She drifts from the car park towards her office, but the car keys slither between her fingers, she fumbles them, and finds herself plummeting, arms trying to remember how to save her trunk. Her head bucks above the tarmac then glances into contact.
A speed bump has upended her. Colleagues scurry in the distance. In the Ladies she stares in the mirror at a reddish-blue fruitswell on her brow that has somehow also splashed purple onto her cheekbone.
This post-menopausal twilight seems windless and without smell or sound or topography, but here and there, on some days, pokes up the sniggering tussock of a setback – misplaced belongings, an errand that slips her mind, a fall like this – among the scree of physiological ageing: headache, stress, eye strain, bra strain, a jaggy tooth. Bolls of tumbleweed dither, remnants of hopes and dreams from a younger age, straining to float beyond reach.
From the fall, her skull-bones thud and twang. The head, with her collar region, is the locale of most sensation these days: frozen shoulder, soreness of the eyes and tension in the neck from hunching over the computer. Across the River Styx from bleeding, this Celibate She mostly levitates, remote from the lower reaches of her body and the physical all together, unless – as they were just now – they’re briefly jolted into life.
She remembers a piece on the radio lately about practising mindfulness to re-establish contact with the breath, the bones, the living, teeming cells, the here and now. She tries it lying in bed tonight. A breeze from her nostrils tickles her mouth. Her body sags, clamped to the mattress. She’s lost touch with where her groin is. There’s a tingling in her fingers, but her legs and feet feel absent, in a distant country, far away.
On these days, usually she manages to ignore the debris on her flatline, mocking her asensuality. Actually, she’s a flytip of eruptions. Angry pimples around the nose and mouth, mimicking the male stubble-graze that was once something to be blushingly proud of; cellulite porridging the nether areas; fallen dugs, gravity-suckered to her lower ribcage; the defeated abdomen hanging.
She camouflages herself with layered clothes: ribbed knits, a flung-on scarf for her draughty neck, those favourite baggy moleskin trousers that flap too short. In her world of general nonchalance she’s comfortable and lazy and, most of the time, manages to seem unbothered by others’ sexual indifference and their lack of attention to her concrete form.
Except, Eeeeaaaaaah. Some evenings, sloped on the couch in front of the TV for shapeless hours, she wishes that her working life didn’t make it so impossible to have a dog. Momentarily, she experiences the invisible limb sensation of fondling a silken animal ear, her hand lolls between her legs and she vaguely recognises that she likes it there, and the gnat of physical lack whines on and off, Eeeeaaaaah, around her cottony head.
It’s the weekend, and she and a group of fellow older women meander into town, combing the market. They have a new friend, two decades their junior. The younger woman stops a lot beside the stalls of olives, organic milk and flowers and stares, giggling, at her cellphone. They ask her what’s so funny.
‘So many good-looking men so close,’ she grins.
She’s using the Tinder app, mapping out her proximity to men who snag her interest, or, vice-versa, like her from her picture and a few texted words.
The older woman looks around them, and is struck by a youth in a hugging jumper, smiley, his arms full of carrots with feathery tops, a bouquet. For a second she catches him laughing framed by a storefront the colour of desert sand and because of him, although the day is cold, everything shimmers, as if with heat.
The women move off, seeking somewhere to lunch. Two dark males outstride them, lithe and talking animatedly about Lorca. The older woman sees them too, quite sharp. The town’s blond buildings seem to her to spread a little, spilling crumbs of something moist and honeyed onto the pavements around her feet.
She’s noting men now. A hoarse guitarist winking at the crowds, singing with a coin cap at his feet, and the music winds in tendrils between the syrupy town walls.
‘Let’s go in here,’ says Beth, looking up from her i-Phone, where she’s still peering for possible matches.
They head for a table in the window of a Spanish bistro. The older woman is stilled by a man taking his arm from a woman’s shoulder and waving in her direction, for a moment she thinks at her. To her, the town’s changing again, becoming invaded by the jungle.
Inside the bistro, while she’s scrambling to sit down, a man, his drooping earlobe earring-studded, lilts ‘Excuse me, sorry,’ sliding against her to get past.
The buildings beyond the glass are castellated by now, creeper-covered.
She drinks a kick of Rioja; the chicken with chorizo tastes unexpectedly delicious.
Back home her sofa curves like a pear, to the touch almost squashed and warm. In her head there’s the bubbling coo from some invisible bird, flowers in the air, a drunken scent. She lies back on the sofa and makes rampant love in her imagination to the winking guitarist, an earring-studded gypsy, two supple devotees of Lorca, the man who should have waved at her, not someone else, and the smiling boy, who brushes her with his vegetable bouquet. They wrangle over her warmly, good-naturedly taking turns, and the plush of the floor oozes around her fitting feet.
At work, she has a new colleague.
‘I come from Czechoslovakia,’ he shrugs, in a strange accented drone.
Tall; black hair and eyebrows; coal buttons for eyes. Everything she says he finds amusing, wheezing with laughter.
A friend pops in. He’s retired now.
‘Got time for lunch later?’
Weather-tinted from his garden, he’s grown an iron-grey beard cropped short. Seeing him standing there, his hand on the office door, something turns in her, low down.
At night, she still hears the slither of foliage around the doors and windows. In bed, her body undulates to the after-sound of the chortlings of the Czechoslovakian; his eyes re-form, dark spots in the bedroom undergrowth. They rise and fall together in a mental paradise, stems and branches winding round them, until his eyes lighten under greying eyebrows, and his skin wrinkles, and iron filings of stubble prickle from his cheeks and chin, and he shrivels, and she shrivels, and the castle walls around them are bare of foliage all of a sudden, shrinking and tumbling, and, with her, falling down.
Next day at work, she’s determined to climb back to some point of sensual elevation. She resolves to scan each working encounter for men: just to try to catch their gaze.
Her boss whirls in head down, and she tells his wake that she’s done some things that he asked her to. He snaps, and disappears into the inner office.
He bobs out again, plunging her into a bear hug. ‘Sorry. Bad start to the day.’
She stares at the bristly nape of his neck. The lower heights of this inner terrain are striated, with a pumice texture, brutal on the hands and knees.
She can’t catch men’s eyes today. In her presence, they flicker and expire like minnows.
