The first rule of midlife and ageing is you do not talk about midlife and ageing. Writers Miranda Sawyer and Marina Benjamin have broken the rule.
In their talk for the Bristol Festival of Ideas Miranda and Marina openly reflected on what the second half of life means to them, particularly in a society where women ageing is a taboo. They explore ‘midlife’ and its personal, cultural and societal significance further in their new books. Miranda’s book ‘Out of Time’ explores the crisis of recognising you’re no longer 29 and it’s not the 1990s. Taking a candid, personal approach is Marina’s book ‘The Middlepause: on turning 50’.
Both women recalled the shock moment when they realised they were in their midlife and the panic that followed. For Miranda, the shock moment led to an exercise in ‘death maths’ to work out how long she had left. Marina’s arrival in midlife was sudden and painful after a series of health blows. And then, while trying to come to terms with the changes happening in mind and body, both women realised no one wanted to talk or write or, perhaps, even think about midlife.
Miranda said she tried her best to engage other people in conversations about getting old but was met with laughter. Rather than be put off the subject, this response spurred her on to write ‘Out of Time’ about her experiences.
“British people only laugh at stuff that scares them so I knew I was on to something because people were laughing,” she said.
For Marina, it was a backlash against the usual advice given to middle aged women of buy an expensive face cream that led to her putting pen to paper. “Where’s the stuff that’s meaningful for women?” she said.
Sitting in the audience I nodded along with the other women – and a few men – who were, presumably in or nearing midlife. We all recognised Miranda and Marina’s dilemma: the shockwave of knowing you don’t have a lot of time left and that you probably messed up the first half of your life anyway and, to top it all, having no one take these fears seriously.
Much like middle aged women in society, the subject of ageing is often pushed to the background behind images of smooth skin and hair that doesn’t need a root re-touch every four weeks. It’s uncomfortable to talk about crumbling faces, creaking limbs and gloomy regrets but it’s a stage most of us – hopefully – will encounter.
Midlife can evoke a great deal of fear, loss and a kind of peculiar fascination. Rather than pretend it isn’t happening, Miranda and Marina spoke about their anxieties and physical changes. These changes generally led to middle age women becoming invisible in society. However, isn’t invisibility a super power, said Miranda who declared a sense of liberation from no longer being hassled by leering men while she walked down the street.
Miranda continued, “There’s something quite interesting the way your body is going. It’s like it’s shedding a kind of skin and a new one is coming through”. And Marina echoed these thoughts with her comments that ageing is a form of “embodied knowledge” and that listening and responding to your body’s needs is important for navigating midlife positively.
Other tips Miranda and Marina recommended for improving the second half of life were breaking-up your routines and trying something new, maybe even something you previously sneered at in your youth, and doing exercise like running which can leave you feeling excited like a child again.
And there is some good news for women hitting middle age: you realise you don’t have to have lunch with people you don’t like anymore, said Miranda. “I would waste a whole day doing that’” she said, smiling. Suddenly the word ‘no’ becomes part of your vocabulary and there’s not so much of an urgent sense of having to please people in order to be accepted and survive.
But overall, there is no map for midlife. Unlike the first half with its fairly prescriptive directions to education, job, marriage and children, once you hit middle age you have to make up the directions as you go along. This can prove exhilarating.
“No map is an exciting prospect,” said Marina.
It appears midlife can be a mixed experience of crisis, disappointment, physical ailments and unwelcome developments but it’s worth noting that it can also be a time of unexpected pleasures, freedom and new beginnings.
Article by BWV Reporter Jo Harper.