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Men's Midlife Passages

An Interview with Gail Sheehy

This article appears in Vol. 1 #4 of Men's Voices journal.
 Men's Voices: So men can find their voices and speak their truths


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Understanding Men's Passages
by Gail Sheehy
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Gail Sheehy is well-known for her booksPassages, New Passages and her book on melopause, The Silent Passage. Her latest book is Understanding Men's Passages. Men's Voices editor Bert H. Hoff interviewed her by phone while she was on tour promoting the book.

Men's Midlife Passages

An Interview with Gail Sheehy

Bert: What drew you into men's issues and doing a book about men's midlife passages?

Gail: My husband came to a dead end in his career, a career that he loved, as an editor. That's all he had ever wanted to do. Like for so many men, it wound down long before he was ready to wind down. So we had to stumble around for a couple of years until we could figure out the right question to ask. The question seemed to be what is your passion? How can you strip it down from the position and title you may have held, and find another channel to enliven what I think of as a second adulthood, any time after 45?

We did find an answer, once we got the question right. The answer for him was to identify and shape young talent. That led him to teaching, and a position at the graduate school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. We turned our lives around and started all over again on a new coast. We had been New Yorkers for all of our lives.

I realized that he was not the only one. There were many men that I was meeting on the road and at lectures who were asking very urgent questions about my book New Passages, and so were their wives and daughters. How can we get men to change? How can we get them to face aging and do something constructive about it, instead of waiting until they break down physically or slip into depression? "Why can't you write something for men, directly?" I kept hearing this, over and over again.

I know men don't like to talk about this stuff, and ordinarily they don't buy self-help books. I don't think of myself as a self-help author, but they don't buy books about inner life, they buy books about money and power.

I started an experiment of inviting men at my lectures around the country to come out and talk about what it is like to be a man at mid-life in post-patriarchal America. To my surprise, men were very, very eager to talk about it, provided I could assure them about two things. First, they wanted it to be safe. They knew they would never see me again. The second was that the other men there had to be strangers.

They came out very eagerly. Sometimes we had to close the doors and turn people away. Sometimes they were really desperate to see if they were the only ones who felt they had lost direction somewhere after 40. We would start out with a joke, usually the frog joke from my book.

An older man is walking down the street when he hears a frog talking. The frog says, "If you pick me up and kiss me, I'll turn into a beautiful woman."

The man picks up the frog and puts it in his pocket.

"Aren't you going to kiss me?" the frog complains. "I'll turn into a ravishing woman and you can have me all you want."

"I'd rather have a talking frog in my pocket."

When we went around the room to introduce ourselves, everybody would say that everything is fine. As the evening would progress, somebody would say "You know, I almost died last year," or "I never see my kids anymore after my divorce." Or "who's menopause is it, anyway, my wife's or mine? Is there such a thing as male menopause?" Right away the dukes would come down and the guys would start talking. They would educate each other. It was really exciting. The session was planned for two hours, but we would stay at least three or four hours. Sometimes guys would make friends with each other, and get together afterwards. I knew we were onto something.

Bert: This theme that you're bring up is something that comes up for our readers a lot. Men's councils and gatherings are about men getting together in a space they see as "sacred" or removed from ordinary life, and telling their stories, speaking their truths, to each other in a safe space. They do it for exactly the reasons you describe, the feeling that I'm not alone, that other men experience this, too. To my view the real mythopoetic Men's Work isn't necessarily in big Robert Bly gatherings, but in small groups of men all over the country.

Gail: I agree with you, absolutely. It's very informal, and they don't have names. They're not necessarily associated with any church or religious or political group. They're just men who have somehow identified one another as "seekers." Maybe they're guys who all go to the same hockey game. Usually, they're not men who work together. Don't you think that's true?

Bert: Yes.

Gail: That's too threatening.

I've sat with some groups that have been meeting for ten, or maybe even 20 years. And those groups are really powerful. They've carried each other through divorces, children who have turned on them, terrible job losses or business failures, or deaths. They've become extremely important to one another and engaged on a spiritual search in a way that serves their dignity ad masculinity.

Bert: This seems to work so much better when men gather by themselves, without a woman present.

Gail: Yes.

Bert: In your case, you're there as more of an observer than a participant.