On mountains there’s always rain, and so, she reasons, there must be runlets gathering, running towards her from the upper heights. She’d like to hear water. The sides get steeper, smooth and glassy, and she clings on.
A few weeks later, and she’s still crawling, grasping at the rockface. She’s holidaying in a little town in Spain. She pumps herself with coffee in a bar.
She walks from the café to a little concert hall. Its doors are closed. She opens her music leaflet, checks the location. A young man loiters, consulting the same programme.
She risks English. ‘Is the concert here? Am I in the right place?’
He’s Spanish, but speaks English well. ‘I think I’ve got the same problem. I’ll ring my friends.’
They’ve come to the wrong hall.
‘I know where the right one is. I’ll take you,’ the man says.
They talk while hurrying through the streets. He’s gauche, roughly bearded, with drooping twigs of fingers. They part at the concert, he to join his friends, she to listen alone. He’s an irrelevance on her wall-climb.
Afterwards he’s waiting for her. ‘I could show you some bars if you like.’
Lonely old woman: she detects pity.
‘Oh,’ he starts, ‘we’re near my flat. And I’m hot. Would you mind if I take a quick shower? Can you drink a glass of wine and wait?’
His flat is high and cool. Photographs of naked women on the walls, all young and beautiful. Sitting on the sofa sipping, she asks at a shout who took them. He did. She senses her bag of bones begin to slide, no longer coping with the sheerness of this cliff.
He’s suddenly there in the doorway. A low knotted towel reveals white muscled hollows at the waist.
He stretches out a hand. ‘Would you like a little kiss? Older women are so much more interesting.’
She laughs, then sees that she must say it. ‘No.’
There’s a little hoot, the wind’s derision from her far-off mountaintop.
She gets up. Her heart beats hard. She sees herself as he must: a curiosity, the subject for a novelty photograph. She doesn’t want that, or this fear, but she doesn’t know what she wants.
‘Just a kiss.’ He stands in front of her.
She wriggles past.
She can’t unlock the security grille at the base of the flats. She fumbles. She hears an inner rumbling, the warning of a landslide. She’s out and slipping loose. As she skids back down her mountain, she hallucinates a dead dog.
She jogs through the streets, out of condition, as fast as she physically can.
The lower slopes are almost even. Their faint ripples of rust, lichen, verdigris, moss imperceptibly give way to the old, familiar coating of loose gravel. She picks herself up, dusts herself down. On these safe reaches, the tumbleweed still floats.
With long overdue thanks to my readers for their general indulgence – and especially, for indulging this shamelessly experimental post. They might like to read:
I’m nearly 60, to my amazement. I made it through the menopause, battling biological and emotional symptoms: heavier periods, hot flushes, mood swings, loss of energy, worse migraines and headaches than I’d had for decades and some bouts of depression at this protracted metamorphosis.
For Martine too, the principal female character of my novel On the Far Side, There’s a Boy, the perimenopause is a scourge:
‘She suffered plague and pestilence in 1999….Dead flies poured out of her lobby’s ceiling trapdoor…. Her menorrhagia was modulating into the erratic bleeding of the perimenopause, but that meant heat waves by night and seesawing moods by day.’
Of course for some women the menopause is a release, a life marker for which to be deeply grateful: for those with abnormal uterine bleeding, or our sisters who choose chastity, for instance. But societally as well as medically, for many of us women in the west the menopause seems a guillotine, signposting the beginning of some end: the loss of one of the most vital social badges of our womanhood and motherhood (or hoped-for motherhood: I’m childless) before a retreat down some constricting tunnel of old age.
It’s well known that beyond western culture, experiences of the menopause diverge hugely. In the 1970s, a study of 483 women in Rajasthan and Himachel Pradesh found that they encountered no other symptoms at the menopause than the menstrual stop. In 1980s Japan, women rarely reported hot flushes; their commonest perimenopausal problem was stiff shoulders. The Japanese term for menopause isn’t even biological: konenki, a word with societal undertones, indicating a change in status more akin to our notion, ‘climacteric’. No Mayan women in one Mexican village studied claimed to have hot flushes or cold sweats – but in case we’re tempted to theorise that this could be something to do with women’s remoteness from larger communities, a study of women on a Greek island concluded that they had symptoms in line with ours in larger western conurbations. In another piece of research, 60% of Canadian women reported hot flushes and sweats as opposed to 18% in China: our Chinese counterparts complained more of numb hands and feet, changes in appearance, boredom and poor memory. (http://www.natural-menopause-journey.com/perimenopause-symptoms-and-culture.html)
(We should be careful of sweeping generalisations, though. Even within large, heavily populated western societies, perimenopause can take different forms depending on the ethnic group from which women come. In the ‘SWAN Study’ in the USA, there were big differences between African Americans, Chinese Americans, Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites. And on the other hand, non-western cultures are not a paradise of enlightenment either. Nsibidi, the language in graphic signs used by the Ejagham peoples of southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon in the Cross River region and the neighbouring Ibibio, Efik and Igbo peoples, is dyed onto ‘Ukara’ cloth by post-menopausal women, but their culture requires them to do so secretly.)
Of course, in regions such as Japan, China and India older women tend to be more respected, elevated in society, than are most of us.
Among many writings covering responses to and attitudes towards the menopause, I’m especially struck by one overview: Women, body and society. Cross-cultural differences in menopause experiences by Gabriella Berger and Eberhard Wenzel (http://ldb.org/menopaus.htm). The authors outline how menstruation and the menopause are subject to various cultural constructs all at once: a destructive multi-whammy. First, in the west, we have a history of regarding the female body as ‘a reservoir of aberrations which require constant treatment’. This is our still-enduring ‘medical construct’. This medical bias can mesh all too handily with the religious constructs of certain western faiths that regard – or, have in the past regarded – menstruation as ‘unclean’, implying not just spiritually but literally, unhygienic: and so back to that damaging medical construct once again. Ironically though, the sudden cessation of the menstrual cycle around a certain age can also all too easily be seen and felt, subconsciously at least, as yet one more female ‘medical aberration’.
