I don’t really know how to start this, as there are so many taboos and niceties banging against my consciousness, as a woman, as a feminist. But here it is: I’m nearly 52 and men don’t notice me any more and it turns out that I mind that quite a lot.
This new awareness was brought home to me at Easter whilst on holiday in the south of Italy. The first week I was staying with friends; middle-aged parents with young children and, fully released from the grief of childlessness I found I was able to open my heart to these children without any sadness surfacing. Wonderful. An unexpected joy. I had long hoped that one day being around children wouldn’t be so painful; I didn’t dare hope that it could be joyful. The second week, which I spent alone (as planned) so that I could write was also full of unexpected feeling, this time a new grief: the grief of ageing.
Vintage wine is savored. Vintage cars exclaimed over. Vintage clothes coveted. Yet the vintage woman remains uncelebrated. [Skylar Liberty Rose]
I’d been an au-pair in Rome for a life-changing year in my very early twenties, and somehow exposure to the dramatic southern Italian way of being a woman helped guide this gawky English girl into a more confident womanhood. In Rome there was a sense of admiration for women that was alien to my Anglo-Saxon upbringing and living around it woke something up in me. I came back to London after that year feeling that I’d got the best of both worlds: an English sensibility and feminist mindset topped with a froth of Italian bravura and polish. Subsequent visits to Italy over the years have always reminded me of this, and I’ve loved the way that Italian men were able to show me by their courteous behaviour and admiring looks that they appreciated my presence, in a way that British men simply couldn’t manage, unless you include the coarse and intimidating comments yelled at women from building sites.
Although I’ve been circumstantially and peacefully celibate for several years now, I did have it in my mind that perhaps I might, should the opportunity present itself, have a little dalliance with the opposite sex in Italy. It wasn’t a fully formed thought, more a ‘let’s see’ and I carried the idea lightly as I relish and cherish my single life after many years of partnership from fifteen to forty-five. I had an image in my mind of some of those films where middle-aged woman find love in Italy. But life isn’t a Hollywood film and the reality was that I discovered, to my shock, that I have become completely invisible to Italian men; that I had become ‘Signora’. And I realised that if I’d become invisible to Italian men, then I’d become invisible to men generally! I used to joke that all a woman had to do in Italy to get male attention was to wake up and have a pulse. I was wrong; she needed to be in her child-bearing years (even her infertile child-bearing years as I’d been.)
Since that holiday, I have tried to discuss this realisation with a couple of people and, with the exception of a few more reflective souls, most have seen it as me fishing for compliments about my looks: ‘No, that’s not true!’ they’ve exclaimed, in mock horror or, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, you’re still a lovely looking woman!’ and, of course, ‘But look at Helen Mirren… it’s perfectly possible for an older woman to be foxy…’ (The fact that I’ve never aspired to ‘foxy’ as long as they’ve known me suddenly irrelevant!) And yet, when I’ve pointed out to them that my looks weren’t what I was talking about, but rather about my feelings of loss as I come to terms with this part of my identity as a woman ebbing away, this loss of something ineffable which I’ve taken for granted, this loss as I shed the skin of youth and enter the new, and not-yet-known territory of my ‘young elderhood’, it’s as if they can’t hear me. I talk about the (very normal) menopausal weight gain around my middle which so effectively unconsciously signals my non-fertility to men and they cannot believe I am really talking about this, ‘Are you depressed? they say or, ‘Have you tried internet dating?’ The fact that I am not actually talking about wanting to be in a relationship, but about how differently I am seen by society, and men in particular, seems to get missed.
The tone of these conversations felt so familiar to me and then I realised why – it’s was like trying to talk about childlessness all over again.
One of the main reasons I stared writing this blog five years ago is because when I tried to talk about the pain, grief, isolation and devastation of my childlessness, people would say the same sort of things to me: ‘Oh, don’t worry, you’ll meet someone!’ or, ‘But you look so young for your age, you’ve got loads of time!’ or, ‘But look at Helen Mirren, she hasn’t got kids and she thinks it’s great…’ I gave up trying to talk about the difficult feelings of coming to terms with my childlessness because nobody could hear that I wasn’t asking for reasons to not give up hope; I was talking about what it felt like after you’d given up hope. The loss itself and finding my passage through it. I gave up in the end as it was like shouting into the wind.
Once again, it seems, by talking about the feelings of loss that ageing has stirred in me, I’m trying to have a conversation which is not socially acceptable, a social taboo even, because it involves irrevocable loss, the spectre of loneliness, the decline that leads to death. All the stuff we don’t want to think about or talk about.
Many of my friends and quite a few of my clients are dealing with very ill and dying parents and one of my contemporaries is in a coma, not expected to survive. My darling cat is getting on in years too, and often when I come in and she’s asleep I have a moment of anxiety followed by a flood of relief as I gently call her name and watch her consciousness flicker to life. I’ve taken up gardening with a passion and I think now I understand why older women love it: it’s good to be able to make something grow when so much around us is reminding us of death.
I’ve noticed that the media discourse around women ageing seems to fall into two camps: either it’s a disaster (which we could have avoided if we’d be more prudent) or it’s a carefree time of adventure (cue skydiving pensioners). It’s like the binary dichotomy of childless vs. childfree all over again! (Although the more women I meet without children, the more I understand that dichotomy to be false as so many of us exist on a continuum between the two). However, whichever one you are seen by others to belong to, disaster or adventure, it does seem to be about how you look predominantly. I had been collecting images of older women on a Pinterest board but after a while I began to notice that nearly all the images of naturally grey hair always seemed to sit atop very slim, attractive, Caucasian women in their 40s and 50s. I stopped pinning those, and instead felt drawn to the individualism of the ‘Advance Style’ brigade, but then that began to bother me too – a kind of ubiquitous ‘When I am Old I Shall Wear Purpleness’ eccentricity (inspired by Jenny Joseph’s poem) that isn’t me either. I’m not a flamboyant dresser now, why do I have to become one because I’m getting older? And my hairdresser tells me that if I get a head of silver hair, it won’t be till my seventies, so bang goes that look too.
