know you’re to work on the transition or unless there is a crisis in your 40’s or early 50’s that forces you to reflect, to make a “new passage”. For me there had even been some crises (partner’s heart attack, moving the office and our home from a big city to another state in a rural lake area) and I made changes to my work and lifestyle because of this. But I missed the memo that I was to make a conscious effort to shift to another stage of life. The change in my pain level and stuck situation since reading this book has been dramatic!
The centerpiece of the book is her discovery that since she wrote the original Passages (20 years before this book and now a total of 40 years ago) the life stages have changed duration. We all talk about how fast children are growing up but how long they’re living with their parents and how much later many people are starting families and how young 50 and 60 year olds seem compared to our grandparents. Sheehy provides well-researched and fascinating (not boring) descriptions of these changes–where they came from, why, and what they’re causing. She conducted hundreds of interviews and small group discussions and people jumped at the chance to talk about the changes in their lives as many were as puzzled as I was–at every stage of life.
Her re-defined life stages (the New Map of Adult Life) are:
Provisional Adult: 18-30 years old (includes Turbulent 20’s and the transition to 1st Adulthood)
First Adulthood: 30-45 years old (includes early 40’s Middlessence – a 2nd adolescence)
Second Adulthood: 45-85 years old (includes 45–65 Age of Mastery and 65–85 Age of Integrity)
The Big Idea
A chance to do something else
"You will have to stop pretending to be the person you have been and begin to recognize, and ultimately accept, who or what you are becoming."
Sheehy tells us that at each transition, each “passage”, we’re vulnerable, unprotected. She brilliantly uses the example of a lobster, which sheds its shell over and over again. And each time after the shed and before the re-growth the lobster is uncovered, waiting for the next shell growth stage.
The people who know they are to shed their shell at certain stages use those transition times to revise their personal narratives. I loved it when I read about people saying they “feel more myself now.” I’ve been saying for over two years now that I don’t want the old me and all that went with it, but I don’t know how to measure what the new me is doing–I don’t know what success looks like now. It was comforting to read many others expressing that same sentiment. So I am renewed in my quest to discover what the definition of success is for me, for who I am now becoming.
Transitions/passages are good
"A single fixed identity is a liability today."
In the past 30 years I’ve seen continuous change in our workplaces leading to change training and even whole departments doing nothing but change management. Due to this you’d think I wouldn’t have to have any Aha’s that “change is good”, “change is necessary”, but in this book it really struck a chord: change is the only way, at every stage, we’re going to move on to a fuller way of living. For me, it’s the change that leads into 2nd Adulthood. I was in Middlessence and trying to hold on to it. Sheehy notes that the most successful people have the most Middlessence problems as they have to follow their own act. I liked part of who I was, knew I had to change to be who I wanted to be, but was still stuck. What I was experiencing was the loss of parts of myself I felt were really awesome—loss that has to be grieved in order to move on. I was finally moved to action by Gloria Steinham’s comment on how huge this type of loss is as she said, “it’s not a loss, it’s another country!”
Sheehy interviewed people who’d successfully worked through the loss and come into their new identity saying “I’m happier now than at any point in my life”. So I will treat the loss of the old me like I have the loss of my beloved pets, beloved pastors who’s moved on to other churches and gorgeous trees that have died – working through the stages of grief.
Who is the real me now?
"We find ourselves facing a game we don’t know how to play."
The transition to 2nd Adulthood is massive. Most people here move from years of pleasing others (spouses, children, bosses, co-workers) in order to survive to a place where they can control much of what happens in their life. The book calls it a transition from survival to master–so now you can be the real you instead of whomever you needed to be to please all those people to get ahead. By 50 we know what we like and we’ve been gathering skills and knowledge and now can put them to use.
Some know what they’re looking for but aren’t confident they’ll find it. Others don’t even know what the next stage should look like for them.
A couple suggestions I found helpful for me to discover what my game should be so I can plan:
- Look down the long tunnel that has been your life. Watch yourself, watch the other people in your life. What is it about that person from long ago you’d like to keep or do again?
- What period in your life did time really fly?
- Ask yourself: What did you most like to when you were 12?
You can tell when you’ve hit it as your stagnant feelings give way to a new sense of aliveness. And people who’ve found it say at this point they no longer care what others think of what they want to do. If it fits them, they’re moving forward toward it.
This book is a great gift! If I’d read this book back in the 90s, it may or may not have helped me now. But I now know that my real work in 2nd Adulthood will be the crafting and feeding of my soul. And when I get to the next transition, I’ll be prepared for that identity struggle and know what to do about it. Thank you Gail Sheehy!