Ageing is like climbing a mountain but, despite what we’re led to believe, getting to your peak is not the best part. Once you’re over the hump, there’s a whole new world to explore; a world that society and advertisers either ignore or tell us is all downhill.
I understand that, in eras gone by, ageing was associated with decomposition. This was partly because women would churn out babies until their bodies were sapped. Middle age was the start of degeneration, but with medical advances and healthier lifestyles and attitudes, that’s no longer the case. So why do we still believe it is? Life expectancy for women in the UK is now 82.9 years. I am almost fifty and I have no intention of wilting and waning for the next thirty-two years.
Think about what you did in the first thirty-two years of your life. You lived an entire childhood, went through schooling, survived your teenage years, and that’s only the first twenty. If you’re anything like me, you went on to establish a grown-up life with a relationship, home, career and children. And this is where I think the misconceptions of what constitutes a normal life set in. We think we’re following a natural trajectory. By our early forties we realise we have achieved what we were told by society and advertisers we should strive for. Along with that comes huge responsibilities. And it’s overwhelming.
It’s overwhelming because the mortgage is killing us, the children absorb every ounce of spare time or energy, we’ve reached the pinnacle of our career, and for what? In front of us there is still a mountain where we thought there would be a meadow, and after that we think it is a descent into menopause, irrelevancy, old age and death. What, we ask ourselves, was all that hard work for if all I have to do now is maintain this impossible lifestyle until my bones snap from osteoporosis or I lose my marbles and start singing the Hallelujah Chorus in the middle of the town’s busiest roundabout?
But that’s not it. Middle age is not the end of the line. We don’t just go from grown-up to old; there’s so much in between. On the other side of becoming an adult is a terrain that’s imperfect but wonderful – a bit like us. After the years of putting one hand in front of the other and hauling ourselves skywards, it’s not an inevitable decline into arthritis and dementia, and that’s a message I think needs to be spread more widely. As the American feminist Betty Friedan said: “Ageing is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength”.
Any adverts you see on TV for the over fifties seem to be for cruises (slowing down) or incontinence knickers (degeneration). Those adverts don’t represent me, or the women I know. We deserve to be told that there’s so much more to look forward to than pissing ourselves in the mid-Atlantic, so we don’t stop in the middle of the difficult ascent of our forties and wonder why the hell we’re still climbing. On the other side of that mountain is a land of opportunity (I’m milking my metaphor – indulge me) where we can roam free for the next thirty-two years of our lives, exploring the geography and using our experience to decide how we want to live. It’s a rich land, where friendships are valued, and support networks are strong.
It’s full of wise people with fascinating stories they want to share.
I’m planning on living for at least another thirty-two years and nine months and I know which side of the mountain I want to be on. It’s nice here. The sun shines because I choose to see it that way and I’m going to tell all of those people struggling with the ropes and crampons of their upwards-hauling lives not to worry.
When you get over the hump, it’s not all decline and fall.