I heard from an old friend the other day, someone I’d not seen or spoken to since we graduated from the same alternative, artsy high school in the mid-1980s. We did the rapid exchange of information that goes with these reunions – university? married? children? career? travel? happy?
After a few minutes of chatting, my friend interjected that, in fact, she wasn’t happy at all. She said: “I feel like I just handed my brain and my soul over to some alternate, evil universe, and now I’m trying to find some kind of fishing reel that reaches that far into space to find the thing and bring it back to my body.”
I’ve heard a lot of women say things like this recently, and I’ve spent at least some of the last few years feeling this way myself. I know it’s not a fashionable thing to admit. Tracey Emin said something similar – she described the menopause as ‘an absolute nightmare’ that ‘makes you feel slightly dead’ – and she was immediately slapped down by columnists who wanted her to stop whinging and tell women about the joys of middle age instead. (“In fact it feels more like a new beginning,” Joanna Moorhead wrote, “a time of fresh opportunities and unexplored directions.”)*
I know we’re not supposed to talk about it, but some women of a particular age aren’t feeling this excitement about the future. And it seems to me there has to be some space where it’s acceptable to explore this, where we can speak up and say that a lot of women – creative, intelligent, warm, and otherwise resilient women – are asking questions like, Where is the life I imagined for myself? How did I get here? Who stole my mojo? And how the hell do I get it back?
For many of my contemporaries, midlife is being experienced as a time of multiple loss. By definition, we’re confronting the loss of our youth, and if it were just that, most of us would probably have the resources to adjust (although I do wish I’d known that leaving our younger days behind might feel in practice like becoming invisible. Personally, I’ve never been bothered by wrinkles or other obvious effects of aging. What I mind is that having wrinkles appears to mean I am, necessarily, of lesser value than a person who does not have them.)
By the time we’re menopausal, we’re also tackling the loss of our childbearing potential, a loaded concept given how embedded issues of fertility are in most women’s identities. Even if we’re able to view the menopause in relatively positive terms – by waving an ecstatic goodbye to our need for contraception, maybe – it remains the case that our bodies have been overtaken by hormonal storms. And while we’re talking about bodies, do we still recognise ours? Friends have lost breasts, gall bladders, and brain tumours to illnesses that have struck them once they’ve turned forty.
At the same time that we’re hitting middle age, our children are mostly getting ready to leave home. Many of my friends who took a few years out of their careers to enjoy their children while they still had them, are now finding the path back to employment is not as open as they imagined it would be. After only a few years at home, many are finding they can no longer compete on the job market.
Some of us have lost our parents and are grieving not only for them but also for the passing of our childhoods. (It’s strange, because in truth I hadn’t been able to rely on my mother for a long time, not least because of Alzheimer’s Disease, but it wasn’t until she died last year that I suddenly felt singularly responsible for my own life, with no safety net.)
Many of my friends have recently lost partners through infidelity and divorce, and very few of them saw that coming. Others, who stayed single until their forties, talk about how they’ve “settled for” rather than “settled down”. They settled for a salesman when they’d hoped for a surgeon; or they settled for a sexless marriage when they’d longed for passion; or they settled for a man they didn’t really respect, because everyone else was already married, and they were running out of time, and they’d lost faith in the idea of true love a long time ago anyway.
“I’m just not living at all the life I dreamed for myself.” That’s another thing my high-school friend said. And despite chirpy Guardian columnists, I think she is speaking for a lot of women when she expresses that. Maybe it’s just the people I know, but there seems to be an endemic loss of mojo among many of my contemporaries.
These feelings are familiar to me not only because I’ve shared them, but also because I recognise them in my memories of my mother. The expression she perpetually wore, that infuriated me as a teenager, that said she had checked out early, that she’d had enough, that this life hadn’t turned out the way she hoped and now she was waiting for the next one – I realise now this was the expression of someone who had been overwhelmed by too many losses.
We were supposed to avoid our mother’s fates, weren’t we? We were smarter, more creative, better educated, more determined, more liberated. We were feminists, with higher expectations, we would demand better for ourselves, we would go out into the world and be brave and fabulous and successful, and we would never, ever turn out to be living lives that looked suspiciously and terrifyingly like our mothers’.
When most people hear the term “midlife crisis”, what they picture is a balding man in ridiculous clothes driving a recently acquired sports car with his twenty-something girlfriend in the passenger seat. This isn’t really what I mean by a midlife crisis. The women I know are too self-aware for that. They are painfully self-aware.
Maybe this is why I’m holding out some hope for them, and for the rest of my generation. We were a talented, imaginative, and magnificent bunch when we graduated from school, and I believe we still are. Despite the hard times and the loss we’ve experienced, despite the depression, paralysis and invisibility that have infected many of us, I still believe we can stand back up. Tracey Emin said something else in her Guardian interview, after she talked about menopause as the beginning of dying. She suggested there was a very simple way to avoid this: “You have to. . . just wake yourself up.” And while it might sound invalidating or even fatuous, I still think she is right.
When I hear the term “midlife crisis”, I think about my demoralised friends and I picture them sleeping. They’re just having a little rest, to regain their strength after so many battles. Like Dorothy and her companions in the Wizard of Oz, they came to a field of poppies and knew they were exhausted. So they decided to shut their eyes and take a little nap.
But it’s time to wake up now, because the world’s gone to hell in a handbasket while we’ve been snoozing. And no matter that we’re forty-something, we should still know that we can change it. We already know that the wizard’s going to turn out to be a fake, and so we’ll have to save ourselves if we’re going to get through this. But this should be no problem, because the things we need to find – courage, brains and a heart – are things my friends already have in great abundance.
I think our moment is coming. You know, that Dorothy moment? The one where we suddenly find ourselves thinking: You mean the whole time, all I had to do was click my heels together?
* You can find Tracey Emin’s comments here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/may/26/tracey-emin-saturday-interview
and Joanna Moorhead’s response is here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/may/29/tracey-emin-menopause-myths