Berger and Wenzel point out that ‘social powers’ in the west too influence or control us towards medical interventions. We live immersed in a western culture of youth and beauty that’s collectively fearful of, sometimes actively antagonistic towards, how the body ages and certain key signs of ageing. More and more, medical practitioners seek ways of extending the fertility cycle; thus it’s unsurprising if we perceive their efforts, with all the baggage of our constructs, as negative activity aimed at a postponement that will result in our escape from the ‘stigma’ of post-menopausal existence. In the cultures of regions such as Asia, society doesn’t seek to control old age this way, but to elevate and use it to the family, community and general public good.
What can we do, even in a small way, to help push back the western tide of negative messages about our lives post-menopause? At least more of us are recognising they exist, and if we recognise them, we can publicise their damaging effects: hence the show, which started off-Broadway, Menopause! The Musical. Or if we don’t like its blatant, over-sugary and predictable polemics, maybe we can write our feelings out in other forms.
And talking of the arts, there’s a whole strand of menstrual blood art in the visual arts these days: see for instance http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/26/menstrual-blood-art-carina-ubeda_n_3499027.html; or http://bitchmagazine.org/post/smart-menstrual-blood-art-feminism; or http://hyperallergic.com/74107/calm-down-menstual-blood-art-isnt-a-big-deal/. What better way to spotlight the importance of menstruation, or its lack, in our culture – to get people talking about that moment when it stops – than to daub the walls, or cloths, or something else with it? After all, menstruation is still a cultural taboo in most western societies – barely spoken about, even among female friends; which is why Martine, my novel’s character, has problems in that direction, and public evidence of them, that I braved out and talked about in print.
If you’re not into daring self-expression, maybe you’re a joiner. The Red Hat Society for post-menopausal women is a global movement whose name was inspired by the Jenny Joseph poem (When she grows old, she states defiantly, she’ll wear purple and a red hat). This online community has spawned meetups, friendships and even an online shop touting flamboyant fashion items to symbolise the underrecognised badge of honour which is menopausehood (http://redhatsociety.com/).
In my own home town of Stroud, a quirky spot in the English Cotswolds, there’s a ‘Red Hearth House’, a fantastically decorated red tent in the woods where women and adolescent girls are encouraged to gather round a wood fire and share their experiences of puberty, menstruation, childlessness and motherhood: in short, their unifying possession of a womb (http://www.hearthart.co.uk/red-hearth-house).
Or you could be part of a menopause flash mob. This very September, 2014, is National Menopause Awareness Month; so go to this site if jigging about with supportive sisters could be your bag: http://www.menopausegoddessblog.com/2012/08/26/celebrate-the-dance-of-menopause/. Whether we’re in the US, the UK or elsewhere, let’s go for it. Are you keen, like me, as this site urges, to become a Menopause Goddess?
This post should surely be dedicated to Jenny Joseph.
81-year-old Joan Rivers died last week. Her ageing body – she verbally massacred it, often so wittily, not to mention tellingly in a fab interview aged 74 with Pamela Stephenson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NmVoqmfH0M) – ‘betrayed’ her one last time. (‘PS: ‘What do you see when you look in the mirror?’ JR: ‘A much older woman. I see my mother.’ And about feeling betrayed by her body as she aged, JS: ‘[Now] it’s notching it up.’)
In the 2011 census, of those aged 85 or over in England and Wales, women outnumbered men by 2:1. An American study (http://www.brandeis.edu/barnett/docs/ageism.pdf) showed that American women outlive men by around 7 years. Females aged 66+ are more likely than their male counterparts by 11 percentage points to report being treated unfairly or differently because of their age; by 14 percentage points to report being ignored or treated as if they are invisible; and by 14 percentage points to report that people were assuming they were incompetent (http://www.ageismore.com/Revera/media/Revera/Content/Revera-Report_Gender-Differences.pdf). So – assuming that women are not just more open, honest and expressive about these things – ageists are sexist, too.
There’s been much in the UK press about the sexism of brutally removing female TV presenters, newsreaders and such aged 50+, unlike their male equivalents, from the schedules. A Labour Commission to investigate older women’s problems was even established in the UK in 2012 (http://blog.ilcuk.org.uk/2012/10/04/a-double-discrimination-older-women-representation-within-news-broadcasting/). (BTW, the website for the International Longevity Centre, UK, could be worth knowing: http://www.ilcuk.org.uk/index.php/about.)
I warn all you women out there: all this may not seem to apply to you until one day it does. I had my own small, bruising experience recently when I agreed to be one interviewee of three (as I was told) on BBC Radio 4, talking on the difficult personal subject of childlessness. It cost me a deal of anguishing to take part at all; then, when I eventually listened, it was to discover that there were now four participants, including the interviewer herself, and that my contribution had been cut to by far the least airtime. The programme’s half-hour was dominated by the other three, aged in their thirties, forties and, at the top end, 50. This, although the listener age of Radio 4 averages out at 56. My older voice, my 59-year-old voice, had been almost entirely excised.
People talk about encroaching invisibility (http://www.salon.com/2013/04/05/wanna_know_what_its_like_to_disappear_try_being_a_woman_over_50_partner/). To me it seems more multi-dimensional than this: inaudibility, shrinkage, even neglect.
Go ahead, depress yourself with a useful but chastening summary of findings about Gender and Ageism. It lists the factors at http://www2.webster.edu/~woolflm/ageism/gender.html. According to researchers, society perceives:
- Older men as healthier than older women
– Older women as hypochondriacs
– Older women as ‘ineffective, dependent, and passive’.
Plus of course, older women who’ve lost a partner or husband (remember, most outlive men) often find this image of ‘dependency and passivity’ becoming reality as they struggle to deal with sudden independence.
Another interesting fact: medics diagnose older women with psychological problems 3-4 times more often than men. The article writers speculate that this may be down to incipient sexism in the psychiatric profession.
As Joan Rivers knew, society judges and defines women more harshly on their appearance and ‘attractiveness’, whatever that means. Visual impressions are all-important in a western culture that, sadly, is also hung up on the notion of ageing as inevitable decline – partly, in physical appearance.
Older women are especially disadvantaged in the workplace. After raising children, they may not be able to return to work easily. The Brandeis study states that when women do go back after an interruption, their average wages are some 30 percent lower than before – and 5 percent lower even after 20 previous years of continuous service. Aside from the impediment of changes at their previous employers, broader professional ties may have melted away, and technology etc. will have moved on. Problems are exacerbated if women have taken multiple breaks, for instance to have several children – and yet, given their lesser retirement savings because of interruptions and lower wages, they may have to soldier on in employment beyond the age of 65.
