For Women of a Quite Certain Age
I’m turning the ripe old age of forty-nine next month.
I share this because I know that birthdays provoke anxiety in many people, but friends, I’m not one of them. The catalyst for these thoughts/feelings about aging occurred years ago, though I will admit the tension around this topic has certainly been increasing for me of late. Especially over the last five years, and particularly after the loss of my beloved mother-in-law in 2020.
Here’s the deal. I’ve gone through a midlife awakening (it’s only a crisis if you don’t know what’s happening) and am now reborn into a state of maturity that allows me to see with unprecedented clarity the nature of womanhood, the limits under which I’ve labored since my birth, and the realization that very little has changed or will change regarding women’s power during my lifetime.
So, yeah. I’ve been pissed off for a while.
I’ll start this essay, then, by telling you the very first thing that pisses me off (since it’s likely already popped into your head):
It’s. Not. The. Motherfucking. Hormones.
Every goddamn time I bring up the rage of the middle aged woman (middle rage?) both women and men launch into an uninvited discussion about hormones, peri/menopause, and all the various ways medical literature documents a woman’s life being disrupted by “The Change”.
Even the kindest portrayal of menopause paints it as that fabled time when a woman realizes her womb is no longer her greatest asset and thus begins to withdraw into glorious crone-hood; wizened, silvery, and re-virginalized to the communal eye (i.e., no one wants to think about middle-aged or older women having sex, so we just pretend it’s not a thing in the popular culture).
I have an auto-immune disorder known as premature ovarian failure, I was completely finished with menopause by the age of thirty-six. And yes, it was the pits – there were hot flashes, night-sweats, emotional outbursts and other discomforts which I bore with whatever grace I could muster while raising young children. It sucked, but guess what? It wasn’t the end of the world and shit got done. I currently have the hormones of an 80-year-old woman and I have for more than a decade.
So when I tell you I have experienced a powerful rage that comes from my middle-aged awakening, I’m going to ask that you not try to blame my body. That’s what all this talk about hormones is, right? Put the blame on your own body (as usual) if you’re feeling discontented. Our stupid womanly bodies and our stupid cursed hormones.
It can’t possibly be the resulting fury that comes from being raised in a fucked up system of patriarchy – historic marginalization of women in literally every realm of human endeavor, religious indoctrination about gender roles, a sickening power imbalance between genders in our cultures and communities, and the fact that I’m now old enough to no longer be considered fuckable – that has brought me clarity and righteous rage about how shitty women still have it on planet earth, now can it?
To be born a woman means to learn from infancy how to anticipate and prioritize others’ needs. Which is not to say that you’re supposed to be miserable, darlin’. You can live a happy and fulfilled life as long as everything is done and everyone else is happy. Once you clean the house; reassure everyone around you that they’re the most important person in the world; give up anything that someone might find offensive or unattractive; settle into your necessarily modest ambitions; and make sure you fuck and nurse and feed and comfort whoever has a right to you; THEN you can go to the ball, Cinderella.
This role of cleaner / hostess / helper / supporter / nurturer / follower isn’t merely implied socially, religiously or politically. If you come from where I come from, it’s stated explicitly and often backed up by The Very Words of God ™. This sounds odious (which it is) but at least it’s the honest approach. I’ve also attended to plenty of community in modernized, “progressive” social, religious and political circles where they would never state this kind of misogynistic bullshit outright so you just have to divine it by watching communal dynamics. But at this point I’ve been in as many progressive spaces as conservative ones and I can promise you, it’s still always women in the kitchen at every goddamn function.
Which is not to say that women don’t have, or can’t have influence in their individual lives, relationships and communities – but I’m talking about real power here – the kind that you have even over the people who don’t like you. The kind men hold.
It’s incredibly rare to find women who have power of their own — women who aren’t “known” or “influential” because of who their husbands are; or because some other man has bestowed it upon them (usually to suit their own purposes). For women in our society, and in the majority of societies around the world, success still largely depends on which man with power is willing to elevate you and/or put you on his arm.
Again, this is true – and women suffer for it – even if their individual circumstances and relationships seem ideal. Even if they are partnered with someone kind and sensitive who believes women are equal. This is true in feminist circles. In progressive circles. In both ivory towers and dive bars across the land. It is systemic, and it’s far bigger and much older than America.
