I’ve been pondering on a couple of articles I read lately. In Aging while female is not your worst nightmare, Lori Day poignantly describes the impact of ageism – summing it up in these words:
“The wisdom that comes with age has little value to anyone but those possessing it, because wisdom is another word for old, and old is what no one wants to be.”
I remember my mother talking about feeling like she wasn’t heard, at meetings, interacting with sales clerks, and even in groups of friends. She was much older than 50 when it happened to her, but she was frustrated and indignant. Often, it was that thing that happens to all women sometimes – Mom would be in a meeting, she’d suggest something, and no one would say anything. Five minutes later, someone younger, or male, would suggest it and suddenly everyone thinks it’s a great idea. It used to drive her crazy.
But at least Mom gave me advance notice. I knew this was coming someday. Day, who is 51 or 52, bemoans the fact that no one warned her.
“I’m looking at perhaps three more decades of my life that will be shaped to some degree by not only misogyny, but by the intersection of misogyny and ageism. That’s a whole bunch of years I never gave the slightest thought to when I was younger. No older woman ever demanded that I think about the fact that it would eventually happen to me. No one asked that I care about it, respond to it, and recognize the unfairness of what can sometimes feel like a one-way feminist street.”
She ends the article with a call to action:
“Let’s stick together. Let’s make a conscious effort to stop putting down older women to set oneself apart from them and from an inevitable form of bigotry that cannot presently be escaped.”
Then I read this article. Women Over 50 are Invisible? I Must Have Missed the Memo. Erica Jagger challenges the narrative that aging brings a new level of discrimination. She says:
“I could look at myself and see a middle-aged, cash-strapped, over-worked, and occasionally overwrought single mom. OR I could see a survivor who shed her Stepford Wife shell and now isn’t letting anyone dictate how she should live, who she should date, or what kind of sex she should have.”
She attributes her sense of well-being, despite being 52, to her attitude.
“Shrugging off society’s death knell to mature women takes audacity, something every 50-plus woman needs if she doesn’t want to go gently into that good night. Feeling invisible stems less from one’s appearance, and more from the value we put on other people’s often shallow judgments of middle-aged women. I think it’s my refusal to listen to the messages telling me I’ve passed my expiration date, and my determination to create a brilliant second act, that makes me seem younger than my years.”
So I’ve been pondering these articles and my own experience, thinking about the women I know, and trying to figure out where I stand. I think…
Fifty is not actually old. It may be the beginning of the crone stage of life, but just barely. At 50, I began to celebrate life. I realized that I really could do anything I wanted, without seeking anyone’s approval or permission. I took risks and made life changing decisions.
In my 50’s, I grew into myself. If something didn’t work out, I quit doing it and tried something different. I spoke up and spoke out (not that I was exactly shy and inhibited before) and I expanded my world.
But I also remember being 35 and in graduate school. In the middle of class, some older woman would raise her hand and I would roll my eyes, thinking, ‘Here we go again,” as she started a long and slightly off-topic tale of her experiences. I felt bad for doing it. I did. But sheesh. This woman (and there was more than one of her) had a story for every single situation, you know? Being old doesn’t automatically confer wisdom or make all your words golden and not every occasion has to be a sharing opportunity.
I’m almost 60. Well, just turned 59 – same thing. My life is super good – I have a career I love, with enough variety to keep me happy. I live with my partner, who I love. He’s fun and interesting, and we’re comfortable with each other. We have enough money to cover all our needs and many of our wants. I have delightful friends, who I enjoy; activities that keep me busy and are rewarding. I have amazing grandchildren, and even though one of my daughters lives very far away, we’re still close, and thank goodness, we live in the age of Skype and air travel.
I would not trade any part of my life for a chance to be younger. It took me 59 years to get here, and I have no desire to go back to being 40 or 30 or 20 – and, absolutely-no-way-in-hell, not a teenager.
So I’m not young. I’m a crone, and proud of it, but just beginning to come to terms with it. I don’t quite know what it means yet, or how I will grow into it.
Some thoughts I consider:
1. It’s ok to need help. (I know, of course it is. Particularly if it’s you that needs help, and not me – it’s totally ok for you.)
2. Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I have to.
3. It’s ok for other people to figure things out for themselves. Even if I already “know” the answer.
4. Sometimes, my right answer is not actually the right answer.
5. No matter how wise I am, not everyone is obliged to listen to me or agree with me. It’s up to me to say the things I think need to be said. I don’t have to make anyone hear me.
6. It’s ok if someone explains something to me that I already know. Even if I learned it the hard way, before they were born. It’s ok to just agree with them. I don’t always “already know,” and they can’t read my mind.
8. I am headed toward death. Seriously. People my age die all the time and only old people say, “But they were so young!” If I get to die without a long layover in dementia, I’ll consider myself lucky.
I’ve noticed that as we age, often, we simplify. We move to smaller places, strip our homes of everything except the most necessary or treasured belongings.
Maybe we strip our egos too, gradually scale down from strong active leader to wise consultant. From star to supporting character. Maybe our voices need to become softer so that other people can find their own voices, so they’ll be ready to carry on without us.
I’m not there yet – let me be clear – I’m not stepping aside right now. Life still has plenty of challenges and surprises for me. But I am letting go of some things, and feeling ok about it. Working on figuring out how the “growing old” thing works.
I can almost envision a time of being truly retired. Maybe not til I’m 80, but someday. I’ll take a leisurely walk on the beach every morning, read for sheer pleasure, and enjoy all the small moments. I won’t have a long to-do list to put off doing. If anyone wants my advice, they’ll have to email me, or call, or come visit. They’ll have to ask me what I think.
I’ll spend time with loved ones, family and friends. Maybe I’ll write, or volunteer to read at a nursing home or kindergarten. I’ll have little projects that will enrich my life without any effort to change the world – and do it content in the knowledge that y’all young people are out there working hard at all the things that matter.
That doesn’t sound so bad.