There are other work-related problems, too. The (US) National Academy on an Aging Society found that women represented nearly 75% of the carers for people aged 50+ (dying parents, in-laws, spouses etc.). Some 49% of them have accordingly to change their work schedules; 11% to get leave; 7% to take less demanding jobs; and some to leave work completely. I pointed out in my last post that, with our increasing life expectancy, families had moved from inverted pyramid towards pillar structures, increasing the burden on older women – since, sadly, much of society still considers care for the old and ill to be a role better suited to women than men.
Depressed enough yet? The Guardian in 2012 reported that unemployment among women aged 50-64 had seen a huge 31% increase, as opposed to the overall increase among adults of 4.2% – and that was back in 2012. Cuts in local authority budgets seem to have hit ‘our’ group especially hard.
Of course, men encounter ageism and gender bias too. F’rinstance, society perceives older men as growing more ‘feminine’ with age: itself an insult to us women, as what’s implied here, we’re told, is, more timid and dependent. Language can also caricature them as ‘old coots’ and ‘codgers’.
But don’t get me started on ageist language for women. Some is more derisive, characterising us as repugnant and disgusting (‘old hag’, ‘old witch’); otherwise it diminishes or patronises us: ‘little old lady’, ‘you lovely ladies’. For more on this, peek at The Old Women’s Project: http://www.oldwomensproject.org/real_life.htm.
And then there’s the singlism of ageism, which I’ve only vaguely touched on. For one thing, it’s harder to fight the ageism of the world if you’re a family unit of only one. With 33% of Englishwomen over 50 not grandmothers, and many likely to stay so, we’re heading for an older old age with scant likelihood of immediate family to care for us if we need it – and at the moment, little availability of home carers from the state. One other wee example: we female singletons are more likely to end up as carers in our extended families, and, partly as a result – and contrary to popular myth – to have more problems making ends meet.
From all this, how to be positive? To start with, here are some counter-facts to cheer us up:
- In the Revera Report (above), more 66+ women than men reported being optimistic, linking ageing to actual improvements: becoming wiser; being happier and more confident, and a better version of themselves. More felt that ‘You never stop living life to the fullest’ and that ‘Age is just a number.’
– According to Gender and Ageism (above), older women rated themselves as having ‘greater body competency’ then both older men and young adults – so our image as unhealthy or hypochondriacs appears to be a myth.
– Gender and Ageism also states that women’s self-image ‘shows great improvement with age as compared to men’. The theory goes that this may be because we go in for yet more social contact as we get older. Anyhoo, apparently we become ‘more assertive, less fearful, and less dependent’.
The Old Women’s Project (above) has sound advice on countering sexist/ageist remarks. If someone asks with condescending humour, ‘How young are you?’, say ‘x, and I’m proud of my age.’ Mirror comments like ‘So glad you’re looking so well’ with ‘And I’m glad that you are too.’ To the exclamation, ‘Surely not!’ about your age, reply,’You know, as long as everyone feels age is something to be ashamed of, it’s going to be something to be ashamed of.’
A recent study by Princeton University revealed that women are less inclined to seek out leadership roles than men, and have more self-doubt about them. So another observation to take to heart, perhaps, is that what will help us to remain visible past our fifties are powerful jobs – or leadership roles of some kind, any kind: in our local communities, volunteering, in our families, in our street.
It’s a small step from this to choosing to spend more time with people who really see and hear us, and less with people who don’t.
There’s a great book about all this. It’s Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism by Barbara Macdonald with Cynthia Rich. And, for an account of a wonderful project that really acknowledged the dignity of older women by harnessing their stories, Songs from an Armchair edited by Stephanie Smith: http://www.songsfromanarmchair.co.uk/Home.html.
The last word to Joan Rivers, with Pamela Stephenson on YouTube (above). PS: ‘How is sex for you these days?’ JR: ‘Exactly the same, just the room’s a little darker…. It’s terrific.’
Smug and condescending and/or revered and masterly (depending on your point of view) 64-year-old Jeremy Paxman, recently retired presenter of the BBC’s flagship political programme Newsnight, has got himself into trouble lately. During a practice run for his virgin Edinburgh Fringe comic stand-up routine (‘Paxo’), he recommended Dignitas clinics on every street corner masquerading as tea shops into which we could lead the unsuspecting old people who, according to him, overrun us and who also, according to him, misguidedly believe that the state owes them a pension. A modern-day Sweeney Todd regime.
Genocide jokes against any recognised demographic slice aren’t funny. I’m in agreement there. Nor, probably, is the generalised mockery of any recognised demographic slice. But while old people humour may be off-limits, old age comedy is possibly a different matter.
We all know why Paxo did it: he even said so. His hammed-up prejudice was rooted in real fear; after all, he confessed, he’s about to become, if only according to prevailing pension rights definitions, an ‘old man’ himself (currently in the UK, women become ‘old women’ five years earlier). Why is this scary? Because, he said, the numbers of older people are growing. In the UK in 2013, more than 10 million were over 65; by 2050, the predicted figure is 19 million. The 2011 England and Wales census found 1.25 million aged 85 or over compared with 1.01 million in 2001 (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/mortality-ageing/characteristics-of-older-people/what-does-the-2011-census-tell-us-about-the-oldest-old-living-in-england-and-wales?/) As long ago as 1989, the International Labour Organisation, Geneva pointed out that in most developed countries there had been a dramatic vertical growth in families at the expense of horizontal shrinkage. The four-generation family had arrived, with an 85-year-old likely to be cared for by a 60-year-old child, who might in turn be supporting a 40-year-old child and that child’s teenage offspring: this due to the population’s overall decreased fertility and increased longevity. The ILO described the trend as a shift in demographic shape from a pyramid to a pillar. It’s not so far a stretch from this to a startling inverted pyramid.
But why do sheer numbers scare us so? There are several influences on our terrors; Susan Fiske and Michael North of Princeton University name three of them.
The first issue lies around consumption: ‘They’re sucking us dry.’ We resist the notion that the elderly are consuming huge quantities of scarce resources. The UK’s Department for Work and Pensions stated in 2013 that 65% of its spending was on those over working age; the UK’s Department of Public Health estimated in 2013 that someone over 85 was about three times more expensive to care for than someone between 65 and 75; and apparently, UK state benefits and the National Health Service spend the majority of their finance (around half of UK government expenditure) on older people.
