By Michelle Martin, PhD, MSW
What the heck is going on in our world?! Correction: What the heck is going on in our country?! In my ongoing attempt to keep up with current events, maintain my full-time job, keep a reasonable social calendar, and not neglect my family too much, it's a miracle I'm getting any sleep at all. Forget yoga, forget meditation, and absolutely forget any sort of regular grocery shopping.
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I read a book years ago about Chinese culture in the mid-seventeenth century. The way the story went, young girls got their feet bound so they would be desirable to a future suitor. There really were no other options available for women back then, and parents who rejected this custom were all but ensuring their daughters lived solitary lives of dependence, with no independent means of support.
The process was quite gruesome. Girls would have their feet bound with ribbons so tightly that their bones would break. Every few days the ribbons would be removed, and their feet would be rebound, until more bones would break, and eventually turn dust.
I'm reviving my Aging Naked blog after an almost-two year hiatus. Why did I stop? I'm not really sure...I moved and got really busy. Also, the election happened and suddenly the plight of middle-aged women, living an authentic life, the travails of online dating and my heartbreak over empty nesting, seemed a bit trivial. But lately, I've been feeling to urge to write again and to share my various epiphanies, even if some of them seem rather mundane compared to the fate of our dying democracy. I had to be reminded though of why I started this blog in the first place—why I felt it was important to bare my soul to strangers—my middle-aged, empty-nesting, very single soul. So I reflected, and this is what I came up with:
When I hit middle-age and looked around me, and I sensed something was up. I'd been told for years that these would be the best years of my life, but I wasn't getting that feeling. I knew some middle-aged women who seemed to be doing okay, but most of the women I knew appeared to be going through the motions only, telling themselves they should be happier than they actually were. The truth was though, that they weren't, happy that is. But why? Many of these women, including myself, had relatively good lives, so what was all the angst about?
For me personally, I dreaded empty nesting and despite having a good career, and many interests and hobbies, I sensed my identity leave right along with my son. There was wide open space out there, and I could finally have a bit more freedom and flexibility in my life, more opportunities, perhaps even an overnight guest! But I didn’t feel happy about the increased space in my life. Actually, it terrified me.
I have been told how nice I am my entire life. This is usually a great compliment to me. I love it when people tell me I'm nice, because I am nice. In fact, throughout my life I've tried my best to be kind, caring, empathetic and helpful to just about everyone I meet. These qualities are the bedrock on which much of my identity is based.
I have learned over the years though that "nice" is good, but "too nice" is not. "Too nice" is the person who doesn't like to ruffle feathers. "Too nice" is the person who is afraid to set boundaries. "Too nice" is the person who is afraid to say no. "Too nice" is the person who I used to be (and still am, sometimes).
When I reflect back on my life and my various relationships -- with men, with friends, with family, and even with some co-workers, I can now see how being "too nice" was my way of ...
Aging can be difficult, even for the most hardy. Our hair follicles die, our bodies ache, and our skin sags. A few weeks ago I went to a concert and had to stand for five hours and my feet still hurt (and so does my left hip). And recently I've noticed I have to be very careful with my chin placement, especially in photos (it's either that or demand Photoshop rights from all of my friends and family), because if I don't, my once proud chin collapses into a series of smaller, less proud "chins," sliding right into my neck.
Aging can be difficult for everyone, but I think it's particularly difficult for women. Of course, many middle-aged men struggle with aging as well, but I do think middle-aged women have it worse. Maybe I believe this because I'm a woman, but I really do believe this.
Women experience more pressure to remain youthful, both in physical appearance and spirit. We may be well into the newest millennium, but men still have the advantage of more vocational opportunities, greater personal freedoms, fewer social stigmas, more mentoring opportunities, and more social outlets than women.
Society dictates that women are pretty much washed up by the time they're 50, and if we have the "misfortune" of being single, well then, forget it. In fact, a 1986 Newsweek article entitled "The Marriage Crunch" coined a phrase that may forever be cemented in the minds of anxious middle-aged single women everywhere, when it satirically sounded the dire warning that a never-married, college-educated woman over 40 was more likely to be "killed by a terrorist" than get married.
Today I had a fight with God when I was driving in my car. Well, I don't really call God God anymore, now that I no longer follow a traditional religious path, so in reality, I yelled at God-Universe-Higher-Power-Guardian-Angel (and yes, I'm still trying out different names). But that's not really important to this story. What's important is the fact that I yelled and I yelled (and thank god-universe-higher-power-guardian-angel for Bluetooth, so other people on the road would just think I was yelling at someone on the phone).
You see, I'm on a journey in search of my heart-career. It's an exciting experience, filled with joy, wonder and meaning. But I've also experienced some suffering lately, because I'm in a holding pattern, waiting for god-universe-higher-power-guardian-angel only knows what. I hate limbo and I get really impatient when I have to wait too long. Normally I do a great job of holding it all inside. In fact, typically I appear quite stoic in the face of suffering. But every so often, I get overwhelmed with negative thinking, and I begin to feel impatient because I'm really putting myself out there in a number of ways, and not much is happening, and I'm 54, and time is ticking, and that makes me angry. It also makes me afraid.
