It’s a curious thing, getting old. When I was younger I thought it would feel like slowly walking into a blank future, a kind of nothingness. Instead, it feels like life is sliding out from under me as it races backward. I’m not moving; I’m staying exactly the same. It’s my context that keeps changing. I continually find myself in a completely new environment but I’m the same person: from the inside, I think I look the same, I’m the same eternal (but indeterminate) age, I have the same values, and I live by the same rules.
That’s why it’s such a shock sometimes to look around me and see others aging. My daughters are all over 30 now. My grandson is almost 12 already. But me? I can’t quite grasp the fact that if others are getting older, so am I.
I went to an office party the other night and I was the oldest person there by almost 30 years. I didn’t feel out of place, but I afterward I wondered if the others felt funny being around me. When they looked at me, were they thinking: this woman could be my mother! When I opened my mouth to make a comment or tell a story, did they brace themselves for something irrelevant and stuck in the past? Do I seem as old to them as a 90-year-old person seems to me?
I was reading a book the other day where one of the characters referred to a 40-year-old woman as “middle-aged.” Wait a minute, I thought, that’s not middle-aged. I’m middle-aged. But by some guidelines I’m practically a senior citizen. Now that I’m almost 59, I don’t think you should be considered a senior citizen until you’re 70.
What bothers me the most about aging is the presumption that I don’t know anything, when in reality the older you are, the more you know. I at least know what it’s like to be young. But young people don’t know what it’s like to be old. That gives older people an edge when it comes to life-wisdom. Old people have lived through almost everything. The only thing that’s new for them is new technology. Even history repeats itself.
Young people think they’re changing everything, but in reality, they’re only reinventing the wheel. Every old person remembers what it was like to drive the older generation crazy. It’s only the particulars that have changed. What our parents thought was shocking may seem old-hat to our children and grandchildren, but the feelings of shock were just as real as the shock that they will feel when the next generation comes up with its own brand of language, art and fashion.
How is it that a feminist can look so different depending on her age? I don’t just mean physical appearance, but also behavior and attitude. Obviously, Second Wave feminists are older than Third or Fourth Wave feminists. But that isn’t the only difference.
My daughters would probably consider themselves feminists, but they don’t talk about it. They take a lot of things for granted that Second Wave feminists fought for. They’re so busy going after the things they want out of life, they don’t stop and think that if they’d been born thirty years earlier, they wouldn’t have all the options they have today.
When I was growing up, babies born out of wedlock were called illegitimate. Couples didn’t live together without being married. Married women didn’t keep their names. Help Wanted ads were divided by gender. A doctor, lawyer or minister was almost always a man. Nice girls didn’t talk about sex. (They might be engaging in it, but they weren’t talking about it.) Abortions weren’t legal anywhere. Single people, including gays, couldn’t adopt children. There were no female Supreme Court justices. No one in his (or her) right mind would have considered voting for a woman for President. High schools had dress codes. (I was a sophomore before we were allowed to wear slacks—not jeans—to school.) If one parent stayed home with the kids, it was always the woman. You never heard a swear word on television or in song lyrics. And women always wore bras.
And I haven’t even touched on the technological changes!
The world looks a lot different these days. Movies and even television are much more explicit, in language, violence and sexual activity. Girls are openly giving blow jobs at high school parties. Women’s clothing is see-through, peek-a-boo, and barely there. Couples often have children before (or instead of) getting married. Not one but two women have had their names bandied about as possible Presidential candidates. Lesbians and gays and single people of either sex can adopt children. Children are started in test tubes. There are more single mothers than ever and living together before getting married is so commonplace, we see unmarried (and gay) couples buying houses together on HGTV!
It’s no wonder that Second Wave feminists seem out of touch with present day-reality. We’re in shock. We can’t imagine growing up in a world where women don’t automatically put their husbands’ careers before their own, where they keep their own names, talk freely about sex, become astronauts and CEOs, wear maternity wedding dresses, have the same amount of access to sports as men do, and often make more than the men in their lives.
