Last December in New York City, Suzanne Braun Levine captivated the TEDxWomen community with her frank, humorous and insightful words on womanhood and aging. Ms. Levine has one of those stops-me-in-my-tracks resumes: the first editor of Ms. magazine; an editor of the Columbia Journalism Review; a producer of the Peabody Award-winning documentary She’s Nobody’s Baby: American Women in the Twentieth Century; a web maven, with a thoughtful and resource-filled website of her own, who blogs on many popular sites; and the author of numerous books, including the recently released How We Love Now: Sex and Intimacy in Second Adulthood.
Wanting to hear more from Ms. Levine, we asked her to answer a few questions to share with the TEDxWomen community. We’re thrilled she said yes!
In your TEDxWomen talk, you spoke of The Fertile Void, the time in a woman’s life between her first and second adulthood. Calling it “a life transition as profound and far-reaching as adolescence,” you shared how The Fertile Void is a time to ask ourselves who we are, what matters to us and how we can be engaged in the world. How did you come to the term The Fertile Void? What are the signs one has entered it? And when do you know you’ve left it?
I have been moved and gratified by the way the term “The Fertile Void” has entered the conversation about aging. Actually the term is a Taoist concept that describes a step in the process of change, when everything seems lost and nothing yet found. That is where we find ourselves as we make the transition from adulthood – a well-documented and well-scripted stage of life – to Second Adulthood – a totally new life experience being defined by living longer and healthier lives and by arriving there as more confident and experienced women (men get there too, but not along quite the same route).
The tricky thing about making this transition is that it takes longer than we would like and, worse, it is all about unknowingness. We multi-tasking magicians, who are used to making a list and checking it twice, find it maddening to be falling down an Alice’s Rabbit’s hole of self-doubt and bewilderment. We find ourselves lost in a void, but the essential insight is that this void is fertile. At an age when so much attention is being paid to women’s lost biological fertility, this spiritual fertility can give birth to a fresh and strong and fulfilling chapter in our lives.
Like adolescence, that other very tumultuous transition that it resembles, Second Adulthood is about reinvention. Margaret Mead once said that adolescence is no less than “the birth of the soul.” The Fertile Void is, I believe, where the soul is reborn.
You so beautifully described how in The Fertile Void: “You enter feeling broken, and you emerge feeling broken open. The process is a mission without a goal. We get impatient. We feel frantic and stuck. The unremitting unknowingness is maddening. But desperate as we are, we have to give ourselves some slack. We have to go with the flow. The solution to being stuck is being still.” Sometimes, with life moving at such fast pace, accelerated by the never-ending onslaught of emails, texts and tweets, even being still can seem like an unattainable goal. Do you have any suggestions on how to reach that still place?
Letting go is the mantra of change. We let go of some expectations but also of some inhibitions. We let go of grudges and make room for risks. We let go of the need to please others and begin to explore who we are when we are not playing by prescribed rules. As we let go of fears from the past, we begin to imagine a future with a balance of good days and bad days in which we are grateful for the glass half full. All of this to-ing and fro-ing will, understandably, lead to moments of panic. When we panic, we hunker down and feel desperate. That is the moment to stop fighting, to stop making lists, to stop blaming ourselves for being indecisive. To give up the impulse to gain control – to be still – and go with the flow, trusting that it will take you to the shore.
Do all women traverse The Fertile Void? Can the journey be made easier by making changes in our 20s, 30s, and 40s?
First, try to resist accumulating the baggage that will need to be shed in the Fertile Void – the guilt and shame and self-doubt that accompany an effort to do everything right and (even less achievable) to make everything right for those we love.
The second way to prepare for the Fertile Void is to become familiar with what Gloria Steinem calls a new Golden Rule: Do Unto Yourself As You Have Been Doing Unto Others. In other words, make sure your needs and wants have a place on your to-do list. Don’t put yourself off for later.
The third is to move up the moment, which launches many of my generation into the Fertile Void, when we hear ourselves say, “You know what? I don’t care what people think any more!”If you are aware of what YOU think, you will be able to make choices that will serve you well as you invent the rest of your life.
Speaking up and speaking out are skills that many women my generation of women have abandoned in deference to others and have to relearn. Younger women are doing much better. They will enter The Fertile Void further along the road to finding their own truth.
One of the reasons for this – beside the fact that we have raised strong daughters – is the way they use the Internet. Whereas we confided in the pages of our diaries, they are out there questioning, debating, sharing information with each other through blogs and websites.
What role does sex play in The Fertile Void?
As always, sex fits in everywhere – from body-image to physiological changes to our individual histories and our cultural standards. Having spent almost every day of our lives finding fault with our appearance, it is no surprise that when that body begins to show signs of aging, we can have a field day of self-loathing. On the other hand, many women are physically stronger, healthier, and more accepting of the other aspects of aging; that positive feeling can counterbalance the negatives.
Moreover, many women are having better sex – more satisfying, more relaxed – than before. They are having all kinds of satisfying and spontaneous experiences: they are building the confidence and sense of personal authenticity that are the goals and the rewards of Second Adulthood.
Another skill that comes with the new stage of life is the ability to say “no.” The obvious payoff in terms of sex is that you are more likely to get the sex you want if you can be clear about what you don’t want. (There are plenty of women who don’t want sex at all – been there; done that.) But the word is powerful in every circumstance. Saying “no” has been very hard for most of us growing up; we were so anxious to please and so focused on intuiting what other people wanted or needed that we became yes-women. As we get fluent in “no,” our “yeses” become more true and effective.
You’ve written of moving from either/or stress to both/and resolution, which feeds into achieving in relationships “an important new dynamic: interdependence.” Can you tell us a little more about interdependence? And is that something that can be found earlier in life — or is it one of those things that you just have to go through the muck and mess of life to get there?
That clumsy word is the only one I could find to describe the essence of what I call the New Intimacy. The late, great congresswoman Bella Abzug understood how power worked in politics and in relationships. She saw the emergence of women in her lifetime as a progression from dependence on men and society, to independence and being able to take care of one’s self. She also anticipated one more step toward a healthy balance of power – interdependence. In intimate relationships this means that no one has all the power or all the responsibility and that each person respects the other’s strengths and accepts the other’s weaknesses. Most of all that both understand that there is no changing the other to fit a scheme that doesn’t reflect that basic truth.
What’s interesting about dealing with other people in a more balanced and accepting way is that we move away from the I win/ You lose approach to conflict. There is a parallel in the way we solve problems. We are all familiar with the classic dichotomies of decision-making. Either/or, Right/wrong, good/bad. With age and wisdom we find a both/and approach. Rather than trying to prevail, we are more inclined to work toward a win-win resolution that accommodates the interests of all parties. That makes for more generosity and trust is all our interactions.