Gail: I wouldn't call myself either an observer or a participant. I was more of a facilitator, because I would ask the questions, and would take people down their story lines and into places they probably weren't expecting to go. And I could also bring in the perspectives of other men's groups that I had talked to. I could put things into context that would say that this is not unusual, this is not a personal failing. This is a normal issue to come up at this particular stage.

So I could think of myself as a cultural interpreter. I could interpret the individual stories they come up with, so they weren't just individual stories, but were part of a much larger narrative that is evolving for men over 40 in America, where there isn't a new definition of manliness. There isn't really any definition of manliness for men over 40. Basically the definition of manliness is tied to rock stars and athletes, who are pretty much over the hill by the time they're 40.

Bert: In telling your husband's story, you plugged me into James Hillman and The Soul's Code. The idea of finding your passion in life just seems to fit right into his talk of finding your daimon and finding your authentic character to be true to yourself and, from that, to find your destiny.

Gail: Yes. And that each one of us has our own song to sing. As we get older, we become more and more unique. Adolescents are almost indistinguishable from one another, even if they're male and female. There's a marginal differentiation between the number of tattoos you have and the number of body piercings you have. As they get older they get very much more differentiated.

I read The Soul's Code after I had finished writing this book. I thought that we were very much on the same wave-length. I'm hoping to try and interview him for Vanity Fair. I thought the idea of daimon was very similar to what I was trying to get at.

Bert: One of the things that struck me about your book is something that I've been thinking about, too. That's the idea that there is an extra cycle in life in our 50s. There's a whole time period of vibrant life, between middle age and old age. You use terms like the "influential 60s" and the "age of integrity." People in their 50s and 60s aren't old anymore.

Gail: Exactly. I actually talked about the 50s as being the Age of Mastery. It used to be kind of a coasting time, where many men just plateaued and settled into a dignified deterioration until they got the gold watch and the pension. They'd go on cruises, or sit around monitoring their investments and waiting to die.

Today, there's both opportunity and danger. So many men in their 50s are being squeezed out of their positions, on one pretext or another. But if they know this is likely to happen, they can take pre-emptive steps to redirect themselves before the hammer falls, and be prepared to start over again. I think the incentive for that is the much longer life that we live and the many more opportunities that both men and women have for really useful and exciting lives after 45.

Bert: One point you highlight the most is that change, growth and new learning are the answer.

Gail: Yes, and moving away from the total emphasis on competing, to more emphasis on connecting. I use "connecting" in many different senses. Building intimacy with one's partner, with children before they go away, or even with children from a previous marriage. So many men become estranged when they lose custody, and feel they're a failure and have to start over again. Reconnecting with a parent, like the story of Lee May in the book. Exploring the past was the impetus for his expressing his creativity and writing about gardening. Connecting with the people he works with in a new way, forming more collaborative relationships and moving into the teacher or mentor role rather than competing in a losing game with younger, more aggressive rivals who don't mind sleeping on a cot next to their computer.

Bert: You described a man who decided he could live out his life living on a beach ad renting out deck chairs. I remember going down to the beach town of Chincoteague and running across a man happily selling gourmet ice cream cones. He had been a high-powered lawyer in Washington before he had a heart attack. Then, it was heart attacks or major illnesses that signaled men that it was time to slow down. Now in the 90s, you're suggesting, it's more likely to happen from being "downsized and dissed."

Gail: Or sidelined in a mega-merger. Sometimes that kind of stop-gap gives a man time to explore other opportunities. I'm thinking of the story in the book of the lab technician, Joe O'Dell. He hated change. The only change he had ever made was to go back to college in his 30s, so he wouldn't have to be a lab boy all of his life. He thought that because of his unique expertise he was too valuable to the company to be let go. At 50 he was perfectly happy to be the only lab technician.

Then, as he was on his way out the door to go on his vacation he got the call that they were eliminating the lab and his position. He was devastated, and went through most of the self-destructive phases that men so often go through when they're cut down to size in that brutal way. He started drinking, pulled away from his friends, became socially isolated, stayed home and watched TV. When the drinking didn't medicate him well enough, he'd go out and get a couple of Big Whoppers and a milkshake, and feel even more sluggish. His sex life diminished.

