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A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. November's Theme: "Faith"
Volume 3 Issue 1 ISSN# 1708-3265

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Age and the Forty-something Mama
by Nancy London

You've probably noticed: our society worships thinness, beauty, and youth, and at the feet of these false idols, we tend to regard aging less as a natural process and more as a personal failure to remain young. If a woman's self-worth rests primarily in her appearance and sex appeal, she may find herself at midlife inhabiting a kind of limbo-land. If she turned heads when she was in her prime, now she feels stripped of the personal power and privilege that such youth and beauty bestowed on her, and daily slips into an ever-deepening invisibility where buff young guys call her ma'am. For the woman who has hung the hat of her self esteem on her looks, this passage from bud to full blown rose is a land-mine of nagging self doubts and insecurities, compounded by a glaring lack of guidance from any inspiring role models who have made this treacherous journey before her.

Certainly, our cultural prejudice against the aging woman - the crone - predisposes us to view the inevitable signs of aging - lines, wrinkles, loosening skin, maybe even warts and moles - with disgust and perhaps shame. We turn away from the image we see in the mirror, feeling betrayed by our younger self who promised never to leave, but slipped out silently in the night leaving no forwarding address. If we struggle to "retain our youth" in ways which seek to deny our age, we run the risk of looking foolish, even to ourselves. To all things there is a season, and midlife is without doubt the end of high summer.

What can we expect in terms of cultural support? Industries "attack" aging and coincidentally make billions of dollars in bottom-line profits off of these tender female vulnerabilities and insecurities. Cosmetics which promise to turn back "the ravages of time" and cost a third of the monthly mortgage; shots and pills which target a libido that may be - God forbid - flagging just a tad; liposuction to make smooth and firm all the cushiony places which made grandma cozy; and miracle diets to deplete the midlife woman of those five extra pounds where her body, in its infinite wisdom, is storing the reserve oestrogen she just might need for a rainy, strung-out day.

If making the transition out of the bloom of youth into middle age is dizzying and disorienting at best for any female in our society, it is even more fraught with contradictions for the forty-something woman with a young child. Statistically, half of all the women who have hot flashes will begin feeling them while they are still menstruating normally, starting as early as age forty. Which of course means that our midlife mama just might be having hot flashes at the same time she's warming a bottle, or nursing her baby. Night sweats, heart palpitations, outbursts of temper or tears (or both), migraines, itchy skin, insomnia and incontinence, may also accompany her perimenopause. Whatever impulse she might have towards surrendering gracefully to the emotional and physical imperatives of aging is strongly undermined by her deep desire to stay looking and feeling as youthful as she can for the sake of her child.

Women come to my support groups grateful for the opportunity to unburden themselves of these incongruities.
"I'm lactating and incontinent at the same time."
"I'm using KY Jelly and changing dirty diapers in the same evening!"
"My kids are still young, and I'm too young to be old."
"OK, listen to this," Debra said. "Yesterday I was reading Dr. Seuss to my daughter and the mailman brought me my introductory offer to join AARP (American Assoc. of Retired Persons). I felt like the earth was splitting under me. I had one foot over the hill and one foot in the nursery." More confessions: "How the hell can I revel in my wrinkles when I just found out my daughter is lying about my age?" Elaine's thirteen-year-old daughter told her that being in the eighth grade and having the oldest mother was so "awesomely uncool" that she lied and told her friends that her mom was forty, a full eighteen light years away from the truth.

It's not that we didn't know we were going to age, it just always seemed like it would happen some time other than now. Our kids would be grown. They'd be sending us extravagant bunches of flowers for Mother's Day, reminiscing about the good times, the years we had together which prepared them for their current good luck in love and worldly success. We'd be wise; we'd be well off. The money we used to spend on the kids could now be lavished on ourselves…spas, facials, lunch with the girls. We'd have the time to finally learn computer science, hydroponics gardening, sushi making. We'd find renewed sexual vigour, buy lingerie from Victoria's Secret, and know what to do for vaginal dryness. If we had to age, it would be with style and panache - with grace, not grit. We would go gently into the autumn of our lives elegant, rested, and wise. Never did we image we'd be expressing milk while we were losing our memory, or watching Sesame Street with bifocals.

These private, startling moments alerting the midlife mother to the obvious fact she inhabits two distinct worlds become glaring, magnified when she steps outside. There, the inescapable evidence that she is out of synch with the mainstream awaits her, as well as the dawning realization that she can never catch up.

Women who tell me they never thought of themselves as old until they looked in a mirror now have their age reflected back to them in society's mirror. "I had a midlife crisis the first time I took my son to school," Allison told me. She is forty-eight years old, with a six-year-old child. "There were all these young mothers there either pregnant with their second baby, or talking about having another. That's when I started to feel old. They're young and still having kids, and I can't do it anymore."

These stories are filled not only with humour, but with subtle recriminations as well. "My body betrayed me by aging." "Our youth culture has abandoned me. I feel ignored and cast aside and I'm struggling to maintain my self-esteem." "Help! Nobody told me this was about to happen! Nobody warned me. What do I do?"

The answer emerges for each of us at a different time and pace, but I believe it always involves taking steps towards reclaiming our power, vision, and purpose as midlife women. We yearn to claim the wisdom we know on a cellular level is our birthright, but have to struggle to honour it in a society which reduces its elders to blithering ineffective caricatures in cartoons and films.

This led me once again to examine the images of female beauty and desirability presented to us by our culture. I was hard-pressed to find images of women at midlife who were aging with any degree of grace and self assurance, let alone ones with small children in tow. The women in magazines look barely old enough to baby-sit, or they were proud to be forty-something with their wrinkles and cellulite airbrushed away. It's no wonder we're reluctant to let our true face show. Everyone else seems to be hiding theirs. The good news and the bad news is that since there are no decent role models around, tag, we're it. We now have the opportunity to model aging with grace and acceptance. It also opens us up to the possibility of meeting what the Buddhists call our Original Face, the one that lives behind the mask. Reassured we do not have to depend on our bodies for our worth, we are free to redefine beauty, and show a truer face to the world.

This wisdom and power which is potentially ours at this life transition is enormous. It is, in fact, exactly what our society, which is teetering on the edge of ecological disaster, is in desperate need of. In many Native American societies, the warriors are prohibited from making war without first being granted permission from their elders. Forget Hollywood's version of Big Male Chief with Head-dress. Most often, the elders are a council of older postmenopausal women, revered for their vision and capacity to cherish and preserve all of life. But we can only access this power and destiny if we have the courage to face our society's marketing demons that would marginalize us and have us believe aging is ugly, lacking in vitality and wisdom, and is best kept out of sight. When we dare to challenge these assumptions we help make real the future we yearn to bequeath to our children.

This is the power that is ours to be claimed, the power with the ability to nurture the sacred spiritual life of a family and a community, and has led other cultures into periods of great prosperity and peace. Know this is your birthright because of your age, not despite it.

Nancy London was one of the original authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and the current author of Hot Flashes, Warm Bottles: First-Time Mothers Over Forty. She has been a featured guest on National Public Radio, a featured speaker at the California Governor's Conference for Women, and offers support groups for older first-time moms. Ms. London can be reached at www.mothersoverforty.com.

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