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Dallas Morning News


Desperate Grannies

August 06, 2006

By Kay S. Hymowitz

Baby boomer feminists say they want sex and self-actualization, new freedoms and 'Second Adulthoods.' They also might want to consider growing up.

Time passes, and we get old. Our faces wrinkle, our hair goes gray and MIA, our teeth yellow, our knees ache, we forget the names of people we said hello to just yesterday on the way to pick up the Geritol, and there are days when a nap sounds real nice.

At least that's the way it's been for most of humanity. But rumors that boomers will be joining the great biological stream turn out to have been greatly exaggerated. Boomers—especially feminist-influenced women of a certain class who are now publishing their philosophy of life after 50—will not be growing old. And it seems equally inaccurate to say that they will mature.

They are going to season, as Gail Sheehy puts it in her most recent book, Sex and the Seasoned Woman. They will "develop"; they will "grow." Ms. Sheehy and her sister scribes have come forward to tell you that today's older women are a new breed. They're busy, busy, busy! They go to the gym! They work in animal shelters! They travel! They get divorced! And, yes, (Yes! Yes!), they have orgasms!

And in their own inimitably modern, American, follow-your-bliss, self-absorbed way, they want to tell you all about it.

Not so long ago, enlightened women of the boomer generation were known for worrying about equal rights, equal pay, Roe vs. Wade, Title IX and the location of the Masters Golf Tournament. Today, not so much. As they shuffle off into their golden years, many appear to be turning inward. As the title of a catalog that arrived in my mailbox recently put it, they want "Time for Me"—time that appears to involve a lot of anti-aging formulas, herbal supplements, figure-shaping undergarments and vibrators.

Don't get me wrong. Boomer fems continue to be enemies of the patriarchy. They still want men to do the laundry. Their tone remains defiant. But their personal is no longer very political; even their political isn't very political. Nobody's putting it this way, but it seems that liberation politics have become irrelevant to what is now their most pressing concern, which—depending on your emphasis—is: how to bring meaning to their dwindling years, or how to avoid being mistaken for their grandmothers.

It probably should have been clear that Second Wave feminism would be changing direction a while ago. In 1992, Gloria Steinem, who just happened to be staring at 60 at the time, published Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. With its talk of the inner child and "authentic selves," the book was a noticeable break from Ms. Steinem's usual menu of feminist topics. A year later, Betty Friedan gave us The Fountain of Age, in which she proposed that we consider the years past 50 not as a time to play golf and show off pictures of the grandchildren, but as "an additional stage of development," a time of further emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth.

But despite Ms. Steinem's and Ms. Friedan's legendary history as trendsetters, no one paid much attention at the time, doubtless because boomers, who had yet to receive their AARP cards in the mail, were still in a "what, me worry?" mode.

But now that Newsweek has made it official with a cover story announcing the first boomers' arrival at age 60, the signs of a revolution going inward are unmistakable.

"Our record is impressive," writes Suzanne Braun Levine in Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood. "We fought discrimination in the workplace and popularized the notion of family leave and flexible work schedules; we forced our way into institutions and professions and levels of leadership that even the most optimistic didn't dare predict. ... But for many, enough activism is enough. They want to stop fighting the system and invest their energies in themselves."

Ms. Levine takes the phrase "Second Adulthood" from Gail Sheehy. Ms. Sheehy, you may remember, mapped the "stages of adult development" in 1970 in her megahit Passages—though she stopped at age 50, because, at the time, the post-50 years didn't seem worth the price of ink. For obvious reasons, she has changed her mind, and in New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time, she has announced the discovery of Second Adulthood, a new "frontier" that encompasses the years from 45 to 85+. (Oh, the "passage" evoked by that "+"!)

Now, Second Adulthood does not—repeat not—suggest a decline. It does not bring inevitable loss, nor does it suggest that we should turn to the consolations of philosophy, religion or arthritis medication—because Second Adulthood is nothing like your grandmother's 50 or 60 or 70. According to Ms. Levine, Ms. Sheehy and the numerous coaches, therapists and lifestyle gurus who are banking on the idea, it is a thrilling time of growth and change, an exciting opportunity to redefine our lives and ourselves—"a second chance—to do it better, to do it differently, to do it wiser," in Ms. Levine's words.

The women of the Second Wave already were highly evolved—liberated yet sensitive, strong yet compassionate—but in Second Adulthood they are ascending into goddesshood. So profound are the changes that a woman goes through as she passes into Second Adulthood that she must first pass through what Ms. Sheehy has dubbed "Middlescence," a term that may sound to cynics suspiciously like "obsolescence" but is actually meant to stand for "midlife adolescence." Through the elixir of pop sociology, Ms. Sheehy offers boomers what they have most wished: They now can remain teenagers into old age.

The shape of midlife teen turmoil is well on display in Ms. Levine's Inventing the Rest of Our Lives, a book of such stunning banality it makes Ms. Sheehy look like Hannah Arendt. What's striking is that Ms. Levine is actually not only a woman of significant accomplishment but also one who has personified the feminist dream. She was the first editor in chief of Ms. and went on to helm Columbia Journalism Review. She has published in major magazines and serves on boards. She also has been married for decades to the same man, with whom she has raised two sons.

Yet in Inventing the Rest of Our Lives, she trembles like a wallflower. She worries about what to do with her life. She frets about how timid she has been in saying what she really thinks. There is not the remotest hint of the authority or insight that you'd expect to emerge after 35 years of successful struggle in the trenches of the New York publishing world and the post-sexual-revolution marriage culture. More striking, though she does not repudiate the feminism of her First Adulthood, there is no indication that the success it inspired did anything to bring her the satisfaction of a life well lived.

