Midlife Women Are Reclaiming Their Time
I was in my late 40s and about to divorce for the second time when I had a heart-to-heart talk with my mother about marriage and motherhood.
Was there anything she regretted, I asked.
“Yes,” she said in her Romanian accent, still thick despite having left her native country decades earlier, a concentration camp survivor who’d been orphaned at age 16 in the Holocaust.
“I wish I had an affair on your father.”
That was not what I had expected to hear.
My mother was in her early 70s then and still a stunning woman. For all I knew, my father, whom she married a week before her 21st birthday, was the only man she’d had sex with. I knew that my mother was not the only woman my father had sex with, including at least two during their 61-year marriage.
I am sure she had opportunities — with a sly smile she admitted to having “a chance” — especially since she had been basically living on her own. She had left our New York City home, bought a condo in Miami, where my sister was living, got herself a job and created a life for herself independent of my father. They lived apart for about 10 years, although my father visited for a long weekend each month, until he retired and permanently joined her in Florida.
I’m pretty sure that’s why their marriage lasted that long. Still, it wasn’t what my friends’ mothers were doing.
“What was that all about?” I asked her during that same heart-to-heart talk. She had split for Miami when I was in my early 20s, newly married to my first husband, living in Colorado and not really paying too much attention to what my parents were doing.
“I’d had enough,” was all she said. As a mother and former wife of many years myself, I knew exactly what she meant.
I wish I had asked her more, though — what did she say to my father, what did he say, had they talked of divorce, had she thought of doing it earlier, why didn’t she do it earlier?
She was in her late 40s when she left, a sexy redhead with full lips, soulful green eyes and a juicy body. I did not quite see her that way at the time — who wants to view your own mother as a sexpot? Now when I look at photographs of her, I see her that way.
At midlife, with her daughters grown, she was truly in her prime. And she was willing to shake up her comfortable life to take care of herself.
Although she didn’t have an affair, she did something as exciting, perhaps even more so, for a woman of her generation — a 1950s stay-at-home suburban mom. At midlife, she created for herself a room of her own, a rich, satisfying life filled with friends, her job, her hobbies, her daughters and, most important, her freedom. And, presumably, enjoyed a lusty long weekend with my father once a month.
While I didn’t plan it that way, I, too, created a rich, satisfying life filled with friends, career, hobbies, children and a sense of freedom in my midlife years once I was no longer tethered to a husband. I’ve just had, thankfully, a heck of a lot more sex than my mother had.
Still, being alone at midlife was not what I expected.
Although I didn’t dream of being swept away by a prince to live happily ever after in a castle somewhere as a young girl, I did grow up with some romantic notions and a society-approved script of what my life should look like — meet, date, fall in love, marry, house, kids. No one warned me there might be a minivan as well.
And I did have that in my second marriage, except for the “ever after” part. When I found myself single at midlife, that old script didn’t work anymore. I didn’t “need” a man for kids or a house. Did I even need a man for anything? (More on that later) It took me four decades to ask myself for the first time in my life, “Vicki, what do you want? What do you want this part of your life to look like?” There is no script, society-approved or not, for middle-aged women, which is both challenging and liberating. We have to create it ourselves. Or toss the idea of one away entirely and make it up as we go along.
That does not stop people from having feels about midlife women.
When I look at women around my age, midlife and older, I see that they, too, are asking themselves, what do I want, what do I want this part of my life to look like? They are craving something more.
Some are single by choice or chance. Others are married and while they may or may not have “had enough” of being a wife and a mother, there is something that is making them feel restless.
It isn’t quite the “problem that has no name” that Betty Friedan spoke about decades ago. Today’s women are beyond that. But society hasn’t quite caught up to us. The restlessness midlife women feel is more a desire to bust free from the narrative of what society sees us as and, to paraphrase California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, reclaim our time.
