Who Is The Perfect Middle-Aged Woman?

There was a point when I was going to name my manuscript, Grave Expectations – a wordplay on the title of the Dickens novel – that, initially, I thought was really clever. You see, one of the main themes of my story is the impossibility of living up to expectation – the expectation on the mother to be the glue of the family, the expectation on the father to be the breadwinner, and the expectation on the children – on the son to toe the line of convention, and on the daughter to compensate for her brother’s challenging behaviour.

Photo from Matheus Ferraro on Unsplash.com

The difficulties of trying to live up to expectation feel particularly poignant right now. Middle age has given me a clearer insight of the way that society measures “success” and its distorted values. I can see now why so many of us end up in jobs or relationships that don’t suit us, or in a permanent fug caused by a sense of failure.

Looking back, I spent my twenties trying to carve out the life my parents wanted me to have, and my thirties and forties trying to be a perfect parent. It’s only since I reached my fifties that I’m actually making decisions for ME, doing what I want to do – and only because I’m privileged enough to have the financial security to change my course.

I find it strange how we associate men with the midlife crisis – caused by the realisation that this is the last chance to make changes – when, in my experience, women experience a similar mental shift, spurred on by the same awareness of time running out.

That’s why divorce is so common in middle age. Women reach a point when they are exhausted by the pressure to be everything for everyone else. It’s not only career expectations we have to worry about. We live in a society that expects us to stay young and beautiful, to be perfect mothers, lovers and carers, and somewhere in that mix we are also expected to make a mark in our career.

The expectation to remain sex sirens – beyond our reproductive years – is the most ridiculous one to me. I don’t think I’m imagining the pressure on some women to remain available for their (more highly sexually driven) men at all times. Nor the trope of the stereotypical middle-aged woman as a moody, dried-up shrew, whose decision to batten down the hatches provides men with the perfect excuse to hunt elsewhere.

Conversely, middle-aged men are portrayed as George Clooney types – silver foxes who are still rampantly sexually active and attractive to women half their age, rather than the needy, pot-bellied, miserable gits that most of us know and love.

Very little is said about the men who lose their sex drive in middle age.

Caitlin Moran mentions the reality of middle-aged sex in her latest book “More Than A Woman”, and her description of what she calls the “maintenance shag” – the shag many couples (who have been married FOREVER) force themselves to endure to meet society’s expectation of a healthy relationship – is, frankly, hilarious. While her comments about anal sex made me a little uncomfortable, her dissection of the planning involved to get the weekly/monthly/annual/Christmas maintenance shag over and done with to prove to ourselves we’ve still got it – is something I can definitely identify with.

I feel that pressure to maintain a level of intimacy with my husband, that goes beyond him flashing his penis at me in the kitchen at every opportunity, or dry-humping me each time I bend down in front of the dishwasher. But the truth is, after more than thirty years together, I get more turned on by a Marion Grasby cooking video than the sight of my husband’s drooping balls.

And why should we feel bad about not shagging as much as the next couple?

Obviously, social media doesn’t help with the guilt. Images of women in their fifties who continue to look fabulous – and I don’t just mean young – pile on the pressure. As does advertising that blatantly targets our insecurities. Beauty companies are relentless in their quest to make middle-aged women question if they are living up to their responsibilities as perfect older women.

Personally, I refuse to believe that the majority of those middle-aged women, who have spent more than half their lives with the same partner, are really rooting like rabbits.

And in case you need reminding, there is absolutely nothing wrong with contentment. Sometimes, a marathon session on Netflix is far more fulfilling than a quick poke and associated muscle strains the following morning. And if the only intimacy you share with your partner is holding hands on the beach, that’s okay too. I suspect it’s way more intimacy than many couples experience.

No one leads a charmed life – you only have to look at what celebrities Chrissie and John Legend have gone through recently to realise that.

And on the subject of Caitlin’s sage advice, another piece that resonated with me in her book was “don’t marry a cunt”. Suffice it to say, there is no perfect man either – which is the most important nugget of wisdom we women should share with our daughters, after the truth about childbirth. Fortunately for me, I had a father who thought with his penis and I learned early on that serial Romeos can rarely be tamed. Hence, if I’ve done one thing right in my life, it has been to marry a good man.