On the contrary. Like other Desperate Grandmas, she now sees careerism as a distraction from finding her "real self." In First Adulthood, say the acolytes of Second Adulthood, women figure out how to please the people who have power over them—parents, teachers, mates and bosses. But when they are in what Ms. Levine labels "The [Expletive] You Fifties," they need "no longer care what other people think, only what I think."

"If our 20s were about our physical peak and our 30s and 40s about work and productivity, after that it is about being and becoming you," Alexandra Mezey, a Second Adulthood life coach, promises on her Web site. Turning in your office keys can be "a chance to shift from work to the self, from responsibility to freedom," say Alice Radosh and Nan Bauer-Maglin in Women Confronting Retirement: A Nontraditional Guide.

Somehow, though, the word "retirement" seems inadequate to the task of describing what happens to Second Adulteers when they cash their last paycheck. The Greatest Generation retired; they took up hobbies, joined book clubs and went to lecture series near their Fort Lauderdale condos. Maybe they volunteered to read to poor kids at nearby schools.

But Desperate Grandmas don't retire. They "pursue the passionate life," in Ms. Sheehy's words. They "follow their dreams." Ms. Levine celebrates a human rights lobbyist who becomes a devotee of "Neuromuscular Integrative Action" (a trendy mishmash of martial arts, yoga and dance), a woman who is volunteering in an animal shelter, "a high-powered corporate executive" who at 55 joins the Peace Corps and goes to the Ivory Coast, and the psychologist Carol Gilligan, who is writing a novel: "Now 68, she has only just begun to explore new aspects of her talents."

The Desperate Grandma who really wants to pursue a passionate life might try something even more dramatic. She might file for divorce. Since the 1970s, Ms. Sheehy has been an enthusiastic promoter of the notion that divorce is not the tragedy once imagined but rather a fabulous opportunity for growth. A 50 percent divorce rate and the heavy damage inflicted on legions of children haven't dampened her enthusiasm.

Ms. Sheehy eagerly cites a study showing two-thirds of divorces among couples over 40 initiated by women. That's because women, like men, "love the freedom that being single brings—citing independence, getting to keep their houses however they want and not having to compromise with another person." Sex is at the center of the passionate life of the Desperate Grandma. When they were young, boomers famously discovered female sexual pleasure. Now they are discovering that the fun never ends. Along with Sex and the Seasoned Woman, we are seeing a slew of books about sex and the 60-something, including Still Doing It, Better Than I Ever Expected, Jane Juska's A Round-Heeled Woman and Erica Jong's latest orgasm dispatch, Seducing the Demon—all of them filled with examples of how today's hip grandmothers are spending their leisure time.

Ms. Jong and Ms. Juska write only about themselves, but the other writers go out hunting for horny females of a certain age interested in discussing their sex lives with a stranger. They find hordes of them.

Part of what is driving all of this early geriatric ink-spilling are the altered demographic realities of Americans living longer and staying healthier. There are 37 million women in their 40s, 50s and 60s living in America today, many of them single and many of them financially independent. With more affluence, better health care and advanced medical technology—Viagra, hip and knee replacements, Viagra, hormone therapy, face lifts, silicone, tummy tucks, hair color, Viagra—it's now a cinch to fool Mother Nature.

Not so long ago, Yankelovich Inc. surveyed baby boomers, asking them when they believe old age begins. The most common answer was 85—three years after the average American can expect to be dead and buried. In a world where a 60-year-old woman can give birth and the biological narrative—you're born, you reproduce, you get old and you die—has gone haywire, inevitably some people will imagine that old age is history.

And that's not an altogether bad thing. There is something supremely American about these aging boomer women. Freedom, possibility, frontier, change—you see these words over and over again in Second Adulthood tracts. Second Adulthood reflects a zest for experience, for the new, for the personal gumption that is rooted in our national character and that has been the source of many of our blessings.

It also would be curmudgeonly not to admire the energy and young-as-you-feel verve that Ms. Sheehy and her ilk want to bring to growing old. Who can entirely resist such determined optimism in the face of the harshest of realities? Yes, women might lose their memories, but they "gain insight." Yes, their stomachs fold into accordion pleats and their upper arms sag like forgotten balloons, but they know better than any Jennifer Aniston wannabe how to please a man.

No, what grates about the Desperate Grandmas is not their optimism. It's their enthusiastic display of that chronic boomer disease: narcissism. Tom Wolfe once dubbed the 1970s "the Me Decade." Desperate Grandmas seem determined to make every decade a Me Decade.

With its consciousness-raising, its denigration of family life, its rejection of the past, feminism has always flirted with excessive individualism, bordering on mere selfishness. Now, as Second Wavers like Ms. Steinem and Ms. Levine filter out politics, what's left of graying feminism are the dregs of self-actualization, passionate pursuits and sexual self-expression.The memoirs by Ms. Jong and Ms. Juska in particular illustrate how feminism's narcissistic promotion of self-actualization makes it particularly ill-suited for women—no matter what their politics—who are racing toward the day when they will become deeply and humbly dependent on the kindness and love of others. Narcissism is the last thing a society needs from its graying population. Their job is in part to counter youthful egotism, especially in an individualistic society like ours.

No one should understand better than those getting on in years our dependency on one another. And no one should have a stronger intuition of our own fundamental inconsequentiality. We "fill a slot for a time and then move out; that's the decent thing to do: make room," John Updike's Harry Angstrom muses in Rabbit at Rest.

Desperate Grandmas may not need to move out yet. But it would be decent—quaint word!—if they would make some room.

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