IT’S TIME TO WRITE OURSELVES A NEW STORY
Sam Baker, author of The Shift, on what comes next for midlife women and beyond
And so here we are, out the other side – and somewhere along the line, when we weren’t looking, when we were too busy worrying about the sweat or the flesh duvet or what the fuck age-appropriate meant anyway, and whether or not we cared, we shifted. The confusion and bewilderment, the anxiety and the hormonal haze, the what-the-fuck-is-the-point-of-me-ness that came along with perimenopause? Suddenly it’s gone – along with the blood and the killer cramps and ten quid plus every month on tampons – and what’s left is the essence of us. With our confidence and our constructive anger and our disposable(ish) income and our knowledge that whatever life throws at us we can survive it, because… we already have. And we’ve bounced back. And – you know what? They can take their own notes and make their own bloody tea because, in all honesty, we can’t be bothered.
“Call it wisdom, call it experience, whatever you call it, we’ve got it and it’s a powerful force.”
But we are missing one crucial thing: a narrative. We are, for the moment, storyless. Or, as I prefer, story-free. If, as far as society is concerned, women’s usefulness really does end with happy ever after – house, husband, babies, all that – what next? After all, that story was written a long time ago and, even if you do choose your life that way, it only takes the first 40-odd years. So what about the next 40?
Ok, so there are off-the-peg options you can try if you really fancy, but they’re unlikely to fit the you who you’ve become today. It’s called the old crone story; or its perkier sister the old lady who wore purple and rode a scooter; or cuddly accommodating granny who always has sweets in her pocket and nothing better to do than babysit. But come on, seriously, would you don one of those when you could be spirited, rebellious, fearless, vibrant? Or if that sounds a bit too much like hard work (I hear you), how about just a stronger and more confident you, one that takes a lot less shit than you used to?
The only way we can change the boring, dismissive and predictable narrative of how older women are treated is to change it ourselves. Nobody else is going to do it for us. Why would they? There’s nothing in it for them. So let’s take those words that are wielded against us, the words that are used to subconsciously or otherwise write us off and reclaim them: crone, witch, doyenne, grande dame, old bag, old bird (my personal favourite). What’s wrong with them? Nothing. We only think so because we’re told so. Just as we’re told young is hot and old is not. Like anything, if you’re told it often enough you start to believe it. As Kristin Scott Thomas said in a recent interview, “Youth has its own beauty. So does age. It’s just less fashionable, less celebrated. We don’t celebrate maturity, we don’t celebrate wisdom, there is an appetite for discovery and not much reflection on what you have accumulated along the way!” Who knew Kristin Scott Thomas would turn out to be The Shift’s spirit animal?
There are countless stories to choose from, now you don’t have to be the princess waiting to be saved. Be a witch, if you want to; claim your inner tribal elder, your oracle, your sage, or reclaim your former self, the little girl you used to be – the tree-climbing, game playing, sweet-eating kid; or a new you, a combination of the power and experience and resilience of your grown up self. Or by all means grab that smock and your dog and your knitting and make yourself comfy. Why not?
“There are as many stories to be written as there are women. We just need to give ourselves permission to choose the one that calls our name.”
And then we should celebrate it, shout it from the rooftops, tell younger women there’s no need to approach this time of life with the fear we did. “If menopause happened to men there would be celebrations and parties every time one them completed the change,” says Marian Keyes. She’s right. There’s no public rite of passage; no baby shower, no hen night, no divorce party, not even a wake! There’s nothing else even half so momentous that you wouldn’t throw a big old bash for. Big birthdays, anniversaries, even house moves and dogs’ birthdays at least get acknowledged. Allow menopause to become a rite of passage and you make it something to celebrate, look forward to, even; an achievement, not a failing – a bridge to cross, not an abyss to fall down; a group to which suddenly women might aspire to belong instead of learning to dread.
And when we’ve finished celebrating this necessary rite of passage, let’s grasp the shift in our lives to harness our energy for what really moves us. We may be 45, 50. 60 or beyond. We may no longer be able to reproduce (if we ever were) but this new us has a new power – a ‘wise anger’ as Soraya Chemaly calls it. And why wouldn’t we? We have freedom, we have independence, we have experience, we have suffered and survived, we have resilience, we have the authenticity that comes with being 50 and really, truly not giving a fuck, except about the people and things we care about. The detritus is falling away, the people who drain us, who take take take. We have an invisibility cloak we can pull on and shuck off at whim, we can be visible to those who matter to us when we want to; the rest of the time, so what? Some of us may have a new-found sexuality, others may have embraced the power of can’t be bothered. Our power might not be a power a patriarchal society recognises or values – it may not be the power of boardrooms and FTSE 100s – but it’s potent and scares them nonethless. Because, you know, if you want something doing… ask a midlife woman.
“Let’s write ourselves a story we want to be part of. Let’s have fun, be rebellious, cause trouble. Be whatever we want to be. We have power, we have freedom, we have half of our lives to live. And for the first time ever, nobody’s checking up, nobody’s monitoring, asking us when, why, how and what’s for tea. Nobody’s watching. We’re free!”
Extract from The Shift: How I (Lost And) Found Myself After 40 – And You Can Too, by Sam Baker, now available in paperback (Coronet).
Sam’s podcast The Shift is on Apple Podcasts.