Not a perfect man, but a good one.

Life is about making choices. If I really wanted to have hot sex every night of the week, I could probably find someone to deliver the goods – although, admittedly, I might have to pay for it. But would he be a world authority, i.e professional mansplainer about pretty much everything I need to know in life?

More importantly, would he have been there for me all those times I’ve fallen?

Middle age fucks with our bodies and our minds. It throws up all sorts of questions we stuffed away in the too hard box during those crazy years of young adulthood and parenting. And yet, it also opens the door to self-reflection. We can’t change the past, but we can make meaningful choices about our future. Self-evaluation is the path to that freedom. More time to think about what I want has given me freedom from toxic relationships, unnecessary anxiety, and the constraints of the ridiculous beauty standards demanded of women.

Slowly, I am silencing my inner judge that used to tell me I wasn’t good enough. At fifty-five, I can be who I want to be, and I’m enjoying the experiment. I don’t aspire to look forty, but neither am I ready for fluffy slippers and herbal teas. Right now, I want to be different things on different days, so long as I am me.

Are you meeting society’s expectations of the perfect middle-aged woman?

And The Progress Prize For Best Father This Father’s Day Goes To…

conner-baker-480775-unsplashI’d like to say an early “Happy Fathers Day” to all those men for whom fatherhood hasn’t been quite what they expected, perhaps due to their own issues, the pressures of “toxic masculinity”, or perhaps because, (as in the old man’s case), they produced a square peg.

First of all, I should probably justify my use of “toxic masculinity” in this context, which The Good Man Project defines as: ‘the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits—which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual—are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away,’ because I want to make sure that you don’t think that this is another attack on men. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Rather, it is an explanation for why some men struggle with relationships, aggression, depression and even suicide, because of the expectations leveled at them by society. It is why videos of tearful men cuddling newborns and greeting their dogs after long periods apart make women weak at the knees; it is why videos of sons coming out to accepting fathers are the best.

Margaret Mead said that “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think,” which (I believe) highlights the fine line between advising and judging our kids’ choices, as parents. We have to guide rather than direct. We have to be their consultants.

And let’s be honest, for some parents that’s easier than for others. While some parents rise to the challenge of a kid that is not textbook and who refuses to listen to a darn thing you say, some fall face down in the mud for a while before they get back up – like the old man has, in his struggle to accept Kurt’s unbridled passion for life and magnetic attraction to trouble.

That’s why I’m nominating him for a “progress prize” on Fathers Day this year.

It’s a sort of apology for all the times I used him as a boxing bag for my fears about our son or ignored his input because I was scared.

It hasn’t been easy for the son of a middle-class, ‘normie’ family (as Kurt describes neurotypicals), who was brought up in a traditional, white-picket-fence environment and for whom a crisis was when one of the boys kicked a ball over the neighbor’s fence and someone had to retrieve it. Parenting this larger-than-life son, who has turned every one of his old-fashioned values on their head, spat in the face of just about every law and convention ever created, and defied every parenting strategy, has been a learning curve for this mild-mannered man who can’t even book a table at a restaurant. It has probably taken the full twenty-one years of Kurt’s life for the old man to reach a full acceptance of him, as well as taking twenty-one years off his own; but he has been there, he has stayed the course.

There have been altercations – many vocal, some of them physical – and visits to the police together. He has been roadie, banker, and advisor to a child that has pushed him to the brink of his patience in his attempts (mostly futile) to knock some sense into educate our boy – and let me draw your attention  once again here to the fallacy that we are only given the stuff we can handle – and yet, while Kurt may not be the child either of us envisaged, I truly believe that one day the old man will thank him one day – if for no other reason than the shitload of content he has provided him with for dinner parties.

Parenting is the greatest and most arduous of journeys. It provides an education like no other and at times it is far from plain sailing. Our journey has been a rocky one, with lots of motion sickness along the way, and yet finally, I can see dry land on the horizon, and the old man helped get us there.