You most likely know the stereotypes older women face — at the most innocent, a menopausal mess who’s lost interest in sex and lives in fear of her fading beauty and becoming invisible to society at large and specifically to men (sorry guys, not all women are interested in men). At the worst, a crazy cat lady destined to die alone.
But that’s not how we feel. That’s not how we talk about ourselves. It’s how men — not all, but many — talk about us. That’s the narrative. And it’s hard not to internalize those messages.
It’s hitting Gen X women, who are just entering midlife, particularly hard.
“We were an experiment in crafting a high-achieving more fulfilled, more well-rounded version of the American woman. In midlife, many of us find that the experiment is largely a failure,” writes Ada Calhoun in her latest book, Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis.
Calhoun observes that her generation was brought up to truly believe that having it all wasn’t a mere “bright new option,” but a “mandatory condition” and totally doable. Whatever they were doing — forging a career, mothering, being a spouse, finding the sweet work-life spot — they were supposed to excel at it, which, she observes, has only added shame and loneliness to their midlife experience. “We were supposed to have his solved by now.”
Which only proves that women have been sold a version of what everyone else wants us to be rather than having women decide for ourselves what our most authentic life would be.
Many midlife women are finding that by leaving their marriage.
While divorce rates are generally on the decline, there’s one age group that’s divorcing as if it were the next big thing — those aged 50 and older. The number of divorced women 65 and older in America has jumped to 14% of the population (thanks gray divorce!) and growing. And more than a quarter of all women (26%) — divorced, widowed or never-married — aged 65 to 75 live alone.
But you don’t have to leave a marriage to reclaim your time. In The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, my co-author, Susan Pease Gadoua, and I share various marital models couples might want to consider transforming their marriage into instead of divorcing.
There’s lots of talk about how midlife can be a time of reinvention, but the pressure to reinvent yourself when you may be caring for aging parents and raising rebellious teens or toddlers while working long hours, or juggling multiple jobs and side hustles just to survive, adds another layer of stress and shame — oh, I’m supposed to do that, too?
No, what needs to happen is changing the narrative about being a woman at midlife, whether partnered, divorced, widowed or never-married; straight or LGBTQ; a mother or childfree; white, Asian, Black, indigenous or Latina — whatever. And to embrace that new narrative in our own lives.
“I consider myself a proud member of one of the most invisible segments of the population: older women. So I want to redefine how I live my life in a way that defies what an older woman should look like, talk like, think like, work like, be like and fuck like,” says Cindy Gallop, a 59-year-old ad exec and founder of MakeLoveNotPorn.com. “We don’t have enough role models in society for women and men that demonstrate you can live your life in a very different way than society expects you to and still be extremely happy.”
She is right — we don’t have enough role models. But they exist.
That is why I am writing this book — to help me, and hopefully you, plan for the best, most authentic life we can have in this next phase of our life. I want to be intentional as I can be when it comes to my remaining decades — assuming there are, indeed, decades. At this age — my 60s — I am well aware of how truly precious time is.
So I am reaching out to the sisterhood of women, talking to numerous experts and culling through studies to absorb as much as I can so I can share what I learn with you. Women today are not going to age as our parents did — we have many more choices, thankfully. But there are real concerns, too.
To be clear, I am not going to send you on an Eat, Pray, Love journey. My book will not about finding yourself, reinventing yourself or empowering yourself. Women already have power — we just want others to acknowledge it, respect it and support it. It’s also not about yoga retreats, cleanses, daily meditations and vision boards — not that there’s anything wrong with them.
My book will be all about the practicalities of being an older woman today. It’s about changing the narrative of who we are, how we live and what we want.
I began this journey as a way to figure out my own life. As I began to work my way through the BS and explore the possibilities, I realized I probably wasn’t the only woman seeking ways to live my most authentic life. And if there’s one thing we gals do best, it’s making sure that we uplift the sisterhood and do it together. Please join me.
This is an excerpt from an in-progress book. If this topic speaks to you, please stay in touch by following me here, on Medium, on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and my blog, where you can contact me directly. I welcome your thoughts.