What it's all about
“What else are they other than old?” So asked a publisher to a young writer portraying older characters (Ceridwen Dovey 2015, The New Yorker); and what else are we - women who are no longer young but still a couple of decades away from being old? Rarely centre-stage, mid-life women are frequently portrayed in literature and media alike as bitter, lonely figures, no longer needed by our children, largely absent from the workplace, frequently deserted for a younger model, or just plain mad (if not all of these a la Bertha Rochester).
It's no surprise then that we are barraged with advice on how to age better. Drink less, exercise more, eat our way younger. Whatever it is we are, it is not good enough. It needs to be hormonally or surgically enhanced. Or else it must be hidden (older women should dye their hair and never give their age on their CV) and denied (the end of fertility is something to be postponed for as long as possible). Bad-ass role models are few and far between. Debbie Harry and Madonna spring to mind, but whilst great theirs is not a lifestyle or look that many of us can pull off. More soberly, Laura Wade-Gery, who was much publicised for holding both a top job at M&S and a first time baby at 50, soon disappeared from full time corporate life into the land of portfolio career (ie part-time roles for serious hitters) and motherhood.
I for one need bad-ass in moderation, a role-model to suit my mum-to-easily-embarrassed-teenagers, used-to-have-a-big-career-but sort-of-got-lost persona. And I’m sure I’m not alone. Inspired by a recent Woman’s Hour week-long focus on women’s experience of the menopause, I want to hear more voices of women of my generation. There were lots of different stories around the menopause, but those women who seized the moment to make real changes in their lives stuck out the most. Refusing to be crushed by their body’s changes and sometimes the difficult situations they encountered, they sought and found greater freedom and contentment.
Giving voice to women’s experiences of real life has value at many levels. It fills the literature and media void and it enables them to be better understood and less invisible. With visibility comes greater power. Women are increasingly present at ever higher levels in the workplace and organisations are on a steep learning curve to adapt their cultures so that they can thrive within them. Women remain principal carers for children and ageing parents and are experts on reconciling competing demands on their time. Older mid-life women are veterans of the long battle for recognition of our contribution to society, which is far from won. In the workplace they experience being underrepresented and underpaid, whilst women at home have no economic value or social status attached to their work. Those who try to do both have to battle with feelings that they succeed at neither. In all cases, we have learned to exist in a culture where women’s bodies seem to be more significant than their minds, making them more redundant as they age.
In short, women have a lot to contribute. In this blog, I’ll be offering up my thoughts about and experience of navigating my 6th decade live as it happens, thinking about all that has gone before, both professionally and personally, and what lies ahead. I want to look beyond traditional stereotypes to start a conversation that allows the voices of real women in their 50s to be heard and celebrated. I hope you’ll join in.