The idea of “middle age” used to be something we vaguely associated with our parents. And yet, here we are or almost are. So what does it mean to be a “middle aged” woman? Here, Patricia Cohen, a contributor to The New York Times and author of In Our Prime, discusses why women often feel both at their happiest and their most marginalized when they hit middle age.
Q: Does the idea of “middle age” really mean anything or is it just an artificial construction?
A: Middle age is “cultural fiction,” a story that we tell about ourselves. But the point is not that it has no meaning. In fact, just the opposite. The term has very powerful connotations in our culture. But those meanings are not fixed, they change over time. In the 19th century, midlife was frequently seen as the height of one’s power, influence and wealth, rather than as the beginning of decline, as it has most frequently been depicted in the 20th century.
Q: If the middle aged are the biggest, richest and most influential segment of the population, why do so many middle aged women report feeling marginalized by society?
A: We are bombarded by either negative or unattainable images of middle age in the media. Think about films. Pretty much the only movies that star women over 35 are about Queen Elizabeth or Margaret Thatcher. Advertising is also enormously influential. The combination of mass consumption and self-improvement has created what I call a Midlife Industrial Complex. It is a complex in both the institutional and emotional sense — a massive commercial network that manufactures and sells products and procedures to combat supposed afflictions associated with middle age; and a mental syndrome that exaggerates angst about waning powers, failure and uselessness in one’s middle years. The market whips up insecurities and then sells the tools that promise to allay those fears.
Q: I’ve also read that many women are happiest during middle age. What happens during this period that changes either situation or perception for some women?
A: Those in midlife often say they feel at the height of their abilities and most in control of their lives. They report having greater control of their sex lives with less pressure from men and fewer worries about getting pregnant. The network of friends and family relations also provide enormous satisfaction and support. And then there are the benefits of experience. The English writer G. K. Chesterton made a wonderful observation. He said that youth is the period when we are hopeless and every setback feels like the end of the world. “But the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle aged.”
Q: How can women make the most of middle age?
A: I don’t necessarily think there is a different answer for women than for men. What’s important is not to let negative stereotypes of aging limit your possibilities. The Cornell Legacy Project has been interviewing hundreds of older people about their reflections on life, and their advice is both obvious and important. Choose a job because you enjoy the work rather than for the money; spend time with your children; don’t waste time worrying about getting older because there is nothing you can do about it, and, as one respondent put it, “adopt a policy of being joyful.” Almost everyone believed that being happy was more the result of choice rather than circumstance.
Q: For a woman who hasn’t yet hit middle age, what does she have to look forward to?
A: The Pew Research Center has done surveys asking younger people what they think older age is like, and inevitably the young assumed there was more illness, frailty, unhappiness and less sex, than was actually the case. People have a very warped sense of what another age is going to be like. Getting older inevitably involves some losses, but it also brings other possibilities. Women who have spent their earlier years, for instance, taking care of children may finally have the opportunity to focus more on themselves and follow their own interests. Both men and women report an improvement in their marriages. And don’t forget not having to deal with your period every month.