The second issue is about succession: ‘They’re stamping us down.’ Many believe, consciously or otherwise, that older people should sacrifice the jobs and social positions they hold, especially if they’re attractive ones, to allow younger hopefuls their ‘turn': the underlying assumption being that this is an inter-generational competition.
The third issue revolves around older people’s image and identity: ‘They’re imitating us better than we do.’ Older people are healthier for longer these days; are reaping the benefit of treatments, cosmetics and fashions to make themselves look younger; and live longer looking better. Yet there’s an underlying expectation that the elderly should not appear, or act, younger than they are (again, surely through a subconscious fear of competition – as well as a kind of outrage that our ‘elders and betters’ are breaking societal rules; rules that, of course, younger generations have written.)(http://www.academia.edu/2554283/Act_Your_Old_Age_Prescriptive_Ageist_Biases_over_Succession_Consumption_and_Identity)
I’d add a fourth issue: modern society’s inbuilt aesthetic squeamishness: ‘They’re making the place ugly.’ In this cosmetic-surgical, bodybuilt age of image-hyperconsciousness, we’re simultaneously, self-contradictorily, repulsed by appearance stereotypes of the old: wrinkling, shrinkage, incontinence, bandages and tubing, weakening, encroaching stupidity, dribbling, dementia and bad dentistry. Scary, then, that the statistics tell us that we should expect to see more of it.
The result is that these days, older people aren’t just objects of fear: they’re also useful scapegoats for collective social problems – as Paxo painted them, to his cost. Jean Carette, retired Professor at the University of Quebec, Montreal, explains that as the Baby Boomers become the Grandparent Boomers, they’re assumed ‘to have all the privileges and to have monopolized the advantages of their generation, leaving [us] strangled by the debt, collapsing under the load of elders and condemned to the decline.’
The section headed ‘Ageism: Concepts and Theories’ in a Law Commission of Ontario paper on older adults (http://www.lco-cdo.org/en/older-adults-lco-funded-papers-charmaine-spencer-sectionII), the same article that quotes Carette, reminds me that we’ve inherited from the ancient Greeks two models of the older person: not just the ‘geronte‘, ‘the ridiculous old person with cognitive and other declines’ but also the ‘presbyte‘ – ‘the wise old person rich in experience and wisdom’. Shame on us in the west that we can’t even respect the presbyte model in our old age nomenclature: that we call old people ‘the elderly’ and ‘the aged’, with their connotations of mental and physical frailty, or the patronising ‘our seniors’, ‘your loved one’ – and, to their faces, ‘ladies’ or ‘gentlemen’ – when a simple ‘you’ might be preferred. Equally though, I know we have to beware of applying the politically correct ‘successful ageing model’ to everyone, a beatific ideal which denies the realities of sickness and dependency for many older people.
Old age should be the bogeyman, not the old.
And if you fear something, it’s often good to defy it, and one way of defying it is to be funny about it. In a US study of older male patients, those scoring highest on a humour survey recovered fastest from their cataract operations; in another study, the older residents of an apartment block who began to watch I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners reported an increasing sense of wellbeing.(http://help4srs.org/seniortruth/?p=607) In the 1990s, a rise in the popularity of so-called laughter yoga clubs started with groups of older people in parks. (Supposedly, faking jolliness can fool the brain into releasing feel-good endorphins – and boosting physiological immunity, too.) So older people making Youtube videos of themselves doing lipsynch montages or the Harlem shake are fine with me (http://www.care2.com/greenliving/4-fabulous-examples-of-elders-defying-ageism-video.html). Ditto humorous greetings cards that they may choose happily to send to each other: ‘Your secrets are safe with your friends because they can’t remember them either,’ ‘You know you’re getting older when your back goes out more than you do.’ Still, it would be nice if there were more cards based on positive old age humour: ‘An old maid is a woman who has missed the chance of getting a divorce.’ ‘Girlfriend – when we’re older we’re going to be SOBs – Spectacular Older Babes.’ ‘A reporter was interviewing a man on his 100th birthday. “Have you lived here all your life?” “Not yet!”‘
(I’m well aware that I keep talking about older people as ‘them’, even though at 59, like Paxo, I’m one of ‘them’ myself. I know this in many ways, the most recent confirmation being searching Shutterstock et al. under ‘older people’ for an image to illustrate this post and discovering to my horror that to Shutterstock et al., ‘older people’ clearly mean people who look around the age of 40 max.)
So let’s direct some humour at the ageists themselves. I ransacked the net but couldn’t find a single joke at their expense. Here’s a tentative first try.
Aestheticism: Get anyone to jump out of the raft who doesn’t look pretty.
Asceticism: Get anyone to jump out of the raft who’s using up too many rations.
Anti-athleticism: Get anyone to jump out of the raft who can row.
Appearanceism (my coinage): Get anyone to jump out of the raft who’s prettier than you, or seems more energetic.
Ageism: Everyone in the above categories older than you, get them to jump (if they can still hear, use their limbs and follow simple instructions of course).
Well, I did say that it was only a first try.
(Anti-ageism: Get Paxo to swim for it too. A fair definition? You decide.)
Next time I’ll get more personal, avoiding the ‘them-isms’. That post I hereby fore-entitle Ageism Part II: The Singlism and the Sexism of It….
As most of you are aware by now, I’m ‘older’ (59), single and childless. What you may not know is that I also live in a cohousing community. A cohousing community is often defined as a self-designed collection of dwellings, probably including communal areas, conceived by a group of individuals who may well not have known each other before the project started, with express intent: they’ve come together with a shared ethos of neighbourly behaviour and a degree of mutual support in mind.