Although I have never been particularly vain about my looks, I have lived since around the age of fifteen until recently in a body which, by the whims of history and culture, has been deemed ‘attractive’. I never claimed any credit for this accident of genes and, having never been admired or praised as a child for my looks (I was more used to be called ‘odd looking’) I found the attention bemusing and never took it terribly seriously. I was a bookish child and quite a serious young woman. Around the age of forty-five, when my last-chance-to-have-a-baby relationship ended, I was so relieved to be free of a very stressful relationship that being single was a relief. And from that inauspicious start I’ve discovered, to my delight, that the solo state suits me very well, much more so that I expected. But deep down, I’ve been holding on to an idea that if I wanted to be in a sexual/romantic relationship again, I could find one without too much difficulty (finding a good one, maybe not so easy!) What I hadn’t realised until Italy is that during those years from 45 to 52 as my hormones shifted from perimenopause to post-menopause, so had my phenomenal signals to the opposite sex and I’m shocked how much I much I minded, although I’m getting used to it. Writing this blog is part of getting used to it. It feels like I’m ‘coming out’ again, just like I did with childlessness. I feel vulnerable, worried what you will think: ‘How can she be so vain, so self obsessed?’, ‘Why is she worried about something so banal as her looks?’ David Hockney recently said that ‘your face belongs to other people’ but I don’t want them to have that power. I resent it even as I know my face has opened so many doors for me in my life.
I’m with Carrie Fisher who, whilst acknowledging that her youthful body had been key to her role as ‘Princess Leia’ in the original 1977 Star Wars, pushed back on Twitter against those who vilified her for having the temerity to appear on screen in the 2015 sequel as a older woman:
And it’s not all about sex, about the ‘male gaze’ either. It’s about being treated with respect as an ageing woman in a society which accords very little space for us, and only then if it involves being (or having once been) partnered: being a wife, a mother, a grandmother. The only socially acceptable roles for an older childless woman are to be an aunt or godmother, but once again these roles involve some kind of connection to the nuclear family order. Without that, things very quickly slide off into caricature and cruelty: the crazy cat lady, the witch, the dried up old maid, the frump, the harridan, the career woman, the sexless spinster. If a woman’s only currency within patriarchy is her youth/fertility (which is therefore at service to the ‘male line’) then once this window has closed, unless she’s involved with the care of the male line, she’s redundant. Hence the invisibility. It’s brutal and it’s basic and we can dress it up in as much empowering language as we want, but here is a nasty bit of conditioning to be faced, and through being faced, transcended.
We cannot change what we will not talk about.
There was a moment in Italy that summed it up for me: I was in a restaurant having dinner alone, quite at peace with that. I’d finished and wanted to get my bill but when I tried to get the waiter’s attention I couldn’t. I looked to my left and saw that at the reception desk just a few metres away, a woman in her late twenties was having a mildly animated conversation with the head waiter, and ‘my’ waiter was gravitating towards that. I noticed, almost anthropologically that there was a kind of mating ritual in progress and understood that until this had been concluded, neither of the young male waiters would notice my signals for the bill. I understood it as a biological fact and felt no rancour. And then the woman left, and the moment she did so I signalled for my bill again and they immediately saw me. She was still potentially fertile; I was not, and biology wins. Yes, I have other qualities; no, I do not define my value purely on biological terms. But in that moment it was all about biology, about hormones, about pheromones. It was as if the young men came out of a trance after she’d left and remembered where they were and what they did for a living. She was not an exceptionally beautiful young woman, and the exchange was not, to the casual observer, a highly charged flirtation. It was something much deeper, much less conscious…
All change, even good, hoped for change, involves loss. And whilst I’m looking forward to my elderhood and already enjoying the renewed mental clarity and emotional stability that being post-menopausal offers, letting go of my youthful self is bringing up a lot of grief. I know grief, I respect grief and I trust that this loving energy that has got me through so much change before will get me through this one too, and that on the other side is a reality that I can’t yet know, because I’m not that person yet.
I don’t need an ‘anti-ageing cream’ because I’m no more anti-age than I was anti-youth. Each has its time and its power. But now I understand why my mother’s generation called the menopause ‘the change’; because it comes with a powerful side-order of loss.
Later this month I’ll be part of the 2nd ‘Ageing Without Children’ conference organised by AWOC.org, an organisation I’m proud to be a founding member of and (unbelievably!) the only one speaking up for and supporting the 1 in 5 adults in the UK (men and women) ageing without children, as well as those estranged or geographically distanced from their children, or whose children have predeceased them. Ageing + childlessness = a double taboo, yet if we don’t get past the social injunctions not to think or talk about this, we can’t imagine and implement the many creative solutions there are. Please come along.
Ageing doesn’t have to be a disaster and somehow I’m sure that most of us who are the skydiving types will have done it already, but I feel there’s a lot of wiggle room in-between these banal social caricatures. And it’s that in-between space that I’m aiming for as I do my best to transition mindfully into my ‘young elderhood’. And no doubt once that’s complete, once I’ve shed the skin of youth and have embodied what comes after, it’ll be time to shed that skin too and move into the next stage. And I’m sure I’ll have worked out what to wear by then. I just know it won’t be purple. It’s never suited me.