A 2014 study on women and middle age found that most women began to feel invisible and dismissed in society by the time they were 50. Among the thousands of women surveyed:
When asked what contributed to their lack of self-confidence, most of the women cited things like graying hair, having to wear reading glasses, and a lack of appropriate fashion opportunities.
What a stark reality for middle-aged women! Are you wondering why these women didn't just simply dye their hair, get contacts, and go on a little shopping spree? I did, but then I began to wonder if there wasn't a little more to the story. So I posted a status on my Facebook page and asked my middle-aged female friends if they ever felt invisible and dismissed, and to my surprise most of them said they did. And it wasn't just my gray-haired, glasses-toting, fashion-challenged, under-employed, single friends who felt marginalized -- my youthful, vibrant, active, career-focused, married friends also often felt dismissed in conversations, ignored at parties, and generally invisible in life, particularly to their male counterparts.
I've been feeling rather lost lately. I made a decision about a year ago to take a risk and pursue a passion and a life dream, and now I'm not so sure I made the right choice. Let me explain. When my son left for college two years ago I entered an existential crisis and found myself suddenly living in a vacuum, a very quiet vacuum. And in the midst of all that silence I began to question the meaning of life, and more specifically, the meaning of my life. I questioned whether I was making a real contribution to this world, and I questioned my purpose, and whether this was all there was to life. I felt compartmentalized, somewhat irrelevant and increasingly invisible.
I believed I was at a crossroads, a fork-in-the-road if you will. I imagined that if I pursued one fork-path, I would accept my life choices, throw in my youth towel, and age quietly, without question or challenge. But if I chose the other fork-path, I would find a way of transforming the many losses of middle age -- full-time mothering, my youthful passions, good skin tone and my body's ability to regulate its own temperature, into opportunities -- life-altering, and transformative opportunities. I imagined this path would involve renewed authenticity, resilience and increased vitality, where I challenged the status quo and increased my visibility. Then I began to wonder if there were other women out there who felt the way I did, and I wondered if I had something to contribute to the conversation.
Romantic relationships are wonderful. They make us feel alive, dynamic, validated and loved -- when they work. They can also make us feel deficient, undesirable, depleted and broken when they don't.
A key ingredient in successful relationships is the ability and willingness of each partner to be authentic. Authenticity requires transparency, which is pretty easy for most of us when things are going well, but throw in a wrench or two, such as middle age, kids, and a long trail of failed relationships, and for many of us, all transparency flies out the window.
Being transparent means having thoughts, feelings and motives that are easily perceived.
Being transparent requires the ability to trust, to see the goodness in others, and to give others the benefit of the doubt, even if we don't think they always deserve it, and even when it's scary.
Being transparent with friends, family, and even our co-workers can be challenging at times, but many of us can manage this without too much difficulty. Romantic relationships are different though because they often serve as a portal through which we re-experience all of our past hurt, rejection, and trauma -- both from our adult lives, as well as from our childhoods. For those of us who have had a lot of past hurt, rejection and trauma, it's easy to hide and protect ourselves from potential future pain; it's rather automatic in fact. In other words, for many of us, when we feel threatened, all transparency flies out the window.
I have always worn masks. I didn't know I wore masks, but I did. I wore masks to protect myself, and to project images that I believed were more acceptable than the real me. I wore these masks so automatically, that I wasn't always aware of their existence. Although I've willingly worn multiple masks throughout my life and have worked diligently to keep them all in place, at some point I began to question their necessity. This questioning peaked when I reached middle age and began to experience a growing sense of discontentment. When I turned 50 I began to yearn for more honesty, more boldness, and more courage. I yearned to be more visible, more relevant, and more cohesive. I yearned to be more authentic and more transparent. I yearned to wear fewer masks. In fact, I yearned to wear no masks at all.
The concept of living a life of greater authenticity and transparency isn't new. Just Google "authenticity" and you'll get more than four million hits. Everybody's talking about living more authentic and transparent lives these days. In fact, just the other day I saw a status on Facebook stating something about how we should strip away our pretenses and be more honest about our past mistakes, because our strengths are born out of the ashes. I liked it, along with about 20,000 other people. So yes, living a more authentic and transparent life is all the rage.
But if we're all so convinced that it's important to live more authentic lives, and to be more transparent about our mistakes, our uncertainties, and our insecurities, then why are most of us investing so much time and effort into desperately holding onto our masks of perfection, conviction and confidence?
Welcome to my Blog!
This is a blog for middle-aged women, like me, who want to live a life of increased authenticity, and greater well-being, with fewer masks and a lot more fun.