In other European countries, Canada and elsewhere around the world, there can be state support for cohousing; but in the UK, the government won’t underwrite it, even fractionally, so the seed money must be found otherwhere: in the case of my shared home, from the stakes of those who first planned to live here bolstered by bank loans. Now it’s built and up and running, new occupants either buy their homes (whether flat or house), or rent them; we also pay a monthly charge, related to the square metreage of our dwellings, which goes towards communal upkeep (after all, we have shared, unfenced garden areas; a shared kitchen and dining room for thrice-weekly-plus community meals, if we opt for them; a shared party/meeting/social space; a shared workshop; a shared laundry; and a shared games room). (http://www.therightplace.net/coco/public/)
I’ve written many times here about the various ‘alternative womanhoods’ to which I belong: older womanhood, childless womanhood, single womanhood; but as yet I’ve never mused about where such womanhoods might live in order to optimise our happiness, and our sense of social connectedness and usefulness; and also, perhaps, in order to iron out the impressions of our inequality that we can suffer from in wider social groups. There’s a yearning in many of us, artificial nostalgia or otherwise, for some Utopia in which we all ‘get on’ cheek by jowl along some sun-drenched street (or compound of mud huts), having our errands done for us by accessible willing Others while we preserve the precious limits on our privacy. Although Martine, the main protagonist in my novel, lives in a highrise block, her friendships being a physically dispersed network, there are signs even in her of personal effort towards some embryonic community, somehow to be formed from among the neighbours in the flats around her.
‘The problem is to find a form of association which will defend with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone.’ (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778)
Too true, Jean-Jacques. In Norman Rush’s brilliant, challenging novel Mating (1991), the two main characters recognise that in any society some responsibilities and roles will be unpopular, if not positively repulsive – the classic being the job of the night soil man (or woman); yet in any Utopia, each individual must be able to ‘obey himself alone’, i.e., shouldn’t feel co-opted. Where I live, we try to notch up a quota of hours annually spent on workdays, when such jobs as weeding, cleaning, re-decorating, repairs, log-cutting and other such tasks are done in the communal areas; but I have to say that I wouldn’t do any, or many, of these by choice, as I have a full-time job, and also have my own flat to clean and maintain and keep tidy.
There’s a whole heap more issues than this with successfully inhabiting an intentional community. Casting around for a supportive history of all-female living arrangements, you might be tempted to glean inspiration from the tradition of convent life – for about two seconds, before you’re reminded that nunneries have long been instruments of patriarchy, ultimately subject to male domination and control, partly through such rules as silence, obedience and chastity. Yes, many convents have also been sanctuaries for single, childless and ageing women; but they have almost always had clausura, i.e. rigid separation from the rest of society, as a condition of entry – despite whatever social duties ‘outside’ (almsgiving to the poor, etc.) they might also expect of their members. (Veronika Čapská, Ellinor Forster, Janine Christina Maegraith, Christine Schneider Opava, eds., Between Revival and Uncertainty. Monastic and Secular Female Communities in Central Europe in the Long Eighteenth Century,Silesian University in Opava, 2012) Other religions though do have cohabitational groupings along gender lines – certain Buddhist men- and women-only communities in the UK, for instance – and I’m led to believe, quite successfully.
There are other examples of female communities around the world. http://nomenallowed.wordpress.com describes the Umoja Women’s Group, a cooperative of some 46 women living near the small town of Archer’s Post in the Kenyan Chalbi desert. Here, female members work and live together, supporting themselves by making and selling tribal jewellery for local tourists. However, bitchiness, rivalry and conflict still feature in this lifestyle.
http://metro.co.uk/2013/03/05/where-women-rule-the-world-matriarchal-communities-from-albania-to-china-3525234/ lists examples of female-run communities, though few are majority or all-female. In the Kingdom of Women on Lugu Lake in China, 40,000 women live unmarried with no word for ‘father’ or ‘husband’, taking lovers at will from within the tribe. This is a matrilineal society, with property handed down through the female line and no stigma attached to ignorance of a child’s fatherhood. Sadly, the wider world has often misunderstood this system, with male outsiders arriving sometimes as sex tourists, disturbing the social equilibrium. The tribes of the Indian state of Meghalaya also run a matrilineal ship: the youngest daughter in a family inherits all property, but is also responsible for her ageing parents and any unmarried siblings. But again, this is power reversal, not an all-women’s Utopia: it’s telling that now, men’s rights groups are emerging.
The unnamed female adventurer-anthropologist in Rush’s novel does discover a predominantly female culture, run by women, at a fictional place called Tsau, in the middle of the Kalahari desert. In her notes, she describes it:
‘200 homesteads, 10 new ones under construction…. Circa 450 total population. 50 men, at most…. Children 40, up to preadolescence. All the rest women, 70 percent past childbearing age, 30 percent otherwise. Younger women known as queens…, older women aunts or aunties…: these terms used openly and not unfriendlily on both sides.’
The community tries hard to be self-sufficient, using the environment (sun, rainwater) to its benefit, attempting to create equitable systems of management, property ownership and personal wealth.
The rationale for establishing it is stated by its founder, the charismatic Nelson Denoon:
‘… despite apparent differences every society can be analyzed to show that women are in essence being shaped to function as vehicles for male imperatives and the physical reproduction of male power….[Furthermore,] because of the history of crushing and molding of women, men have no idea what women are or what they might be if they were left alone.’
The irony is that he’s a man of course, and that he lives there himself, a well-intentioned spider at the centre of his own web. As a man, together with one or two disruptive younger men who figure in the community, he grows unhappy with the way his creation is evolving (as do some women); and in the end, differences of opinion, deliberately stirred-up unrest and dramatic events affect his own ideal.
Non-fictionally, a group of older women are currently setting up an intentional all-female community in Barnet, London: http://www.owch.org.uk/. http://www.alapine.org/herstory.html is the (also non-fictional) site of the Alapine Community, which describes itself as an ‘all womyn’s intentional community’ set up on a plot of hundreds of acres of mountainous rural Alabama and inhabited by a group of women aged from 50-80, some living on-, some living off-, grid, with environmental concerns very much in mind. It’s hard to tell from their public-facing details how much conflict they’ve experienced, but it’s clear there has been some, as they’re a breakaway from the all-women’s Pagoda community of 1977, and they speak of using techniques for conflict resolution.
I come back to my own home, though. Ultimately I think I still feel ambivalent about all-women communities. They’re at root artificial, and homogeneous (excuse the male-coloured word): bubbles, scientifically induced cultures, outside mainstream society. Here in my cohousing, we hold a women’s group every fortnight whose practice of active listening I really value; we also have a mix of ages, marital and family arrangements and gender orientations. We’re probably unsatisfactorily middle-class for many tastes, despite our best intentions to the contrary.
