I am waiting to feel worse than I do. I am watching for anxiety about aging to show up with the mix of doubt and worry typically reserved for the results of medical tests. I am simultaneously sure I am fine and sure I am about to be told I am dying. If I am anxious about anything, it’s that I don’t feel as anxious as so many others apparently do.
Last week, an article on Oprah.com told me that the majority of women in my demographic — that’s the well-educated, middle- and upper-middle-class Gen X female demographic — are sweaty, anxiety-ridden, perimenopausal messes. At first I was filled with righteous anger. I pounded out a Facebook comment: “I am so tired of being told how shitty I should feel about myself.” But then I felt the dark cloud of future regret: What if, in six months, along with a constant river of perspiration running down my spine, I have egg on my face?
I have always been an outlier. Never married, childless by choice, my history of living beyond the norm is long. I was delighted to turn 40. Deep in my heart, I felt 40 from the time I turned 16. The breath that extinguished the candles on my 40th birthday cake was a sigh of relief: Finally! I can be with my people!
I minded turning 45 not one bit. And I am currently, eagerly planning my 47th birthday party. I am filled with joy about and gratitude for my life. My work is satisfying. My body is strong. I have friends who love me and lots to look forward to. In short, I am content.
But not infrequently I get messages that suggest I may want to reconsider my satisfaction.
You should be upset by growing older. (Everyone else is!)
You should dread your next birthday. (What could you possibly have to celebrate?)
You should definitely be unhappy about yourself right now.
I wonder what awful secret I am keeping from myself. What am I missing? What is the lurking horror that I cannot see?
These messages come indirectly and not in so many words. But they come. And when I hear these things, I wonder what awful secret I am keeping from myself. What am I missing? What is the lurking horror that I cannot see?
It’s not the media parade of fresh faces that makes me question my positive feelings about aging. It’s not the 50-something men who prefer women half their age. It’s not even my beautiful young female friends; they treat me like a peer instead of someone old enough to be their mother. These messages come from people who are closer to me.
They come from my own damn clan! (And the occasional Oprah article, obviously.)
A few years ago, a close girlfriend told me that I was “brave” to post a certain photo on Facebook. In the photo I am wearing a black dress that I adore, and my hair falls perfectly in dark, shiny spirals. I am sitting on a stool and leaning toward the camera with my hand under my chin. My eyes sparkle, and my nose squinches on one side.
I loved — still love — that picture, shot by an amateur photographer with an expensive camera and fancy studio lights. But when my friend told me she’d looked at the photo online and thought I was daring to display my 40-year-old face, I felt anything but. I felt embarrassed. I wondered if I should take the photo down.
Recently that same friend had a birthday. I was out of town, and when I texted her to ask her how her day was, she texted back: “I’m not that big a fan of the whole getting older thing.” I didn’t know what to say.
Like the skinny friend whose self-criticism calls into question the size of your own thighs, my age-averse pal’s words prompted me to look at myself and wonder if I should feel concern for my own circumstances. Maybe I am dumb for being excited about my birthday? Maybe I am too old to be happy?
She’s just one person, of course, but these cues come from others too.
Last year, I sat at Starbucks with a man I was dating — a man my age who dates women his age. We were each tucked into leather chairs with our books, and I was thinking about how lucky I was to have found a man who sits with me in a coffee shop and reads, when he turned and stared at me — stared not into my eyes but above them. He tilted his head, first to one side and then to the other. For a while he studied the nascent grays at my temples, and then he smiled and said, “You are perfectly fine with aging.”
He paused. He said, “I think that’s cool.”
And though his statement sounded sincere, I knew that he was struggling to come to terms with the signs of his own advancing age. He had expressed distress over his thinning hair and jawline that seemed suddenly not as defined. I knew that what he said was part of his processing his own feelings about aging, but in the wake of his comment, I felt self-conscious and exposed, when only seconds before I had been joyful. As I had with my girlfriend, I felt a pinprick of shame, shallow and fleeting but enough to let a little air out of my bubble of contentment.
That shame reappears from time to time. It dips in the same way I occasionally stop by a mirror to check up on my laugh lines and forehead crinkles — monitoring the situation to see if I am worse off today than I was the week/month/year before.
I go on planning birthday parties and relishing the fact that I think I might have another 50 years left on this earth.
Part of this comes from the fact that I watched my mother struggle with aging. A green-eyed, blond traffic-stopper in her 20s and 30s, she derived her self-esteem from the way she looked, but she lost her mind in her mid-40s. Still a stunner but experiencing some of the changes that come with perimenopause, she left my father, took up drinking, spent most nights in a bar, and dated men half her age. Anyone who knew her could see that it was the backlash to the the fine lines showing up on her face and the itchy feeling of decades spent indulging other people rather than herself.
In her 50s, after she’d remarried, she had a face-lift (not a very good one, sadly) and fought the passing of time with fad diets and pricey potions that burned through a large portion of her divorce settlement yet left her looking not one second younger. As her skin sagged, so did her self-worth.
It was painful to witness, and as a person who has allowed nearly every decision to be guided by a voice that says, Don’t be your mother, I’ve been terrified that I could go the same way. In fact, I’ve been waiting for it to happen.
But it hasn’t. Not yet anyway.
I continue to age without the fear of tomorrow or the grief over yesterday that I observe in women — and men — all around me. I go on planning birthday parties and relishing the fact that I think I might have another 50 years left on this earth. (So much time left to do so many neat things!)
I keep having the audacity to grow older right before your eyes.