This article originally appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review, on January 12th, 2019.
When I told my friends I was writing a book on older women like us, they immediately protested, “I am not old.” What they meant was that they didn’t act or feel like the cultural stereotypes of women their age. Old meant bossy, useless, unhappy and in the way. Our country’s ideas about old women are so toxic that almost no one, no matter her age, will admit she is old.
In America, ageism is a bigger problem for women than aging. Our bodies and our sexuality are devalued, we are denigrated by mother-in-law jokes, and we’re rendered invisible in the media. Yet, most of the women I know describe themselves as being in a vibrant and happy life stage. We are resilient and know how to thrive in the margins. Our happiness comes from self-knowledge, emotional intelligence and empathy for others.
Most of us don’t miss the male gaze. It came with catcalls, harassment and unwanted attention. Instead, we feel free from the tyranny of worrying about our looks. For the first time since we were 10, we can feel relaxed about our appearance. We can wear yoga tights instead of nylons and bluejeans instead of business suits.
Yet, in this developmental stage, we are confronted by great challenges. We are unlikely to escape great sorrow for long. We all suffer, but not all of us grow. Those of us who grow do so by developing our moral imaginations and expanding our carrying capacities for pain and bliss. In fact, this pendulum between joy and despair is what makes old age catalytic for spiritual and emotional growth.
By our 70s, we’ve had decades to develop resilience. Many of us have learned that happiness is a skill and a choice. We don’t need to look at our horoscopes to know how our day will go. We know how to create a good day.
We have learned to look every day for humor, love and beauty. We’ve acquired an aptitude for appreciating life. Gratitude is not a virtue but a survival skill, and our capacity for it grows with our suffering. That is why it is the least privileged, not the most, who excel in appreciating the smallest of offerings.
Many women flourish as we learn how to make everything workable. Yes, everything. As we walk out of a friend’s funeral, we can smell wood smoke in the air and taste snowflakes on our tongues.
Our happiness is built by attitude and intention. Attitude is not everything, but it’s almost everything. I visited the jazz great Jane Jarvis when she was old, crippled and living in a tiny apartment with a window facing a brick wall. I asked if she was happy and she replied, “I have everything I need to be happy right between my ears.”
We may not have control, but we have choices. With intention and focused attention, we can always find a forward path. We discover what we are looking for. If we look for evidence of love in the universe, we will find it. If we seek beauty, it will spill into our lives any moment we wish. If we search for events to appreciate, we discover them to be abundant.
There is an amazing calculus in old age. As much is taken away, we find more to love and appreciate. We experience bliss on a regular basis. As one friend said: “When I was young I needed sexual ecstasy or a hike to the top of a mountain to experience bliss. Now I can feel it when I look at a caterpillar on my garden path.”
Older women have learned the importance of reasonable expectations. We know that all our desires will not be fulfilled, that the world isn’t organized around pleasing us and that others, especially our children, are not waiting for our opinions and judgments. We know that the joys and sorrows of life are as mixed together as salt and water in the sea. We don’t expect perfection or even relief from suffering. A good book, a piece of homemade pie or a call from a friend can make us happy. As my aunt Grace, who lived in the Ozarks, put it, “I get what I want, but I know what to want.”
We can be kinder to ourselves as well as more honest and authentic. Our people-pleasing selves soften their voices and our true selves speak more loudly and more often. We don’t need to pretend to ourselves and others that we don’t have needs. We can say no to anything we don’t want to do. We can listen to our hearts and act in our own best interest. We are less angst-filled and more content, less driven and more able to live in the moment with all its lovely possibilities.
Many of us have a shelterbelt of good friends and long-term partners. There is a sweetness to 50-year-old friendships and marriages that can’t be described in language. We know each other’s vulnerabilities, flaws and gifts; we’ve had our battles royal and yet are grateful to be together. A word or a look can signal so much meaning. Lucky women are connected to a rich web of women friends. Those friends can be our emotional health insurance policies.
The only constant in our lives is change. But if we are growing in wisdom and empathy, we can take the long view. We’ve lived through seven decades of our country’s history, from Truman to Trump. I knew my great-grandmother, and if I live long enough, will meet my great-grandchildren. I will have known seven generations of family. I see where I belong in a long line of Scotch-Irish ancestors. I am alive today only because thousands of generations of resilient homo sapiens managed to procreate and raise their children. I come from, we all come from, resilient stock, or we wouldn’t be here.