Some people pronounce feminism dead just because things are so different than they were in the past. But not everything has changed, or changed all that much. Women still do more of the housework and child-raising than men do. They are still ghetto-ized in low-paying jobs. There is still a double standard where sex is concerned. Little girls still dream of their wedding day. Female participation in politics is till far below the percentage of females that there are in society. Women still worry more about their appearance than men do. And, at least for the forseeable future, women still have the babies.
Considering all the changes that have taken place since I was a girl, I can’t help but wonder what the world will be like for my grandchildren. My grandson talks naturally about getting married and having children (a girl and twin boys). He can clean a bathroom better than I can. I don’t have any granddaughters (yet), so I don’t know how their lives will reflect even more of the changes that feminism has wrought. Maybe someday feminism will be an archaic term and no one will feel the need to label themselves as feminists.
But somehow I doubt it.
I haven’t written for a couple of days because I was out of town attending a “Celebration of Life.” One of my oldest and best friends lost her sister suddenly on the 12th. Her sister had just celebrated her 60th birthday.
My friend was eight years younger than her sister but since their mother died young, they had a closer bond than usual. To say that my friend is devastated is an understatement. She thought they had many more years together. Now there is only my friend and her sister’s daughter left in the family. It’s a lonely feeling, I know.
I lost my parents 15 and 13 years ago, which made me the matriarch of the family (as well as an orphan). The only person I have left of our original family is my sister. I don’t know what I’d do if my sister died. Losing a parent is hard, but at least I shared it with my sister. Except for my parents, she’s the one who has known me the longest. We’ve shared a lot, but mostly it’s been a comfort just to know that she’s there.
We fought a lot when we were younger, but we were inseparable as children. Now I’m lucky if I see her once every two or three months, even though we live less than 40 minutes from one another. But we always know that we can pick up the phone and hear each other’s voice. My friend doesn’t have that luxury anymore.
When my father was dying, he told us that one thing he hoped would come out of his death is that my sister and I would grow closer. It didn’t really happen that way. We both turned handled our grief differently and even when we both went through divorces a few years later, we didn’t turn to each other for support. I can’t say that my sister is my best friend. I can’t even say that she knows me that well, or I her. We have totally opposite personalities. She lights up a party and I sit in the corner, observing. She’s always on the go and I take it easy. She does most of the talking, I do most of the listening. She’s always had strong opinions; I keep mine to myself. She’s willing to fight for what she believes in; I’ll do anything to avoid confrontation.
I’ve always admired her and been proud to be her sister. But I’ve also been envious of her for as long as I can remember. In the past year or so, that envy has been coming out in my dreams. In these dreams, I’m always convinced that my parents love her more and the amount of rage I feel about that is overwhelming—and astonishing. I know that envy is part of what I feel toward my sister, but I always figured it was buried deep inside me. It may be, but it seems that my subconscious is bent on dredging it up.
On May 27th, it will officially be thirty years since the last time I gave birth. Yes, my baby is turning thirty. I have four children and the oldest is 36. I’m an old mother. I don’t just mean that I’m old in years; I mean that I’ve been at this a long, long time. I’m an old hand at motherhood.
But years on the job doesn’t mean that I’ve gotten better at it. I don’t know if you ever get better at motherhood. Because with your children you never get to start over. (That’s what being a grandmother is for.) Being a mother is like being on a roller coaster ride that you’re never allowed to embark from. Ever. No matter how scared you get or how badly you need to pee, you’re stuck, for life.
You may have noticed that this isn’t your usual sappy Mother’s Day post.
Every time I write in a profile or a bio that I’m a mother, I look at those words and think, “I am??” When did that happen? How did that happen? Not that I don’t know the way it works. After four children, I better have figured it out.
No, what I mean is: how did that become so much a part of my identity that I mention it before anything else? Frankly, I’m surprised that it’s the first thing I think to tell people about myself. Because most of the time I don’t think about being a mother, not consciously anyway. It’s not as if I wake up every morning and think to myself, “I’m a mother.” (In case that’s inconceivable to you whose children are still at home, just wait, you’ll get there.) But somewhere inside me, I must be constantly aware that I have children out there somewhere.