In the end, I don’t think I want to live away from the wonderful company of the children who surround me, even though I don’t have them myself; from women younger than I am; or from men. I just want society to recognise me more for what I am, and to offer me the status and the roles that I feel I richly deserve.
This post is dedicated to Kathryn Mccamant, co-author, with Charles Durrett, of Cohousing, which, with The Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, underpins the ethos of our own cohousing community.
I have five nephews and two nieces. But maybe I’m a bit slow or something: it’s only in the last few years that I’ve realised in how many different ways we women can play the part of aunt – even if, like me, we’re also single, older and childless.
Today, as I’ve probably said often enough on here, 1 in 5 women in North America, Australasia and the UK has had no biological children by the end of her fertile years. Yet society lags behind, parent/child-centric, obsessed with Motherhood and Apple Pie. Shame on us if we fail to deliver on that ideal, so a widespread mythology goes.
My novel, On the Far Side, There’s a Boy, has just come out (http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=on+the+far+side+theres+a+boy; and http://www.amazon.com/author/paulacoston). Researching and writing it helped me to explore the role of aunt to the full. If a woman is childless, it had me asking, what other functions can she have?
In it, I tell the story of two women from vastly different cultures. Martine, a feisty London woman, navigates her life from the 1980s to now uncertain about wanting motherhood, and about what kind of mother she’d choose to be. She juggles family relationships (sometimes troublesome), a fulfilling job, and a frantic social and dating life. This was typical of many young women in the 1970s and ’80s, offered far more opportunities than the generations before us. No one should blame us for trying to embrace all those chances, even if at the expense of parenthood.
Anupama lives on the exotic Asian island of Sri Lanka. Also an aspirational woman, from a younger generation, she’s uncertain about having a family for different reasons from Martine. Martine loves her mother but is distant from her in some ways; Anupama lives in a remote mountain village with her extended family, and her mother is sick. For these reasons, women’s roles other than motherhood become important to them both.
In parts of Africa, families regard a father’s sister as a kind of female father: she can discipline her brother’s children, arrange her nephew’s marriage and bar him from choosing an unacceptable mate. In Sri Lanka, aunts are termed ‘mothers’.’Senior mother’ is the name for a father’s older sister, again implying more status for aunts than in the west. Actually, any mature woman tends to be dubbed ‘auntie’. But then, most Asians value older generations, and close community groupings that spread beyond the nuclear family, more than western/northern societies.
My story tells how Martine becomes penpal to Anupama’s little brother through charitable giving: Martine’s money from London goes to local community projects. His letters start to get to her:
‘Out of nowhere he broke through Martine like a bead of blood through a membrane….
“What I like most is writing to you….I have things still to say to you…. I ardently wish you were here.”
The words of that letter had hit some soft spot….’
I was a charity penpal to a child abroad myself. It can be a wonderful, aunt-like relationship, educational on both sides. I’ve kept ‘my’ boy’s letters, photos and drawings to this day. There are several international charities that operate this way.
My teenage Anupama is oppressed by her mother’s sickness, by the narrow outlook of her ‘senior and junior mothers’ and by a burden of family responsibility beyond her years. She longs for an empathetic, mentorly figure. She adores but envies her brother his letter-writing outlet, wishing Martine was somehow ‘hers’. She begins confiding in the moon instead, having conversations with it and calling it ‘Handanandamama’, ‘Auntie-Uncle’, her tribute to the special value of aunthood.
More proactive than the moon, over the years I’ve become a godmother four times; as an alternative, several women I know, friends of families of another religion or none, have been designated ‘special aunts’. (Some cultures seriously venerate godmotherhood. In Brazil, PANKs® – Professional Aunts No Kids – the term Savvy Auntie founder, Melanie Notkin, dubbed in 2008 for childless women who are aunts or godmothers by relation, or by choice, to a child in their life – spend more on their godchildren than conventional aunts.)
My Martine doesn’t become a godmother, but as her window onto motherhood recedes she gains two nieces and, like me, takes on the ‘standard’ role of aunt, amazed to the point of awe by her sense of inclusion and involvement:
‘She’d dreaded … the holy family … in its halo of happiness. She hadn’t anticipated the baby handed to her, to herself painted into the picture.’
I soon realised how much I enjoyed my nieces’ and nephews’ company. I took them on outings, laughed with them, helped them with homework and exams. Now most are in their twenties, and that relationship has evolved into something new, but as special. One nephew and I have started letter-writing, spurning emails and Facebook (his suggestion); the results are sometimes comic, sometimes moving and profound.
As Martine’s fictional nieces grow up, she finds herself a useful confidante on delicate matters.
‘Gretel said, “Um. You’re not here…. Men and women. Um…. Look,” Gretel burst out. “There’s a boy…. We don’t… do anything.”‘
I’ve become a kind of mentor too: to one niece, and a daughter, in her thirties, of an ex-business partner and friend. We meet for drinks, meals and trips out. We ask each other’s advice across the generations: on work, family, relationships – and now in Charlotte’s case, a wedding.
I’m blessed. Although single and without children of my own, I live in an extended family of a sort. The ‘cohousing community’ I inhabit is a large group of neighbours who have designed the architecture of what we call ‘home’ to include our own private living spaces – flats and houses – but also gardens; a communal building with a dining room for us to share meals weekly if we want; a large party and meeting room; a games room; a DIY workshop, and more. Singles, families, couples and less traditional households, we have fun together or apart. I love having so many children close at hand.
Martine and I have one other auntly experience (correct term: materteral experience!) in common. I’ve been a ‘guardian’ to an international student, here to study at a UK school for a semester or two, needing somewhere local to stay in her vacation. Rather than go out, and be active, she preferred mostly to stay in, to enjoy (?) my home cooking and hunker down with her tablet and a TV in a cosier, more private space than her boarding dorm.
Martine considers doing the same. For all kinds of difficult reasons, though, she’s uncertain about it. The guardian agent rings her.
‘”Look, we really can’t wait much longer,” says Jocelyn Teague….”There’s a family involved as well, waiting to know.”
“And you say it has to be this one,” says Martine. “It’s only that, ideally…”.
“We’ve been through this before,” says Jocelyn Teague.
“I can’t tell you just yet.” Martine puts down the phone.’