Like most things about being a woman, our sexuality is a blessing and a curse. Only within the last hundred years or so has it been possible in some places for a woman to express her sexuality without immediately causing other people to consider her immoral and a threat to the sanctity and fidelity of good society. That said, there are still plenty of spaces where this repressive attitude is still the norm. Even in America. Can confirm.
Now, thanks to the sexual revolution, some women in some parts of the world can publicly talk about things like orgasms and periods and with whom they might like to have sex.
Not all women, though. Only the pretty ones.
If you’re lucky enough to have the genetic advantage of beauty, you’re entered into The Great Lottery. Congratulations, you are a candidate for tokenization! You’ll still have to fight / beg for it, of course. The competition is steep, but at least if you’re pretty you’ll get your shot. If you’re not beautiful and willing to do whatever is asked of you, then the reality is that you and your ambitions will likely never see the light of day. Sorry, sweetheart, not sorry. There are just only so many spots available to become a visible woman in America. But hey – at least we let you vote!
The truth is, society simply doesn’t want to hear from women about sex (or anything, really) unless we are young, fit, and heteronormatively attractive. AGAIN, this isn’t about individual appreciation or having a partner that sees you as equal. It’s about what we see around us as representative of our sex in society at large. It’s true, great strides have been made on a superficial level to use traditionally “non-ideal” women’s bodies – older models, fat models, black and brown models – to sell things (because even if they don’t want us in power, they want our money).
Still, it’s something.
Isn’t that enough?
Why aren’t you grateful?
You’re so hard to please.
What the hell do you even want?
Well I can’t speak for all of womankind but I’ll tell you what I want:
I want nothing less than to be able to reach my full potential as a human-godddamn-being without subjecting myself to superficial, fickle standards that demand cruel distortions; fantastical, engineered beauty; and subservience of spirit.
I want all you old men who think you are entitled to share your annoying opinions with me and have them respected to extend me the same respect, or stfu.
I want to ask questions of powerful men like, “what gives you the right to demand the sacrifice of my children to your cause?” and, “what makes your power-drunk self-delusion something on which to build nations?” without being silenced so goddamn easily.
Is that too much to ask?
Because I want more.
I want men to sit down and shut up for a while in churches, mosques and synagogues.
I want men to cook and do the fucking dishes at the next potluck.
I want decentralization of power – communal and societal – so that the human race can evolve organically, not under the thumb of your various male-centric regimes modeled on patriarchal-tribal affiliations, parading as nation states that respect the rights of all humans. As if.
I want women to be safe at any age.
I want women to be in charge of more things. Half the things. More than half the things.
I want a woman to be heard without having a man repeat what she’s said.
I want her to be admired, appreciated and adored on her merits without having to perform beautification rituals or appease male egos.
I want all women to be valued for all their contributions in every corner of the world.
Oh and? I fucking want women… to be fucking paid… for their motherfucking labor.
Now. It’s come to this:
I could spend the rest of my life bitter and angry about this state of affairs. I could allow myself to feel a sense of shame that I am not satisfied with my life, as it was presented to me; and that I haven’t come to peace with what has been kept from me.
I could dissolve in a pool of acidic hate over the idiot men who have been deemed ‘leaders’ – particularly in spaces where they can do spiritual damage – and told that my discontent is an affront to God’s Natural Laws. I could lament my body betraying me by becoming less desirable by the standards of men
But I’ll tell you a little secret: I’ve given up… and it feels great.
Not given up on myself, oh mercy, no.
On the world, as it is.
You see, I’ve finally accepted that I can’t fight the patriarchy. It’s too strong (thanks largely to unbothered men who are comfortable in it, and women who prop it up with their ridiculous defenses and continued subservience to it). Hell, even the people who claim to be fighting the patriarchy are comfortable recreating the same kind of dynamics and spaces in their communities. I want none of it.
Instead, I’m taking a lifetime of Knowing that comes from watching other people and learning to anticipate/navigate their needs and desires, and I’m going to put it to good use for myself. I’m rejecting the definitions for what I should be, and treating my body as a friend; a co-conspirator. Shame has no power here. My desires need no justification.