Finally it was the team that pulled him out. I think men always need a team in that kind of transition. In his case, his family was his team. His wife went out and got a second full-time job, so they could avoid losing the house. His son left college to come home, knowing his father was in deep depression. They started a little business aerating people's lawns. They weren't going to do that forever, but he got his father out of the house, doing physical work, in the sunshine, meeting people, getting a good wage at the end of the day, feeling sore and feeling his body again. Mainly, it changed the relationship between the father and the son. He realized he was of real value to his son, not just as a provider. They became best friends. That gave him the self-confidence to then go back out and revisit his contacts and eventually get a better job than the one he got fired from.

I think that selling ice cream on the beach might be all somebody might feel like doing if they had major health problems and have to drop out. I think it's more likely, however, for someone who has been more active, that a small business service is likely to be a transition to something more substantial.

Bert: Something more fulfilling and less limited.

One of the other themes that you bring out in your book is gender crossover. There are a couple of other, mythopoetic perspectives on that, so the topic is already familiar to our readers. Robert Bly has an audio-tape on that, called "The Red, the White and the Black." He uses the colors as poetic terms. Typically, men begin in the Red phase. Through their adolescence and their productive years, they're "out there" and they're fiery. Aggressive. When they reach middle age they move over into the White phase and become more passive, more receptive, and more nurturing.

He contrasts that with women, who begin in the White phase and at middle age move into the Red phase, more aggressive and "out there." More in the world. You use Margaret Meade's term, "post-menopausal zest."

Gail: I've been talking about the "sexual diamond" ever since I wrote Passages, over 20 years ago. The concept is that during the first ten years men and women are very similar. They differentiate radically at puberty and reach the farthest extent of their differences in their 30s and 40s, then begin to come back together in their 50s and 60s. I say to audiences that men as they age become more nurturing and more in need of nurturing, more interested in being creative and collaborative and more aware of their surroundings. Women age in the opposite direction, becoming more focused, aggressive, managerial and political. When I say this, I always see males and females nod their heads quite furiously. That does seem to capture a reality that people can recognize, if not in themselves, then in their parents and grandparents.

Bert: In a sense, this reflects an ancient theme. Allan Chinen wrote a book Once Upon a Midlife. It's a wonderful collection of absolutely hilarious fairy tales from around the world.

Gail: Yes, I've read that. That's the one that gets into the Trickster a lot?

Bert: Yes. He talks about the same thing, men going more into Trickster/Shaman mode. He has a couple of tales in there, specifically about gender reversal, where the woman goes out and takes the place of the king or the hero.

Gail: I'll have to go back and take a look at some of those tales. The woman takes the place of the hero or the tyrant?

Bert: Not the tyrant, the one who saves the day. She uses more feminine skills, but she's the one who takes on the tyrant king or the giant. Through the use of her middle-age feminine skills, she wins the day through something other than the use of brute force.

Gail: That's really interesting. I can certainly relate to that. But I also think that he might be cheering her on, or nurturing and supporting her and offering strategies.

Bert: Some of those work that way, but in others he doesn't have the good sense to do that. He does the old macho thing, which is not the wrong and stupid thing to do. Part of what makes these tales funny is the trouble that he gets himself into if he's not willing to change roles from the macho to the nurturing and supporting, and move into belief and trust.

Gail: I think this is a tiny little example, but I think it's funny. On a book tour one of the major obligatory stops now is to do the G. Gordon Liddy show. I don't know about you, but G. Gordon Liddy seemed to me to be a terminal macho-loving, woman-bashing kind of man. What I call in the book a RAM, a resurgent, angry macho male. But I don't think he's resurgent, I think he's always been that way. I wondered how I was going to handle this interview, live in the studio with him for an hour.

Bert: And he's going to hold his hand over the candle flame and impress you with how he doesn't flinch.

Gail: Right. Exactly. The last thing you want to do is to take him on in a competitive or confrontational way, which another male might want to do. I immediately reached back into old feminine wiles. He's completely bald, with very prominent, bushy eyebrows and a prominent bushy mustache. So I asked him during the first break, "Did you shave your head to look sexier?" as I smiled at him. He said, "Well, no, I shaved it when I started to lose my hair." I said, "But, it contrasts in such a virile way with the big, bushy mustache and dark brows. It looks like you really did it to look more masculine." Well, he just totally melted. I thought, "Gail, you are shameless." But it completely changed the tone of the interview and he was like a pussycat from then on. And in the next break he told me his testosterone level. It's just a little tale about using your feminine skills to de-fang the tyrant.

