James Hollis, in his book The Middle Passage, examines our experiences of life in what he refers to as the first and second adulthood. The above passage from that book jumped off the page when I read it several years ago and it became a catalyst for my self-examination as an older woman. I have incorporated this understanding of a first and second adulthood, and the uniqueness embedded in each, in my counselling work, in my writing and most especially in my own life. As he explains in the book, the second adulthood is not marked chronologically. It is recognizable not by age, but by experiences.
Women in the first adulthood of their lives, consciously or not, busy themselves with identity making through education, career building, partnering, parenthood and the fulfillment of an abundance of familial and societal roles. Transitioning into the second adulthood brings with it major shifts away from these earlier roles and, as Hollis suggests, women can be left asking questions like, “Who am I without my roles and responsibilities? What do I want from my life now?” He goes so far as to suggest that we are actually “obliged” to examine the identity of who we truly are devoid of the earlier role of “nurturer to all”. Unconsciously we can easily become attached to, and limited by, the identity we have created, shaped by our experiences over many decades. In the second adulthood we begin to question this and are summoned to examine what lies in the way of living the totality of who we are as we age.
Aging brings with it radical changes and experiences that we are mostly ill prepared for; health issues, the loss of purpose attached to ending a career, empty nests, strained relationships with family members, lost friendships, what can feel like a betrayal by our own aging bodies, death of friends and family and ultimately acceptance of our own decline and mortality. It’s not uncommon for us to experience stress, excessive worry, feelings of depression, loneliness, fear, hurt, anger, resentment, or regret as well as physical pain and illness. Even more prevalent can be a general sense of unease, or discontentment, and a relentless longing for something more.
The “Harvard Study of Adult Development”, a longitudinal study of the attributes of healthy aging which has been on-going now for over 80 years, concludes that the greatest determinant of health and happiness in old age is the experience of healthy relationships. Originally the Harvard study only included men as Harvard was an all-men’s university. It now includes the children of the original participants and so women’s voices are now part of the collective. Over the decades of this still on-going study the researches concluded that healthy relationships are key to our happiness, our health and our longevity. They also found that the opposite happens when we spend our time more isolated than we want to be or in unhealthy relationships. If our health and happiness in old age will depend on maintaining healthy relationships, how do we as women, especially those living alone, make this a reality.
Relationships are not limited to partnerships, or even family, but are found in friendships, workplaces and community. Often as women age spending time alone becomes more of their experience and this can lead to sadness or even depression. Reaching out to form new relationships, breathe new life into current ones, or let go of those that no longer serve us, is not easy.
We must be careful not to define healthy relationships as always being easy, calm or joyous. We are human beings with a barrage of emotions constantly being played out in our relationships. In healthy relationships we learn to make room for all of it, knowing that there is something larger binding the relationship together.
As we age it’s incumbent upon us to actively nurture relationships that we value and to let people know that we can hold space for the inevitable ebb and flow of differences inherent in all relationships. We also need to recognize and accept when relationships, while familiar, are no longer healthy. If there is openness in the relationship we can work together to tweak and nurture the relationship as it is changing. When that is not possible, we need to let them go even if only temporarily.
Keeping the impermanence of life in mind we can go forward accepting that everything changes, including relationships and the people in them. Our lives are always in a state of flux. If we set our expectations in one stage of life based on our experiences of an earlier stage, we will suffer unnecessarily.
Perhaps one of the most poignant displays of radical change in relationships for older women is when adult children leave home and become fully engaged in their own responsibilities of the first adulthood. This new chapter, for our children, is busy as it was earlier in our own lives. Generally, there is little time for the primary mother/child relationship of earlier years. On-going consideration must be given to the necessity for separation, both physical and emotional and the need for our children’s self governance over their adult lives. Without this awareness confusion and frustration build, emotions run high and we can experience feelings of sadness and even anger.
These emotions are legitimate and, left as feeling states, bring us no real harm. The harm to ourselves, and our familial relationships, can happen when we allow our unchecked thinking to build strong story lines creating unnecessary anxiety. Left unaddressed, and allowed to build and bubble up inside, these thoughts can bring us the exact opposite of what we are wishing for. They can actually separate us further.
We know on a cognitive level that this separation is natural. When we were busy mothers tending to the never-ending tasks of taking care of children, we might have fantasized about the day when we would have some freedom. Still most of us arrive ill-prepared for the sense of loss inherent in the open space of an empty nest.
It’s essential to recognize the grief we experience as we transition away from what was our earlier relationship with our children, as well as our unmet expectations of how we imagined it would be. Acceptance is part of the grieving process, but it doesn’t happen easily. Embedded in the grief reaction can be times of denial, depression and anger. This is universal in any grief experience. It’s not kind, nor helpful, to rush forward into satisfying the idea of simply accepting the loss and moving on. Move on, we must, but with awareness of the varied emotions and struggles that we will experience in our journey to acceptance and renewal.
As mothers we arm ourselves with all that we believe necessary to nurture and protect our children. And while these measures may have served them, and us, when they were children under our care, new ways of interacting are required as we learn to relate adult to adult. By remaining open and listening, we may learn what our children need most from us now and let go of the habitual old patterns of interacting that are no longer viable. As we seek to know ourselves more at this later stage of our lives, we have the opportunity to share with our children what we need as well. If we are willing to examine our own lives, it’s possible that we will find healthy, sustainable ways to nurture the evolution of adult familial relationships well into our old age. The challenge is to create a balance that allows us, and our adult children, the freedom to be who we truly are and support one another as we strive to live our best lives.
Older women, now without the earlier responsibilities and identities, are curious to know, and be, who we really are. In order for us to do that we need to shift our focus and begin the examination of what stands in our way.
Into the first adulthood we have carried the experiences from our childhood out of which we have formed our identities. We go out into the world and strengthen these narratives through the internalization of our experiences, as seen though the lens we have adopted. By the time we reach the second adulthood, unless we have taken time to examine and question these stories of who we are, such identities are firmly intact. It is the lack of awareness of these inner forces that creates the obstacle for us becoming who we really are as we age.
I focus my counselling practice on accompanying women as they move from confusion to clarity in their aging process. Our younger lives, filled with multi-layered responsibilities and caring for others, afforded us little room for quite introspection. In our second adulthood we have more time for contemplation, bringing awareness to our lives as they actually are. Ultimately, we can not affect change upon anything that lies outside our awareness. It requires equal measures of curiosity and courage to increase our awareness and become the examiner of our own lives.
My intention is to create a safe place for women, encouraging them to begin examining how unconscious habitual ways of thinking and behaving, adopted over their lifetime, have become out-dated and unhealthy.
By courageously examining the totality of who we are, we become more aware of how we are making our life’s choices and what lies in the way of our ultimate peace and happiness. Living with such awareness we learn how to consciously let go of that which no longer serves us and nurture what brings us joy and contentment. We must give ourselves permission to let go of earlier roles and identities, the opinions of others, relationships that are not supportive or nurturing and ideologies that damage our sense of self.
What lies before us in the second adulthood is an open landscape upon which we can map a course of self-discovery and live in a way that feels more authentic as we age.