Yes, my body has changed. But I’m not worn out, I’m worn in. Like the softest bedsheets; like a quiet path to a secret place that you visit when you need to be still next to the water.
Now, I bestow my submission only on that which has helped me reclaim my body after the world has used it for all it thinks I’m worth.
The less they see me, the clearer I become.
On October 5, 2020, I went out of the house late in the afternoon to get some exercise. My mother-in-law had been staying with us for weeks, recovering from heart surgery. Our whole family was working/attending school from home, and caring for Ammi was stressful, so I decided to take a couple hours outside to burn off some steam. My daughter, (who was 17 at the time) stayed home with her.
About an hour into my workout my daughter called.
“I think we should call the doctor,” she said. “[Ammi] is really not feeling well. When are you coming back?”
I was slightly annoyed because I felt like I really needed a break, but something in my daughter’s voice alarmed me. Ammi had been complaining earlier about not feeling well, and she had barely eaten anything all day.
“I’ll come now,” I said. My daughter sounded relieved as she hung up.
I got in my car and headed to the edge of the parking lot. As I reached the street and prepared to pull out, I turned my head and was stunned see a woman walking up the sidewalk on my left side, completely naked.
She appeared to be about forty, with shoulder-length blonde hair and the kind of weathered-too-young face that instantly identifies someone as having lived a hard life. Her body was made of heavy curves, her skin pink and dry-looking. Her face streamed with tears, and she walked quickly with her head high, eyes focused on some point in the distance. She held her large, sagging breasts cradled in one arm and was covering her exposed vulva with the opposite hand.
It took me a long moment to even register what was happening. By that time she’d crossed over to the other side of the car, still plodding up the sidewalk, so I opened the window and called to her, “Are you ok?”
“Do I look ok?” she shouted at me through her tears, not slowing down.
There was a long moment when I didn’t know what to do. My mother-in-law was extremely unwell and my 17-year-old daughter was caring for her alone at home. They needed me there. This woman on the street was clearly in distress and I had nothing on me to give her – not a blanket or jacket or even a towel.
I quickly pulled over to the side of the road and called 911 to let them know where to find the woman who, by this point, a quarter of a mile up the road. Then I drove home, called the home healthcare service to schedule a visit, and tended to Ammi.
Later, at around three a.m. she woke us up. The nurse who had come over earlier in the evening had said everything looked fine, but Ammi was feeling bad enough that we decided to call an ambulance. They came and took her on a gurney out our front door into the night.
Two hours later, my husband called me from the hospital. Ammi had died.
I think about this series of events a lot because it feels like a snapshot of womanhood to me.
There was simply no way to win.
Listen to me, women.
The world doesn’t appreciate your sacrifices. They say they do, but talk is cheap. The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding was long gone before you even got to sit your ass down at the table.
The world will use you up for all you’re worth, and then blame you for collapsing into a depleted heap after they toss you aside. If anything terrible does happen to you, they’ll find someone else to clean, cook, and do the menial shit that they don’t want to pay for without skipping a beat. They always do. Men will continue to sanctify their own lusts and shame you for no longer being able to gratify them. People will talk about you as you were – back when you were useful – even while you’re still sitting there, present in your old age, unfulfilled.
If you’re lucky like I am, you’ve found a solid group of humans of all genders who will continue to adore you as you age. But even some of these will step away once you’ve lost your usefulness. And make no mistake, you will lose your usefulness.
Fact is, there’s no one on earth who will give you what you really need, much less what you want. If you’re like me, you don’t even know what you want. Your life was never truly yours, and the choices you craved were never presented, so you stopped craving them.
You will die having never felt the adoration and respect reserved for those who made the world in their own image.
The rage of middle age is this realization – and it’s good, because it means you’re free. But, as the song goes, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose – so don’t stop there.
Don’t sit with the remains of the day as your prize.
It’s not too late. You’re not too old.
Own your life. Live fully into yourself without making excuses. Be exactly who you are, and laugh out loud at people who don’t like you. Become subversive. Become a witch. Fall in love with your body. Fall in love with your mind. Craft a life that will allow you to die without regrets. Insist on respect, and be willing to walk away from anyone or anything (or any god) that claims you don’t deserve it.
Don’t wait a moment longer.
You’ve waited long enough.
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