Is Being a Crone a Bad Thing?

There are many books out that refer to the older woman as a “crone” and claim that the crone years (menopause and beyond) are the best part of a woman’s life. I’ll be sixty in February and I went through menopause several years ago. So I guess I qualify as a crone. But it’s hard for me to see that as a positive image.

Wikipedia describes the crone this way:

The crone is a stock character in folklore and fairy tale, an old woman who is usually disagreeable, malicious, or sinister in manner, often with magical or supernatural associations that can make her either helpful or obstructing. She is marginalized by her exclusion from the reproductive cycle, and her proximity to death places her in contact with occult wisdom. As a character type, the crone shares characteristics with the hag.

Here is a more positive view of “crone-hood” from a review of Jane Shinoda Bolen’s Crones Don’t Whine: Concentrated Wisdom for Juicy Women on Amazon.com:

Banish all thoughts of crones as withered and barren: crones are `juicy,’ having zest, passions, and soul.  Upon entering the crone years, women can now devote creativity, energy, and time to things that matter. Having developed instincts, having endured pain, having learned the importance of meditation, crones choose their path at the fork in the road with heart. This is woman power at its core. Girl power is a mere warm up.

Crone proponents believe that a woman’s experiences make her uniquely privy to the deeper meanings of life. By the time she reaches menopause, she has supposedly achieved true wisdom; that is, she has learned to embrace what’s really important in life and to reject those things that are mere distractions.

Wiccans and pagans describe their Triple Goddess as the personification of the three stages of a woman’s life: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. The problem is that in our society the Maiden is considered the preferred feminine archetype. The Mother is sentimentalized, sometimes revered, but definitely not considered sexy. (For example, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is presented as the holy Madonna.) And the Crone is either ignored or reviled. In this society, the older a woman becomes, the more she loses her value.

I understand that those who use the “crone” to describe the older woman are trying to reclaim the word by presenting it in a positive light. This is similar to when women proudly call themselves “bitch.” But personally, I think that strategy is self-defeating. I don’t understand when African-Americans call each other the “n-word.” What purpose does it serve to associate yourself with something that is usually considered to be a slur? I would much rather find a term that bolsters the idea that the individual should be treated with respect and dignity.

So how about replacing “crone” with “matriarch”? (It fits better with Maiden and Mother, for one thing.) A matriarch is any female leader of a family, clan or tribe or a woman who dominates any group or activity. She is respected and looked up to, even in some cases venerated. She often is, but doesn’t have to be, a mother.

When my parents died, one of the things I grappled with is that I became the head of the family. My parents were no longer around to host Thanksgiving and Christmas and carry on other family traditions. I was left to make decisions about their funerals, their estates and the welfare of the family. And I wasn’t at all prepared.

It would have been far better if I’d been groomed to be a matriarch. We socialize our daughters to be maidens and mothers, to be young and beautiful and maternal. But we don’t tell them that someday they will be the female heads of their families. We don’t train them to be leaders. We don’t give them a vision for their later years, when the children are raised and they are “out of a job.” And we don’t show them very many examples of older women who are treasured for their wisdom and experience.

Many young women mistakenly think that they have power because of their sexuality. Men want what they have to give, whether it’s for sex or reproduction. But that power dwindles as they age, because men think they no longer have anything to offer.

We need to teach men and women that the older woman can be just as powerful, but for different reasons. She is often more productive than the young woman or mother. She has the accumulated wisdom that comes from living through many stages of life. And she no longer cares what other people think, so she’s not afraid to speak her mind.

As I age, I struggle to replace the sense of worth I had in my younger years (from being seen as sexual and maternal) with one that comes from knowing that I’ve seen and done it all and survived to tell my story. I have more to offer now than I ever did as a young woman, wife and mother. I’ve lived through divorces and economic uncertainty, worked hard to raise and support a family, and most of all, learned from my mistakes. I am uniquely qualified to dispense wisdom and guidance to those who will inherit the world some day.

I am a Matriarch.

 

Lament of an Old Woman

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.

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The High Cost of Being a Woman

I’ve been trying to write this post for a month and for the life of me I can’t figure out why I’m having so much trouble with it. I’m not trying to explain rocket science here. All I want to say is that it’s expensive being a woman. But every time I try to explain what I mean, my mind starts running in several different directions at once, such as:

Being a woman means maintaining an illusion of femininity. It’s not enough to just be a woman, you also have to build up this whole persona that “proves” that you’re one. And you have to make it seem effortless when it’s anything but.

It’s much harder for women to maintain their gender identity than it is for men. I know that being a guy can be expensive, too, what with all the sports equipment and fancy new cars. But those things are associated with what men do. Women are required to spend ridiculous amount of time, money and energy just to emphasize what they already are.

Feminists in the ’60s tried to release women from the tyranny of society’s expectations. One of the things that attracted me to feminism was its message that a woman shouldn’t be judged by her appearance. Feminists in the ’60s, who were after all part of the whole back-to-nature, anti-establishment movement, rejected the notion that women had to “dress up” in order to be considered feminine.

That was just fine with me.  The idea that I had to work at being feminine just didn’t make sense to me. I thought it was complicated enough just being a person. I didn’t mind getting prettied up every once in a while,  but I just didn’t think I should have to do it all the time.

Society’s expectations of what makes a woman feminine have become more demanding. For instance, it’s much more expensive to be a woman than it was, say forty years ago, when I was a young woman. I think part of this has to do with Baby Boomers being obsessed about aging. But younger women are buying into those concerns as well. Youth-preserving Botox injections,  facial treatments and plastic surgery are more common than ever. Dazzling white teeth are mandatory. You can’t just be thin, you also have to be buff. And God forbid that you would go au naturel where your body hair is concerned.

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Sisters

William-Aldophe Bougereau, 1901

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.

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Lament of an Older Mother

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.

Thursday Thoughts: Inspired by Meryl

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.