One of the things that is the most positive about gender crossover is that couples who can accept that this is a natural process that takes place can take advantage of it. Women have to change their attitudes about this crossover just as much as men do. Women, having been socialized to be provided for, can now find themselves in a position to be helpful in a practical way. They can give him a rest period while they bring in some of the income, before he launches fully into this second adulthood.

Bert: You also mention in your book some scientific evidences about actual changes in brain chemistry in men and women as they age.

Gail: The physical structure of the brain changes. I don't know how to decode what this means, but the male brain develops rather asymmetrically, then as he ages the right brain decreases in size and the brain structure becomes more like that of a female. The reverse is true for women. They become less symmetrical and the right brain increases in size. It suggests that there are very, very basic physiological and neurochemical changes in men and women, from what they were when younger.

One of the most hopeful messages in the book, I think, is the documented evidence that the brain can continue to grow, even an older and developed brain, provided it remains in a highly stimulating environment.

Bert: It's a matter of "use it or lose it."

Gail: I don't think people think about mental fitness and doing mental exercises every day. When you fly and sit in first class, as you do on a book tour because the publisher is paying, you always seeing people reading, working on their computer or doing a crossword puzzle. You don't see a lot of people napping, or reading potboiler novels. Down here in Florida, where I am now, you see a real contrast between people out on the golf course or sitting in front of the TV, and people playing serious contract bridge exercising their mind numerically or learning from their grandkids how to surf the net and take in information. I think that's very important, and very possible for both men and women.

Bert: I wanted to take a minute to clarify something about your book. You spend a lot of time talking about the rich and the famous, and what happens when they're downsized. And in some of your other examples you describe what the course is for middle-management types. What about the ordinary guy?

Gail: There are ordinary guys in the book, like Joe O'Dell, the lab technician we were talking about. I don't think everybody in the book is high-class or famous. But these are the men who tended to come out to look at their lives, and to attend these discussions. In this country it's always the middle- and upper-middle class people who are the pace-setters, who do have the time and the education, and some affluence, to make changes in their lives. They're also the ones I talked about in my first book, Passages. They set the pace, and then five or ten years later working class people generally follow in their footsteps. Certainly Passages outlined what has become a fairly widely accepted concept of adult developmental stages that everybody goes through. It's widely taught in colleges and universities around the country. People come up to me all the time to talk to me about the impact it's had on their lives. This includes waiters, baggage handlers, teachers in high school and lots of different kinds of people.

I think the principles here apply pretty well across the board. I can't prove that now, but I can say from past experiences that Passages, Pathfinders, New Passages and The Silent Passage all seem to have been useful guides for all kinds of people. It's just that the people who turn up for research like this are those who have a little more time on their hands. I did some outreach, especially to try to reach blue-collar workers who were going back to community college in midlife. It's true that men who go back to school in midlife aren't as welcomed, in the sense that they find it harder to get financial aid. They're expected to be working. They also find it more difficult to explain to themselves or people what they're doing. People tend to think that if he leaves his job and goes back to school, he must have been fired. That's a big stigma. At first, many of the men felt foolish for being in the position of being a student again. Their stance in the world was that they were already grown-up. But, just like the case of women, if they stayed with it they would get really turned on from the excitement of learning again, not just learning something instrumental.

I think, too, that men who have been in the civil service, which represents a huge number of Americans, basically do their 20 years of duty and get mustered out. They have as much a chance as anybody, or perhaps a better chance, to plan and prepare for a second adulthood, because they know they're going to get their pension and finish their career at a certain age. And it's at a very young age, in their 40s. Rather than following the plan their fathers so often followed, going to Florida to retire, sit around and do a little real estate, they have both the social permission and the pre-warning that this time of redirection is going to come to them.

Bert: To sum it all up, what in a nutshell would you say was the central thesis of your book?

Gail: Men often feel dread in facing midlife, and resist change. They don't often talk about their doubts and their dreams. My purpose is to suggest that they have time for inventing a whole second adulthood and pursuing a passion that will enliven all the extra years they now have to live. I wrote the book to encourage men to undertake a process of changing, growing and new learning. I wrote the book as a guide to self-discovery for men, but also for their partners, to help them understand what questions to ask and how to be helpful.


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