For some years, I have been intrigued by the phrase ‘a woman of a certain age’ when I hear it in conversation or read it in articles. Now, that I’m that woman, I am still trying to figure out what it means. Of course, in French where the phrase originated, it sounds sexier: ’une femme d’un certain age’. An air of mystery. I like that.
We live in a youth-besotted culture. Movies, music, clothes, TV shows and commercials seem to be pitched at the youngest common denominators. Yet, scientists talk of the graying of America. More of us are living longer and healthier lives — women in particular. So, what does it really mean to be an older woman today — a woman of a certain age?
First, it means that my birth date and my age are my own affair. Just between me and the Social Security Agency. This translates into over 62. The cosmetics companies tell us, with the billions they spend, that we are “as young as we feel.” Then, they hawk the myriad anti-wrinkle creams to rescue my skin from telltale crow’s feet and laugh or stress lines. I have news for them. I’ve earned those lines. They show that I’ve taken part in life. Besides, we can’t all look like Catherine Deneuve!
It takes real discipline to eat the right foods, drink mega ounces of water and exercise to ward off the body’s aging process. Yet, gravity pulls relentlessly on the chin line. Did I consider a face-lift? Yes, I even researched and visited two plastic surgeons. Then, I decided that route was not for me. I was afraid of emerging with a better chin line, but not quite looking like me after all. So, my haircuts keep getting shorter. And like Katherine Hepburn, I wear assorted turtleneck sweaters and blouses. It seems to be working so far.
For many women, and I am among them, the advantages of being over 62 far outweigh the disadvantages. There is the wonderful freedom of saying exactly what I want, when I want and to whom I want. I do, however, try to modify any possible hurtful effects of being outspoken — a lesson learned from years of living in a family and raising children, as well as being a part of a social network of friends.
In her valuable, provocative book, Wisdom and the Senses , Joan Erikson wrote, “Love, intimacy and work provide life with its essential meaning. That’s a strong statement in a book that stresses creativity as the key to healthy human growth and development. Erikson, a psychologist, wrote this book when she was well into her 70’s. As for me, I’ve worked hard and well in two careers. Writing has been my third endeavor. And I’m loving it.
Does love translate into enjoying one’s grandchildren . Of course. It’s a delight to take part in their childhood at the birthday parties and later the graduations from high school and college. Appreciating their successes is the second chapter to the years we nurtured their parents through the same sequence of growth and accomplishments.
But the central focus of life, as a woman of a certain age, has to be with my own life. What are the measures of my days? Am I counting them out with T.S. Eliot’s ‘coffee spoons’? Am I finding intimacy and love in my human relationships? With my husband, my children and my friends? Am I giving as well as receiving? These are existential questions for a woman of a certain age. More than 62 years are behind me. I know that. It’s doesn’t make me sad. I don’t dwell on it in a morbid sense. The number of years ahead is unknown. And that is the wonder. The mystery — a mystery that brings me into what Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the 19th century philosopher of the woman’s movement called ‘the solitude of self’.
The essence to me of being a woman of a certain age is having a glimpse into what the human condition is all about. That glimpse imparts a mixture of four things: wisdom, compassion, a dose of humility, and the absolute necessity of a sense of humor. Finally, reaching a certain age should entitle me and other women to certain rewards, some tangible and some intangible. Among the important intangibles are admiration and deference — the right to a place of respect in our families and in our society. A woman of a certain age is someone very special. I can vouch for that.
Wisdom and the Senses by Joan Erikson and The Solitude of Self: Thinking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Vivian Gornick are available on Amazon.com