So we face an entirely new stage of human existence without nomenclature, which is an interesting challenge, because what we call things matters. That’s why I recoiled from elderly. The words we use, and how we perceive those words, reflect how we value, or devalue, people, places and things. After all, a signal semantic goal of the early women’s movement was to make certain that grown women were no longer referred to as girls.
One of the reasons we’re so desperate for new ways of talking about aging is that we have a new way of feeling about it. Oh, sure, when you raise the question of getting older at a restaurant table or a cocktail party, the moans begin, the sighs, the eye rolling. The back hurts, the feet ache. And let’s not even talk about age spots or bifocals or buying a bathing suit.
But what I’ve found is that if you push most women a little harder, they eventually get past the hip replacement and the crepey neck and wind up admitting that they’re more contented now than they were when they were young. They feel as if they’ve settled into their own skins, even if those skins have sun damage.
A Gallup poll of 340,000 men and women ages 18 and up made this manifest. The youngest respondents felt pretty good about themselves and their lives, while those who were in their thirties and forties were much more dissatisfied. But after age 50, there was a change in the weather, and from then on happiness was on an upward trajectory into the eighties.
The older the respondents, the more likely they were to report that stress, anger and worry had declined. Perhaps if we think of life as a job, most of us finally feel that after 50, we’ve gotten good at it.
All this reminds me of a system I once learned to help make any important decision. Take paper, draw a line down the middle, list pros and cons. The old house has a leaky roof, rattling windows, a damp basement, bad gutters: all cons. I love the place: one pro that obliterates everything else.
We can graph good sense all we want, but most of the time we feel what we feel. Getting older means being seen as yesterday’s news. Perhaps because I grew up in the newspaper business, I always realized that someday I’d be yesterday’s news. Perhaps because I’m the oldest of five, I’ve always felt older. There’s a lot less to my future than there is to my past, and there are undoubted minefields along the way. But what can I tell you? I look at the list of pros and cons, and I always come to the same conclusion. I like the house.
It wasn’t always so. I started out pretending, trying to adjust my throttle to some generally accepted notion of femininity. In her commencement address to the graduating class of Barnard College in 2010, Meryl Streep said the characterization of the pleasing girl she created in high school was a role she worked on harder than any ever after. Speaking for so many of us, she recalled, “I adjusted my natural temperament, which tends to be slightly bossy, a little opinionated, a little loud, full of pronouncements and high spirits, and I willfully cultivated softness, agreeableness, a breezy natural sort of sweetness,
even shyness if you will, which was very, very, very effective on the boys.” Gloria Steinem coined the term female impersonatorsto describe the uncomfortable way in which we women learned early on to play the role of pleaser, with a practiced smile that often did not extend to our eyes.
The act took its toll, as subterfuge and self-denial tend to do, and we paid with an internal dialogue of criticism. Not smart enough, not pretty enough, not a good enough mother, not a good enough professional. An entire Greek chorus chimed in, a Greek chorus made up of magazines, movies, advice books, alleged friends and family members who insisted they were telling us only for our own good, only wanted to be certain we would be happy and have no regrets. The problem was, the chorus couldn’t make up its mind; its messages ranged from self-sacrifice to self-promotion, from abstinence to sexual freedom. The only constant was that somehow we all needed to be more than we already were. But more was never enough.