I didn’t make that pledge for nothing.
You know what I mean, those of you who are mothers. The pledge you make each time you become a mother, that you will do everything in your power to make sure this child is happy and safe. It’s your sacred duty. That’s why it’s so hard on you when you realize that you’re not all that good at it. And why it’s so disheartening when others don’t get why it means so much to you. Being a mother is the most significant thing you will ever do with your life.
So why am I constantly plagued by feelings that I haven’t accomplished enough? Isn’t motherhood enough? On one level, yes, it is. But I hate to tell you, folks, motherhood doesn’t solve all your problems; it’s a lot better at creating them. And yet maybe that’s what makes us who we are: the problems that we face in life and how we respond to them.
A while back, when I was writing a post about the men in my life, I wrote that outside of my daughters, women haven’t had as big an influence on my life as men have. What I was saying was that my daughters have molded me more than being a daughter has. That’s not to say that my mother wasn’t a huge influence. But she only sculpted the basic shape of my being; my daughters have chipped, and are still chipping, away the rough edges.
Sometimes I think I’m a worse person since my children all flew the nest. Certainly I’m more selfish. I tell myself that I deserve to be after so many years constantly at the beck and call of four demanding baby birds. But you know what? In the broad scheme of things, it wasn’t all that long a time. 24 years out of 58. Less than half of my lifetime so far.
And the years without them under my feet just keep stacking up. I don’t mean that they don’t still need me. They do. It’s just in a different way than they used to. They need to know that I’m there (and the operative word is “there“). They need me on their terms, not on mine.
One reason why I’ve become such a detached mother is out of self-preservation. You see, there are many ways of being selfish. And for all the exasperation it brought, the years when my children were home with me were the best years of my life. Because I felt needed, every single day (okay, every single second). It made me feel connected to something bigger than myself. I used to love going places with my girls, having them all around me. They were my brood. I was obviously a mother.
These days no one wants to hear about my children beyond the fact that I have some. No one asks to see pictures of them. No one wants to hear little anecdotes about their lives. It’s as if being an older mother is like being put out to pasture. You can’t have children anymore, so you’re all washed up.
That’s one of the hardest things about being an older mother. People don’t care anymore.
Except for your children, if you’re lucky. And you know what? That’s enough for me.
One of the things I like the most about Meryl Streep is that she’s 60. I’ve always admired her acting (she’s considered by many to be America’s greatest living film actress) but now I also admire her longevity. She’s holding her own in the film industry when most actresses top out at 40. She is a presence; she hasn’t disappeared like so many celebrities do when they hit 60—and she’s still playing romantic leads! (“Momma Mia!,” “It’s Complicated.”) Not even Susan Sarandon is still doing that (although she certainly could). I also like the fact that Streep’s been married for 32 years (to the same man!) and has juggled being the mother of four children with her career.
I’ll be 60 in two years and I can’t help but wonder if I will have a life as vibrant as hers seems to be. Will I be outstanding in my field? But then, I would have to have a field to be outstanding in. The only achievements I’ve managed to amass in 58 years are four children (if you can call them achievements. I’m really proud of the way they’ve turned out, but I don’t know how much credit I can take for that), a bachelor’s degree in history and some published articles and essays. Oh, and this blog.
Last week I was in a play called “The Hijabi Monologues.” After the play, during a question and answer period, the cast members were asked why they got involved in the production. I answered that I wouldn’t have a few months ago, but I’d recently converted to Islam and a friend had kind of pushed me into it. But I continued: “I’m glad she did, because it pushed me outside my comfort zone.”
I don’t ever want to be the little old lady who falls asleep every night wondering if she’ll wake up the next morning. I want to be like Betty White who is still acting at the age of 88—and who is as sprightly as she’s ever been. I want to go to sleep at night looking forward to what I’m going to do the next day.
It will be interesting to see where Meryl is in 20 years. What kind of parts will she be playing? Will she even still be acting?
Somehow I think she will be.