Will she follow through? Ah, well for that, you’ll have to read On the Far Side, There’s a Boy to find out. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=on+the+far+side+theres+a+boy; and http://www.amazon.com/author/paulacoston)
We childless women are a messed-up lot at times. (I speak for myself here, really.) We can see our childlessness in everything around us.
Take art. I’m passionate about it, but when I study any piece from the long, rich line of Christian art featuring the Madonna and Babe like the one above, the first thing I see is what I have not, namely a child. The viewer can’t help but be at least a little self-referential. Truism, sorry, and one I’ve voiced here before: art, how we interpret it, is a social, cultural, emotional/spiritual construct.
The good thing about that, though, is that it makes art different every time, every moment, that we look. Looking at this fresco, first I see the absence of my own motherhood, then I see patriarchy and separation, man from woman, in the defined space between them and the male, authoritarian-looking raised finger. Then I feel empathy for a mother, not my own distance of experience from her. Unlike so many versions of this trope, the child seems to be wriggling, or certainly lively, in her lap. I sympathise with her as well. He’s going to be a handful.
Maybe all childless art-lovers none the less can’t help but feel cool air in the overhanging shadow of this sacred tradition of reminders of our state. From art galleries and picture books, when we’re feeling vulnerable, it gloats at us a bit. But although the Holy Duo persist into modern art, there are some interesting twists. Here’s Klimt:
Yes, I get the same chill at first – I’ll never experience the intimacy of sleeping, naked and innocent, with someone small; but then I zoom back on this detail to Klimt’s wider, more inclusive visual statement:
Admittedly the older woman could be the mother to the girl. Despite her flab of stomach, interestingly my brain is keen to reject that possibility at once. Actually, initially I’m just pathetically gladdened that Klimt has given me, a mature female, a place – until, almost instantly, I absorb the details: how bony and shrunken and unhappy she looks; how squeezed she is to one side of the painting, back to a barren space, in an artistic marginalisation. She’s a husk of a woman, seemingly now useless (if she ever was of use): the visual equivalent of Shakespeare’s ‘sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything’.
More scenes than those of the Sacred Family stick the gallery goer inescapably, like a magnet, to their habit of elevating maternity: vaguely smock-like fashions captured in paint also invariably suggest pregnancy and childbirth. There was for years much eyebrow-raising and knowing winkage at the image above: an unwed mum! Viewers just assumed that this painting belonged to the ‘baby bump’ tradition – which continues today, drawing in so many female subjects from Eve to Picasso’s Pregnant Woman to Lucian Freud’s picture of a preggers Jerry Hall and Daniel Edwards’ sculpture of Britney Spears gripping an animal rug, pushing out a baby. (Turns out in the case of Arnolfini’s betrothed, the researchers now believe that her bulk of opulent fabric aforeships was merely a trendy fifteenth-century indicator of wealth and status.)
There are other child-laden artistic traditions that can be alienating at first.
Art commissions by wealthy patrons from the Renaissance onwards often meant depictions like the above, showing off not just splendid house, garden and estate but also wife and numerous children, their clothes, even their playthings, as equally elegant and desirable possessions. An unthinkable image without the perfectly presented mother and offspring.
But if those are the art lineages that can seem excluding, where, then, are ours? What does a pictorial lack of something, or the assertion of our positive attributes, look like?
Sadly in art the lack, or more commonly, the loss of children is often saccharin, over-sentimentalised.
Mcinnes’ effort above just about squeaks through, prompting in me a heartstring-tug, not a diabetic rush of wincing. Still, his empty cradle tells of an event, not the people caught up in it. Their bereavement is recent but past, and the gaping receptacle, hollow and now unoccupied, seems a negative symbol. Mothers in art are on the whole portrayed as people, in terms of themselves, not their landmark maternal events (being impregnated, popping a baby): heaven forbid. I want the equivalent for us childless: art that expresses not so much our losses, but who we are.
Even today, many artists – such as Samantha Bennett (‘PainterSam’) of Maryland, who herself lost a child, resort to the symbolism of hope in their statements about childlessness. PainterSam paints butterflies, in art and mythology known as emblems of transformation, for parents who have lost children – sometimes, in combination with portraits of the children lost. The digital artist Cunene introduces the dragonfly, another symbol of change, into her portrait of a Childless Mother holding a fragile egg delicately in a cat’s cradle between her fingers.
For me, Frida Kahlo says more about who we are, in both our sufferings and our strengths.
In the painting above, representing her second miscarriage and a dawning realisation that she might never carry a pregnancy to term, Kahlo shows herself prostrate like a martyr or an offering in some votive painting against a barren backdrop, including the ugly skyline of Detroit with its Henry Ford plant. It’s a horrific work, her body – badly damaged in a car accident years before, endangering her childbearing prospects for ever – tied to symbols of her maternal hopes, love for her husband (the orchid, which he gave her) and the lost foetus. Yet there’s something assertive about it: it’s a self-confronting, almost defiant reminder of her physicality and life force.
The message is graphic but more affirmative and accepting in Roots, above. Kahlo acknowledges all she’s been through as an aspiring mother but magically, finds a way here of reconciling herself with the biological world that has made her the way she is. However childless she may stay, it seems to me that the painting tells us, she’s capable of creating and flowering out of the visceral, out of pain, of giving something back.
Which brings me to Louise Ann Wilson, who’s also turning to nature (right now) for her Walking-Art Project in Cumbria, England. She’s busy mapping out a prototype interactive walk for the public ‘made with women for whom having a biological child is not possible’. As they clamber and stride these beautiful, seemingly desolate highlands, they’ll be asked to seek out emblems of their own backgrounds – an untaken path, a limestone cairn on a layer of scree, a nodding flower reflected in standing water – that might help ‘to effect positive transitions in the lives of participants’. The resultant geographical, biological and emotional/spiritual experience will open to the public as a self-guided walk from spring 2015.
The art of childlessness, like all art, must surely always allow for our individuality, for our personal interpretations in positive as well as negative ways.
For this post, a big thank you to Adele Armstrong, radio producer, who brought up the topic (I couldn’t believe I hadn’t considered it already!). You can hear Sangita Myska interviewing me, and two other women childless by circumstance, on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 15 August 2014 at 11.00 am, in a major documentary entitled Family without a Child. Do listen, and let me know what you think!