Becoming an older woman isn’t easy. While we know that aging happens only to the fortunate, at another level we are all too aware of what awaits us. We watched our mothers disappear as though a spell had been cast upon them, and we are determined not to let that happen to us.
Regardless of our intentions, the aging process catches us short. Unnerved and unprepared, we go to great lengths to turn back the hands of time. When our efforts fail, we pull out all the stops and defy logic itself. Somehow we imagine that if we avoid thinking about it we can avoid getting old. And why wouldn’t we do everything we could, even to the point of deluding ourselves, to stave off growing older in a culture that fears everything old and has a particular dread of the aging woman?
Don’t get me started was my friend’s remark when I told her I was writing about the experience of growing older in a culture that holds, as its golden standard, a static and childlike vision of femininity. I cited an image we all grew up with to make my point; she (the model female) is like the ballerina in an old-fashioned music box, her unchanging features tiny and girlish, her voice tinkly, her body stuck on a pin, rotating in a spiral that will never grow. – Susan Faludi
Over the years of working with this material, many women have echoed my friend’s don’t get me started response. We are dismayed by the images we see all around us, yet are numbed to the impact they have on our lives.
Growing up female in this culture is hard. Growing old can be devasting. A woman’s value rests, to a greater degree than any of us care to admit, in a her sexual desirability and in her willingness to nurture and support. As we grow older, convention offers us an untenable choice; to fade into irrelevance or to do everything we can to pass for young. This dilemma is so disturbing that many women turn away and refuse to face the problem.
Turning away is a natural response to the fear of falling into meaninglessness and despair. Without the support of the culture, many of us struggle with depression when we bump up against the inevitabilities of age. All too often the call forward goes unanswered. All too often the call is refused.
The shifting era of the sixites and seventies established an unprecedented template for change. The baby-boomers, a generation that forever challenges the quid pro quo, now face a new set of questions: Will we break through our paralyzing denial and take on the critical tasks of age? Will we answer the call forward and do the work we need to do?
Forty million women between the ages of 50 and 65 are growing older together. Our numbers alone are a force to be reckoned with. We are are generation of liberated women, but we are not yet free.
I wonder what would happen if we all got started.
To get started is to face the great test to which all women sooner or later must come. The moment arrives when we are called to let go of our youthful identifications. When confronted with visible signs of aging, there is a strong pull to cling to the past, to revel in the successes of our youth, to preserve our beauty, to glorify our motherhood, to hang onto our children, perhaps to push forward in a career that has already lived itself out.
Mourning the passage of youth is not easy. Nor is it over soon. As in all life passages, what has been must be allowed to die so that something new can be born. The time arrives when we must leave the comforts of our old identities and enter the dark woods of our inner lives. If we can tolerate the emptiness, the loneliness – the inconsolable sadness – something new, something real within us can be born.
The inner life is a place of growth and regeneration. A woman must let go of everything and seek her own experience. Outside the world of lies and hyperbole, of pressures to be something she is not, an acceptance of her genuine nature becomes possible.
The passage into maturity is our last and best chance to re-connect with our bodies and our instincts, to challenge beliefs that are holding us back, and to let go of identities that have now become too small.
We are at an important threshold in our lives and in our times. If we are to age into freedom, we need a new vision of who we are and who we are becoming. It is our time, and our responsibility, to do the work that’s ours to do – to break the spell of acquired femininity and define our own future as older women.
It is time for us to get started…