Ladies, I want to talk.
At age 47, I think that I’m supposed to feel invisible, or perhaps become part of the supporting cast, but never the leading lady in my own life. I think I’m supposed to stand back and watch my long-legged, glossy haired, filled-with-potential daughter shine, supporting her by staying in the background but not taking up too much attention. I’m to keep my nose down, getting things done, running my little household and managing my life, without making much of a fuss. I’m too old to be a fresh faced power hungry career climber with a bridal blush to her skin, but not old enough to be a sweet, wrinkly grandma (not even the kind who takes her grandkids on sections of the Pacific Crest Trail or down the ski slopes on vacations while the kids’ parents go on a vacation). That’s what I’m told, anyway, in messages subtle and screaming. I’m a side character in the roles I see: the hero is not a 47 year old woman, so I get the role of the mother in the background, the stepmom, the colleague, the woman on the street, or, if I’m lucky, the plucky friend with spunk.
You know I’m not agreeing to any of that.
What I see of forty-and-fifty-something women in the media is….very little. Sometime after forty or forty-five, women are relegated to a new category, one in which they seem to be simply set aside to support those around them. This is not news: there are long lists of complaints about how female actors are discarded when their looks fade. The covers of most of the magazines no longer represent us; we’ve seen lots of the new fashions before and we’re amused to look back on our photos of how ridiculous they were the first time, and we know that the sleek black sheath may not be exciting but also won’t make us moan “what was I thinking?” in five or ten years. Besides, though I know lots of fashionable women, the forty-somethings I know have a lot on their minds, and whether they have this season’s “it” look is pretty low on that list. Folks, we’ve got global warming, kids on Snapchat, an eye on the corner office, and we’ve got to be in time for pickup from soccer.
This middle place is largely ignored by, well, everyone. In this middle part of my life, I’m slightly shocked that I don’t have a lot of guides to tell me how it works. I can’t find myself in mainstream media: I have more important things to think about than having a Pinterest worthy laundry room (a staple feature of magazines geared towards my demographic), I’m not looking for creative kid crafts for the holidays (my teenage daughter would simply roll her eyes), and nothing about AARP speaks to me or my life. I’m trying to navigate salary negotiations in a world where I know that I make and average of 20% less than my male peers, and I’m mad as hell about it (and so are lots of other women), but I don’t have anyone showing me how to correct it, for myself or society. I don’t hear a voice saying “Like this. Watch me.” I had hoped that Sheryl Sandburg would lead me there, but though I love her intentions, I don’t have a staff, and I don’t have the supportive husband that she did when she wrote her book, and without those things I’m not at all sure how to be a great mom, keep a house that isn’t squalor, avoid gaining 20 pounds from being sedentary, and still lean in.
And here’s the thing. I do not feel old, washed up, and done. I do not feel like a side character. I am not boring, used up, or anywhere near completion of my hero’s journey. I’ve got stuff to do.
And I’m doing it.
I know a lot of women who are like me: women who, now that they’re not leaking breast milk and scraping peanut butter that somehow embedded in the thighs of their pantlegs when they were getting ready to head out the door, are more vibrant than they’ve been in a decade. Lots of them, like me, took a step back from work to do the heavy lifting of parenting, and now they’re surging ahead again. Lots of them, like me, are getting more physical than ever, rediscovering the joys of skiing or kayaking or backpacking now that their kids can either join them or just spend the night at a friend’s house while mom goes off on an adventure. Some of them never lost a stride in their careers, because they didn’t have kids or they had money for a team to help or a partner (more rare than I hoped) to manage the kids while they kept going; others are picking up where they left off and surprised at how satisfying it is, even with the challenge of juggling home and work.
In my forties, I have friends who are summiting mountains for the first time, writing novels, chairing the boards of nonprofits. They are running marathons, organizing communities, politically active. They manage a staff. They are fantastic cooks, they grow incredible vegetables, they remodel their own houses, and they know what products work best on their hair. They’ve got the perfect dress to wear to weddings, and another one for funerals. They’ve amassed some incredible friendships and when it’s 2am and the sky is falling, they know who to call. They’ve kicked cancer’s ass, and have the scars to prove it. They’ve suffered unbearable losses – deaths, miscarriages, divorce, chronic illness – but every day they get out of bed and get out into the world and persistently make a difference, laugh at themselves, and show up anyway. And they know that one woman doesn’t need to be the perfect board chair, marathoner, mountain climber, novelist, chef, remodeler, and that they get to pick what they want to do and screw the rest.
Some of them are married to high school sweethearts and madly in love, some of them never got married, some of them are just trying not to flinch when they think of their husbands, some of them are divorced, and some of them have new loves that are blowing their minds. Their stories are filled with men….but they are the center of their own stories, not the men.
They’ve been passed over for promotions AND awarded the jobs, and they’re mad as hell that they’re paid less than their male colleagues. Some days, between the crazy boss and the eye rolling teenager and the husband who sometimes seems clueless, they really think they’re going to lose it. But they crank up the tunes, they put their shoulders back, and they make life happen anyway. Most weeks, they even manage to carve out time to laugh with a friend over a glass of wine, or on a hike, or at a restaurant with a great wine list.
We are in the middle. We’re not just starting out, with the hope and optimism and fear of young adulthood. Likely, things haven’t worked out as we planned AT ALL, but we’re still here, and we’re feisty, and there’s new optimism. Okay, sometimes we’re tired and at 9pm all we want is a book and bed….but we know how to get things done, and we make things happen, and we’re nowhere near the finish line.
They are us. We’re the main characters of our own lives, and we aren’t society’s sidekicks. Depending on the hour, we’re academics or athletes, maternal or magnates, exuberant or exhausted. We’re making it happen, and we aren’t slowing down, because we might be tired but we are too busy to slow down. We’ve got life to live!
I think that middle aged women are taking over the world at the moment, actually. I think that’s a good idea, and I think that history will prove me right. We’re rolling up our sleeves, and working harder than ever before.
Middle age is where the REALLY good stuff happens. I’m sure of it… despite it all!