By E.J. Gordon
The term “Middle Age” immediately conjures up a milieu of knee braces, balding heads, and AARP subscriptions. But by definition, once you’re around 40 or so, you’re considered middle aged. It seems these stages of life are more about where you are rather than how old you are, so using that way of thinking, once your kids aren’t babies anymore, once you’ve started running your kids from school to the ortho to baseball practice, once you’ve said at least once, “Wow, I can’t drink like that anymore,” once you’ve seriously considered a cortisone injection to get rid of that joint pain, once you’ve had to take your own parents to their doctors’ appointments, well … you’re middle aged.
Today’s “middle aged” isn’t your grandma’s middle aged. It isn’t even your mother’s middle aged. We have reaped the benefits of Lipitor, Viagra, and Botox.
We look better, feel better, and have lower cholesterol than any of the generations before us. Our lives will not only be longer, but they will be better.
So what does that mean for us? That means that we are truly in the middle. We are not on the last good part of our trip. We are not chugging over the hill.
We are just getting to the middle part. And we have got a whole OTHER half in front of us.
In an interview recently, I was asked what is my biggest weakness. I answered: My weakness and my strength are the same: my age. Yes, I’m older than the young people out of college. Yes, that means I have a bit less energy, although because I’m a grown up, I don’t stay up late, so in some respects, I have more energy than the 20-something also interviewing. Yes, my age means I have less working years in front of me, but because I’m all done having kids, I won’t be taking maternity leave or quitting to stay at home in the next few years.
Perhaps, I don’t have the innovative ideas some of the younger people have, but I have wisdom.
I have wisdom that tells me when to keep my mouth shut and when to talk. I have wisdom that tells me when the big picture is more important than the details. I have wisdom that tells me that sometimes you have to let people be who they are, and you can’t change them.
A younger friend of mine is finishing up her last year at college, and she was telling me that in her little college subculture, women don’t talk about getting married. It’s taboo. G0d forbid someone might think one of them is just trying to get her M.R.S degree. She asked if it was different when I was in school, 20 years ago. I laughed at the idea. “I had no girlfriends who went to college to get their M.R.S. That was, like, a 1960’s thing. We were raised in the ’80s; we were told we could have it all … fabulous career, husband, children, friends, fun … the ‘Supermom’ they used to call it.”
She said, “But you and your friends all got married and had babies, and many of you quit your careers or took major steps back.”
I told her that many of us went to school with big careers in mind, and without a thought of marriage and babies … that could all wait until we were in our 30’s. BUT, something happened to many of us. I was never one of those girls who wanted babies no matter what. I had pictured myself as a Mom, but it wasn’t a goal, per se. Then, in my mid-20s, this bizarre, previously latent emotion came over me: Every time I saw a baby, my ovaries would throb and scream at me: YOU MUST HAVE A BABY OR YOU WILL DIE! It’s sort of similar to the feeling you get when you quit breast-feeding — the one that says, “NURSE YOUR BABY OR HE WILL DIE!”
Hormones are the result of thousands and thousands of years of evolution, and they help ensure the species’ survival, so they are whispering in your ear all of these ultimatums in addition to those other two: “Have sex or you will explode” … “Your baby is crying… go to him, or he will die a painful death”… “Find a husband who will keep you safe from predators, and find him right now.” These whispers talk louder and louder and louder.
I remember being about 26, and a woman was cuddling her pajama-clad baby a foot away from me, and I started to cry. What the fuck is wrong with you, I asked myself. It was as if all of the ’80s brainwashing about focusing on a career had been replaced by DNA programming. I had always thought that the “ticking biological clock” was just an expression, but there I was with a tick in my ear. It was soon after that experience that I started to casually mention marriage to my boyfriend of four months.
And as much as socially it makes sense to focus on a career, get married eventually, and wait until your career, your marriage, and your financial life is ready for children — the truth is that despite Hollywood stars prancing around with baby bellies well into their late 40’s, our fertility plummets in our 30’s, especially after 35. Our bodies know this and tell us we’re going to miss our chance. Many of us Gen-Xers listened to our bodies; we got married and had babies. And then surprise!
Despite what we were told, we quickly realized we couldn’t have it all… we couldn’t be amazing at our jobs, amazing at parenting, take care of ourselves well, and be able to spend time with friends.
As a result of not being able to be everything to everyone, some of us who were willing and able decided to give up our careers and focus on the other parts of our lives.
So as Sheryl Sandberg is telling women to Lean In, those of us who opted out have minimally a seven, if not 10 to 15-year gap on our resumes. Even if we have kept abreast of all modern technology, even if we have kept some of our former work relationships, we can’t just pick up where we left off. And we don’t really want to.
What do we want?
- Flexibility. If our kids are sick, we’re the first phone call, and we want to keep it that way. If they have a Friday off before Memorial Day weekend, we want to be able to say, “Invite your friends over! I’ll order everyone a pizza! Play ball in the backyard!”
- Part-Time. We are not done parenting. Yes, my kids are in school from 8:30 until 3:30, but I have to be at pick up at least a few days a week. And I’ve got to get them to school in the morning.
- Meaningful. If I’m going to give up my free time, sacrifice at least some time with my kids, work out less, and definitely not spend as much time with my friends, I want it to be worth it. For some woman “meaningful” means enough money to make a difference; for some it means fun and interesting; for others it might mean making someone else’s life better; and for some it might mean intellectually stimulating. I, personally, would like ALL of those.
- A Good Use of My Talent, My Experience, and My Education. I waited tables when I was 18. Nothing wrong with it; I just don’t want to do it again.
- Stability. I’ve watched women in their 60’s get laid off, and they felt lost. Who was going to hire them now? What kind of job were they going to get now? I want to invest myself in something that I have some control over.
Yes, it’s a tall order, but it means that we have to reinvent ourselves. And it’s not too late because we’re only in the middle of our lives. I had two different careers before I became a mother, and they both lasted three years. When you think about it, even if a woman starts her Act II at 50, she’s looking at minimally 15 working years, if not 25! Add on a few years before she’s 50, and now we’re talking a 30-year career. That’s enough time to not only re-train and work her way up, but also it’s enough time to be influential in her field. And if the worst happens, if she becomes a widow, if she gets divorced, if her husband’s career implodes, she could be in a much better position than she would have been had she not reinvented herself when she had the time and support.
And the best part of starting in the middle is that we don’t have any whispering in our ears about the survival of our species. As Gloria Steinem explained when she turned 80, when our brains aren’t filled with all of the desires we had in our 20’s, we have so much more brainpower for other pursuits.Those of us in the middle who didn’t Lean In can now Leap In.
Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare: E.J. Gordon is a freelance writer, a regular contributor to GIRLillaWarfare, and “Sexpert”. Have any questions or topics that you would like her to address? Remember: No subject is taboo, and Anonymity is accepted. Contact E.J. at: EJGordon529@gmail.com.