Frequently after I have talked about the challenging changes and opportunities that are confronting women at a lecture, a man will come up to me and say, "Why don't you do your next book about men? We are going through a lot of the same transitions that women are." To which I always reply that a book about men in Second Adulthood has to be written by a man. My main credential for explaining things is that I am on the same trajectory as the women I write about. It would be presumptuous to try to explain men to men.
Even so, I have learned a thing or two about men while researching and writing "How We Love Now: Women Talk About Intimacy After Fifty" -- from women and from men themselves, and from those who have spoken up or written some of the over 1,000 comments on my blogs (about women's sexuality in particular). It is certainly true that men are going through big changes as they move through their fifties and sixties; like us, their hormones are adjusting, their careers are taking a new direction, their parenting days are over, their marriages are going to have to adjust to new circumstances and the future looks very intimidating.
The differences are in how they perceive those challenges and what they want to do about them. For example, women need to find the courage to try new things, while men need the courage to imagine new ways of dealing with life.
Here are some other differences I believe need to be addressed by men among themselves:
• In terms of sexuality, men don't seem to know where to begin dealing with getting older. While many women are finding that menopause has freed them from the worries and ups and downs and inhibitions of their first adulthood sex lives, men seem to be hung-up on carrying on as they were. When a problem comes up, women experiment with alternative ways to find pleasure or look for medical explanations; men seem to give up -- it's the old way or no way.
In the exchanges my blogs have initiated, women are frequently reassuring men to be more innovative and affectionate, that performance is not all there is.
• Contemplating the future, which is a frightening but exciting prospect for women, is often a blank for men. We have become used to improvising our lives and coping with whatever comes up; men have been more single-minded. So when men talk to me about retirement, they assume it is about taking it easy and hanging around the house; women talk about second chances, going places. (This can be a real source of stress between partners.)
Leaving or being asked to leave a job is a blow to one's ego, but for men it can feel like the loss of identity altogether. I don't think men talk honestly about such things -- and they need to.
• They long for the support and understanding from friends that we count on to accompany us on the journey of aging. When I talk about women's friendships, women's faces light up -- yes, they say, those are among the most important intimate relationships in our lives. Men in the same audience look wistful; they envy us, but they don't know how to reach out to each other. One man spoke up and admitted that he has been hanging out with the same group of guys for years and he doesn't know what their favorite flavors of ice cream are; another found out about a friend's marital problems from his wife, despite the fact that they two men played golf regularly.
Several have confessed that they are at a loss since their wives died or divorced them; the onslaught of women who want to take their place is often less reassuring than terrifying.
• Parenting is never really over, emotionally or (especially these days) financially. Most adult children still get support from their parents. But the day-to-day interactions that have consumed a mother's consciousness are lifting, freeing her in terms of time and attention; to a lesser extent the same goes for fathers. Looking back, many men feel that they haven't been the parents they wanted to be -- they were too preoccupied with their work or just didn't feel they had the skills. A delightful development in this department, for both parents, is grandchildren. Many men find themselves absolutely besotted by the second chance at unconditional love; they never expected to be so devoted to the wonder of young humans and the joys of uninhibited play.
This new experience is just one of the opportunities for second chances, letting go of inhibitions, appreciating the profound gift of love and imagining a future that is as available to men as to women.
One of the important truisms of moving ahead into the new life stage that awaits us is that nothing changes if nothing changes. I sometimes feel that the men who are asking me to write a book are overwhelmed with the sense that change is all bad, all downhill. A very frightening prospect, and almost impossible to cope with alone. It's going to take some initiative on the part of some of these men to break through the defenses that keep them emotionally distant from each other and begin building the nurturing intimacy they envy in women's lives.