 

This Time Last Year My Son Should Have Been Sitting His HSC  

 

woman-1246318_1280Don’t worry, I’m not torturing myself with this fact, but this post is one that I’ve wanted to write for a long time about my son. It’s similar in vein to the piece Jenny Lawson, “The Bloggess”, wrote on election day in the US – It’s Going To Be Okay. It’s about holding onto the belief that if the fundamentals are there and we make the assumption that most people are genuinely good, everything will be okay.

 

Many of you will know about the ‘phase’ we have been through over the past few years with our son Kurt. His problems are routed in many medical labels, but to be honest, none of those have helped him or us in the scheme of things. He is Kurt. A young man now. A kid who has faced more struggles than some and nowhere near as many at fitting into the conventions and what he sees as the limitations of society because being the proverbial “round peg”, society hasn’t treated him all that well so far.

 

I now know that no-one is really to blame, although I’m sure that like every teenager Kurt blames us sometimes. His problems may be caused by chemical imbalance, trauma, his particular pattern of  DNA, but what I do understand is that “knowing why” doesn’t matter really, the counter side to his behaviours being that he apologises profusely after each bad choice he makes, which means I can console myself that we must have done something right.

 

When we set out on this journey called “parenting”, our white privilege led us to assume that because we could give them the best of everything, our kids would turn out okay; that they would be normal, happy and well-adjusted. What I’ve come to terms with since, is that just like cancer, mental illness, “difference” and disassociation from society is not something that we cause necessarily. It can be inherent. It can happen whether you have a white picket fence or barbed wire around your home.

 

If I’m honest, I expected both my kids to go to university. We did. Being more creative than academic, I wasn’t so narrow-minded to believe that tertiary education was the only route to a good career, but I never imagined a kid of mine dropping out of school and getting caught up in worlds that were alien to us, that previously we had only witnessed in movies.

 

This time last year our son should have been sitting his HSC with his peers and I would love to give you a Disney happy ending and tell you that instead he has taken up a trade, become a successful entrepreneur or set the world on fire in some other way. There has been progress, small successes in terms of most parents’ expectations, but the past twelve months have also been a steep climb, with several sharp edges, a few  falls and many steps back down the mountain.

 

But we are in a better place than I could have imagined two years ago, because we still have our son. He continues to communicate and confide in us, he has a part-time job – hence he is beginning to understand responsibility and his place in the world. And although I cannot say, hand on heart, that he has slipped easily back into the bosom of our family like the prodigal son, wounds are healing and trust is being restored. We are starting to recognise in him now the strands of our DNA.

 

Perhaps it was simply a question of maturity all along or that his “conditions” created barriers to learning that no school could handle, and that combination of errors affected him in ways we will never understand. Perhaps there were traumas that triggered the inherent anger. Nevertheless, he has finally reached a threshold of approachability so we can talk things through with him. His knee-jerk reaction is still to shout first and listen afterwards, but now he reflects before he makes those final judgment calls. Since we stopped enabling him, he has learnt that his decisions affect him personally as well as us.

 

I grieved through those years for the son I thought I’d have, the one who opened doors for me, wore collared shirts, was clean-shaven and polite and I secretly rued the fact that I couldn’t mould him into who I expected him to be.

 

On bad days it was easy to forget that I have a son who cuddles me, seeks my company and tells me he loves me every day.

 

And I have evolved with him. Somewhere on this journey I reached an acceptance that he will create his own destiny, and if that turns out to be prison or rehab, I will be there for him, but I am not responsible for it. Just as an experience such as cancer makes you value every day, an experience such as ours makes you more embracing of difference, less judgmental of other people’s choices and I have much more empathy and respect for those that struggle with invisible illnesses.

 

It may also have something to do with my age, but my expectations for my children and myself are now focused on the simple goals in life, such as health, happiness, goodness and personal fulfilment rather than financial success and one-upmanship.

 

Kurt will find his way. And it will be his way.