No matter how feminist you are, it’s hard not to feel dismayed by the ageing process
Jennifer O’Connell: Ageing is not for the faint of heart, but it’s better than the alternative
Young woman examining her skin while looking herself in a mirror at her bathroom.
The TV was on in the background carrying a report about the train delays at Heuston station. A tired, and slightly harassed-looking, middle-aged woman was standing on the platform, making some point very emphatically with her hands.
An uncomfortable beat passed before I realised the harassed-looking, middle-aged woman was me. If it wasn’t for the fact that she was wearing my favourite lilac coat, I might not have known myself at all.
The chasm between my imagined self – the person I look like in my head, or in dimly lit bathrooms before I’ve put my contact lenses in, or in filtered selfies – and my actual self has now widened to just over a decade. In my mind, I’m still hovering around 32. I expect I’ll stay there for another five years at least, as long as I laugh only when strictly necessary, and avoid TV cameras, frowning at late trains, and gravity.
When I tell people my eldest is almost 13, I still expect them to blink in wonder, or at least to look slightly impressed. I’ve taken to prompting them with a “Mad, isn’t it?”, even though, in their mind, it clearly isn’t. A slightly-harassed woman in her middle ages is precisely what they expect of a mother of an almost-teen.
Later that evening, my five-year-old – if you’re not going to have the decency to be astonished I have a 13-year-old, at least try not to look surprised I have a five-year-old – announced she had seen me on TV.
“Did you recognise me?” I asked, half-hoping she’d say no, of course not, it looked nothing like you, Daddy had to tell me. (There is precedent for this: she once saw me in a TV studio shrouded in kind lighting, with hair artfully tonged, and a full face of make-up, and had to ask which of the four people at the table was me. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if two of the others had not been men.)
No matter how ardent a feminist you are – no matter how proudly, loudly or stridently you assert your right not to be reduced to the sum of your various body parts – it’s hard not to feel a little dismayed when the ageing process sneaks up, and starts tugging at your jowl. Or your eyelids, your cheek pads, or the loose-ish bit of skin under your chin.
As a woman, you’re socialised almost from birth to believe that your ultimate worth is measured by your perceived attractiveness to the opposite sex. It’s a cheap and illusory kind of power. You know it’s a cheap and illusory kind of power. You reject the cheap and illusory kind of power. You didn’t demand it. You don’t want it. But still, when it passes, your subconscious can’t help exhaling a tiny whimper of dismay. Because when it’s gone, what kind of power is left?
The writer Pamela Druckerman, who lives in France, talks about the dismay she felt when waiters stopped referring to her as “Mademoiselle”, slipping – ironically at first, and then automatically – into “Madame” mode. “Walking into a café,” she writes, “is like a public referendum on your face.” Once you’ve been Madamed, there’s no going back. You’re exiting young adulthood, and you’re not passing GO.
But stripped of the cheap and illusory power of youth and beauty, you realise there are other kinds of power there for the taking.
Maturity, confidence and assertiveness might not sound much of a compensation when you’re 25 -- but that’s because you’re 25. The great realisation of your 40s is that it really doesn’t matter what other people think of you; the odds are they’re not thinking about you at all. They’re too busy worrying about what other people think of them. As Druckerman writes, “the seminal journey of the 40s is from “everyone hates me” to “they don’t really care”.
Freed of the desperate need for other people’s approval, you can get a lot more done, a lot more effectively. And that’s good, because time starts passing with a renewed sense of urgency in your 40s. If you’re lucky, you’ll realise early enough that ultimately, the best thing about growing older is that it beats not growing older.
The day after I spotted the harassed woman in the lilac coat on the TV, I was standing on my front step watering some plants – which is the kind of thing a responsible, middle-aged woman does, rather than waiting around for an adult to turn up and notice the plants are dying. My 90-something neighbour emerged onto her step to take in the evening sunshine. She was a bit less steady on her feet, but every bit as regal and elegant as when I first met her three decades ago. I asked her how she was. She sighed.
“This ageing thing is not for the faint of heart,” she said. “But it’s better than the alternative.”
And that’s when I resolved to stop complaining about the lines on my forehead.
Jennifer O’Connell will be in conversation with Pamela Druckerman at the Dalkey Book Festival next Saturday, June 15th, talking ageing, being in your 40s, and whether anyone is ever a really a grown-up. dalkeybookfestival.com