When my grandmother was in her fifties she described herself as an old woman. My mother, at the same age, talked of soon being ‘over the hill’. Physiologically, I’m no more youthful than my mother and grandmother were at 50, but I crossed that threshold in a slinky red dress and came home from my party to plan a bright new decade. Does this prove that age is nothing but a state of mind? Well … yes and no.
The consciousness of the time imposed constraints on my grandmother’s thinking. In the context of war, loss and limitation, donning a red silk dress at what she considered to be a ripe old age would have been about as likely as flying to Mars. It’s not the dress that matters, of course, but what it symbolises: a mindset that embraces choice, change and possibility, laughing uproariously at the notion that life is almost over.
Women over 40 are entering the ‘powerful years’, according to visiting American lecturer Nancy Kline, author of Time to Think: listening to ignite the human mind (Ward Lock), but to make the most of them, we need to examine the beliefs we hold about ageing.
We need to rid ourselves of the idea that youth and beauty are synonymous and that our worth diminishes with each passing year. Instead, we must become aware of our influence, and develop self-esteem and confidence in our abilities.
Well, you can’t fault that advice, can you? I was just warming up to Nancy when she asked, ‘What’s the best thing about being a woman?’ Delegates offered variations on the themes of ‘motherhood’, ‘intuition’ and ‘dressing up’ but Nancy’s choice was ‘the vagina’. She lost me right there.
It’s not that I disapprove of the vagina – mine has served me well. But I do disapprove of it becoming a definition of worth. Can you imagine the howls of derision from the sisterhood if men, confronted with the same question, chose to brandish their penises?
It’s true that we need to value ourselves more, but it’s time we stopped jockeying for gender superiority and got on with the business of becoming better people, whatever our plumbing. That means focusing less on externals and more on an internal dialogue around what is important.
Ageing is inevitable, but it’s not accurate to pretend to be ecstatic each time we spot another piece of sagging flesh. Along with the wrinkles round my eyes, I’ve developed a bullshit detector as I’ve aged, and it sounded loudly as enthusiastic delegates announced their age (‘I’m Mary, 42’) and added, ‘And I can’t wait to be 62!’
That really isn’t the point. The challenge of ageing is to be comfortable with exactly who we are, right now, because it is the actions and thoughts of today that create what will be tomorrow. But to do that, and to accept and enjoy our status as older women, requires that we integrate what has gone before. And that means facing some painful truths: we will never again be young and flawless; we may no longer be able to bear children. Perhaps there are unfulfilled dreams to release; or sadness to resolve around choices that precluded the kind of life we’d hoped for. If we are to move into a healthy and powerful state of well being, it’s appropriate to reflect on and grieve for the things that biology and circumstance have now ruled out as possibilities, and, having seen them clearly for what they are, move on.
There’s satisfaction in this sifting and sorting and coming to terms with the past. It results in a sense of right timing and sharper discernment. We are able to say, ‘this is a worthy cause on which to expend my precious life force, and that dead-end job, destructive relationship or useless thought pattern is not worthy of my time’. Perhaps this is the beginning of wisdom.
So, from my vantage point on the summit of the hill (definitely not over it) I see the consequences of past choices, but I also see options for the next cycle, fanning out like enticing paths through the trees. I see that time, while not yet running out, is a non-renewable resource that must be used wisely, but that there is no right or wrong in the path I choose to follow; only the conviction that it is right for me.
I see women over 40 starting families, changing careers and indulging in all kinds of spacious and creative thinking. What a privilege, to sit on this green hill and survey vistas that granny never contemplated.
Published in Femina Magazine, August 2007