By the time we are 70, we have all had more tragedy and more bliss in our lives than we could have foreseen. If we are wise, we realize that we are but one drop in the great river we call life and that it has been a miracle and a privilege to be alive.
For more inspiration, join this Saturday's Awakin Call with Mary Pipher. More details and RSVP info here.
Mary Pipher is a clinical psychologist in Lincoln, Neb., and the author of the #1 New York Times’ bestseller, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, in addition to 9 other books. Her most recent book is Women Rowing North: Navigating Life's Currents and Flourishing As We Age.
Who is this Bonnie telling people to unsubscribe? I love reading these comments. I am a 57 year old who is struggling with what to do with my life and where I am going. Knowing that others are in their happy place gives me hope. Denise Gillen and Osel lhamo give me hope that there is a good future in store. Osel, your words are almost lyrical. I loved reading them. To Bonnie, stop trying to silence people. None have been offensive or off- topic.
At the ripe 'old age' of 66, I quit my job, moved my son's family into my house in Southern California and moved to Costa Rica to volunteer at a wildlife rehab facility. One and a half years later, I'm still here, knowing that I'm living my life to the fullest extent and making a difference in the world as well. I plan to continue this work for many more years. I encourage everyone to keep going and definitely live your passion!
I have reached the ripe age of 87. I am happily married to my best friend Joe, and we both wake up every morning with a smile on our face.We are both active and are avid readers. I feel sorry for anyone who doesn't have this, but I know a happy life does not depend entirely on having a partner. I was happy before I met Joe 12 years ago. As one of the people quoted in the author's book said, "you have everything you need between your ears."
Yes, but we also have a huge population of older orphan formerly free female caregivers who do not have the same level of care and advocacy they gave to others...orphan elder female former caregivers die fast in ursing homes for lack of visitors and advocates...We counted on "if I help you then you will help me when I need it....." It works less and less. We didn't start chosen family faster enough because we thought the families we were caring for would help us as needed later. Many of us were born too soon and stayed too poor for all these vast choices we are al sopposed to have now....We either lived too long or we were born too late...
Mary Pipher, a beautiful piece of writing. so good to read today
I became teary as I read this beautiful article. It described me to a t! I don't feel old, although 69 is no spring chicken. I have enthusiasm about so many things and ideas. It is too late to find a best friend I can unload on. (moved too many times) but I don't know, maybe today I will bump into her somewhere. Thank you for this wonderful start to my day. xxx
Love reading this. I started writing at 60 and decided in my book series to make an older woman's invisibility into a power. My books are about older women.
i stoppped counting the years when i turned fifty
in spanish its a joke SIN-CUENTAS!
and i started to celebrate my dreams while i am alive
particularly recommendable is yoga troniks!
AIKICHIDO Y OMETEOYOGA are my sources of eternal renewable youth
which is health which is wealth which is wisdom!
A beautiful and well written piece dripping with sage wisdom and sweet, unfettered joy. Thank you Mary for inspiring this 27 year old. I look forward to the richness life will bring.
'There is an amazing calculus in old age. As much is taken away, we find more to love and appreciate. We experience bliss on a regular basis. As one friend said: “When I was young I needed sexual ecstasy or a hike to the top of a mountain to experience bliss. Now I can feel it when I look at a caterpillar on my garden path.” That's funny - I have always found bliss in nature - caterpillars or trees- regardless of my age..
IT is not just in USA !! IT is quite global and it is very much present in Urban populations in India..Ageism takes different shapes.. From employment scene to social, people even within the same gender tend to discriminate.
It's too bad the short bio at the end of the article didn't mention her latest book, Women Rowing North, since it is all about women growing older. For this Boomer woman with only 3 years to go until I reach 70, the book was comforting and encouraging.
Excellent, thank you! Would love to read more.
Mary - thank you for this wonderful tribute to women of age. I'm 68 and relate to your outlook quite well. Yes, we tend to be more comfortable with who we are and what we want. Friendships are very important. Acting on your own behalf is the basis of well-being.
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