The Late Show

updated 07/31/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/31/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

To her admirers, Gail Sheehy is the great demystifier who has guided several generations of men and women through life journeys fraught with psychic surprises. In her 1976 bestseller Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, she focused on the teenage years, the 20s, 30s and midlife. In 1992 she updated the subject of menopause in The Silent Passage. Sheehy's latest book, New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time (Random House, $25), concentrates on the years after age 50—which the author calls a second adulthood. Inspired by statistics showing that in the next 20 years some 76 million baby boomers will turn 50, and based on more than 500 one-on-one interviews, New Passages has been praised by fans for illuminating the issues of later life in an understandable way. Sheehy's critics, on the other hand, accuse her of reducing science to trendy psychobabble. In a review in The New York Times on July 18, Janet Maslin wrote that New Passages, rife with glib labels for each stage of life, contains "enough catch-alls to suggest the Age of Assigning Cute Names is one more distinct phase." Sheehy replies, "Memorable names help us to remember what is amorphous and hard to grasp. "Apparently they also increase sales. The book has risen to the top of the bestseller list.

Now 57, Sheehy is the mother of two daughters—Maura, 31, by Sheehy's first husband, and Mohm, 24, a Cambodian refugee she adopted—and lives in New York City with her husband of 10 years, Clay Felker, former editor and publisher of New York magazine. She spoke with correspondent Nancy Matsumoto.

What is the evidence for a "second adulthood"?

I started out researching life after 50, where Passages left off, but I soon learned there had been a revolution in the adult life cycle: People were taking longer to grow up and longer to die. Some 30-year-old men still live at home with Mom, and there are 40-year-old women who are having children for the first time. A nursing home director told me, "Two decades ago I used to have 40-year-olds bringing in their 60-year-old parents. Now 60-year-olds bring in their 90-year-old parents." So I felt that the territory after 50 could only be understood in the context of such changed passages.

Did you recognize this shift in your own life?

Yes. From my mid-40s to my early 50s, I went from the pits to the peak, as many women do. I thought that writing this book would be a process of resigning myself, of surrendering things that had been precious to me about my young adulthood. Instead, I looked back and realized I'd been through a series of little victories over little deaths—of marriage, of love relationships, of illusions about life or career. And, having come over the hump of menopause, I felt more energetic than I did 10 years ago. First adulthood just happens to you. You have the chance to custom-design your second adulthood, but it helps if you are aware enough to plan for it.

Are women over 50 happier today than when you wrote Passages?

Yes. Women have been increasing their mental health and well-being over each generation, and now the majority in their 50s feel the greatest well-being of any stage in their lives. This is a real turnaround for them. Not long ago the crisis was about the empty nest or about being dumped. Today divorced women between their mid-40s and 50s are more resistant to remarriage than men of the same age. At this stage they have graduated from pleasing others to following their own passions.

Why do men in their 50s often find themselves adrift?

They can no longer define themselves as they did in first adulthood: as up-and-comers in their field, athletes or sexual conquerors. This is one reason why men are more vulnerable to heart attacks. Many resist making a passage into second adulthood. They go pedal-to-the-metal until something blows, then they say, "I guess I can't take my health for granted anymore." The Samson Complex, I call it.

Therapists tell me that middle-aged men are the new at-risk population for depression. Like women, men need a new dream. I see it as the transition from competing to connecting.

You talk of Great Postponers—women desperate to conceive later in life. Are they misguided?

No. I am just saying that with technological advances, the outer boundary of childbearing has been blurred. So many women think they can put off dealing with the conflict between children and career until their 40s. But that's often too late to produce a successful first-time pregnancy. Some women delay childbearing because they have not yet found stable relationships. Many have never really learned about intimacy. I found that women in their 20s today are taking heed from childless older women's disappointments and saying, "Well, it may set my career back, but I'm not going to wait that long."

Some critics accuse you of glossing over the real difficulties of aging.

Getting yourself into the second adulthood is not easy. It's difficult. It is about allowing yourself to experience this little psychic death and not trying to deny that you're moving into another stage. But society has always focused on the deficits, not on the gains. Today these far outweigh the losses.

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