Over ten years ago, I read an interview with Frances McDormand in Bust magazine that still takes up memory space in my brain. I wish I could find the exact quote, but the gist is McDormand responding to comments from people saying things like “you look great for your age! I never would have thought you were 40.” McDormand took issue with the comment by saying something like “I don’t look great for my age. I look 40. This is what 40 looks like.”
In a couple of months, I will turn forty. This weekend, I went on a mom’s getaway. I used the vacation as an excuse to celebrate the last of my thirties, and to take stock of the years leading up to the big 4-0.
While packing for the trip, I watched an episode of Six Feet Under, a show I am falling in love with. If you are a fan of the show, you know it centers around a family operating a funeral home. At the start of each episode, there is a scene where someone dies, thus introducing the client for that story line.
In one particular episode, a woman is seen completing a crossword puzzle while eating a microwaved dinner out of a tupperware container. She is wearing those polyester pants with the elastic waistband and creases sewn into the legs. You know the ones. Your ninety year old great grandmother wears them. She has that short utilitarian hairdo that is sprayed into a helment. The woman chokes on a piece of food and dies. She has no friends or family to attend the funeral. A white background flashes across the screen displaying her years of birth and death. The character was 48 years old.
Is this how the entertaiment industry views middle aged women? Ancient. Outdated. Alone.
I complained about this portrayel to my husband, and he responded “Would you prefer a Diane Lane?” That’s kind of the problem isn’t it. These are the choices- hot, nympho cougar or invisible woman.
I reminded myself that the episode in question was more than a decade old. Shows like Girls, Orange is the New Black, and Parks and Rec are ushering a new era of entertainment focused on women. The success of books like Eat, Pray, Love and Wild show there is a market for female stories of adventure.
I set out to ask women in my life what they think it means to be middle aged in today’s society. All of the conversations I had were eye opening and life affirming, but there is one that stuck out in my mind.
My friend, Yves, and I went to lunch together. It is not unusual for two friends to have lunch, but we had a special purpose for enjoying a meal. We were celebrating the birth day of her Aunt Mary Jo. Mary Jo died when she was only 50 years old.
Mary Jo was so vibrant and energetic. I have this picture in my mind of her. It is at a Christmas party. Mary Jo was in the middle of treatment, and should have looked terrible. But she was glowing- a lovely Russian-style fur hat covering her bald head, her cheeks rosy like apples. I think it made her death that much more shocking. A woman so full of life should not die so young.
A decade later, Yves is working on a degree in technical writing. Mary Jo was part of the same program years ago, but never finished. She struggled with some of the same classes Yves is taking and didn’t think she could complete them. Yves told me about the classes, and how she knows Mary Jo could have passed them, if someone would have lifted her up. Mary Jo was the cheerleader for many, but did not have a squad for herself.
That is what I have noticed through my conversations on with women in today’s age- the support. The women I surround myself with are nothing short of amazing. We’ve determined that no one person can carry the load, so we all grasp hands and form a net for one another. The net connects daughters with mothers, elders with youth, extroverts with wallflowers. The net makes us stronger and keeps us together when we want to fall apart.
I love that Yves is taking those classes and will fulfill the program. I think it is a wonderful tribute to her aunt, and illustrates how far we have come even in a short decade.
Yves is one of those girls who I have been friends with for twenty years, but not continuous. We’ve had times where we didn’t talk, times where we would most likely avoid each other on the street. But we found our way back to being friend, and I’m so glad we are getting to know one another as adults.
Yves was there during my catty phase. I both loved and hated her for being beautiful, mysterious and the center of attention without even wanting it. She was the cool girl all guys wanted to hook up with. I was the cute girl those guys talked to in hopes of getting to Yves. I complained about her behind her back, blamed her for my jealousy, and just was not the best friend I could be.
In a strange twist of fate, we have both taken up mountain biking. If you looked at us, neither of us would appear to be natural riders. She resembles a graceful ballerina. I look like a person who can tell you where to get the best grilled cheese sandwich in town. Somehow, we are now spending all our free time on the trails, and messaging each other with the details.
One evening ride, I reflected on all the twists our friendship has taken, and how I am so lucky to know her now. I am secure in my marriage, in who I am. I no longer see her as my competition. We can just be friends. I don’t see her as this woman I can never measure up to. I see her as this amazing person who went back to school as an adult, who has done 100 mile bike rides, who is part of a performing belly dancing troupe.
That’s the one thing I still see missing from the Hollywood story- they fail to capture the adventure of middle aged women. I feel like 90 percent of the stories about women my age involve the bossy career woman who must learn that the family she has at home is the most important thing.
The women I know in my life are extraordinary. They are scientists, magazine writers, chefs and entrepreneurs. They have hiked mountains, served in the military, danced burlesque shows, and completed work assignments all over the world. They are in bands, showing in galleries, and being published. They have done everything from sailing the seas to seeing live sex shows. They are lovely and interesting and full of wit. Their stories should be told.
I was in a relationship for the majority of my twenties. I recall a talk I had with my brother, Chris, after I had finally broke it off. It was the typical “who is ever gonna love me?” conversation.
He told me “You are smart. And funny. And intriguing. You will find someone better.” It was the intriguing that got me. I was intriguing. In my twenties, I was intriguing. If you think I was something back then, you aint seen nothing yet.
But it really all comes back to the net for me. Maybe that is the gift of middle age- women forget to be enemies and learn to be friends. Maybe it is something new for a generation enjoying the fruits of the waves of feminism before them. Whatever the reason, I feel stronger and more secure than I ever have. I am blessed to be alive, female, and nearly forty years old.