Time for a midlife crisis
I have been having great fun this week reading about midlife crises. I appreciate that great fun and midlife crisis are not terms that are regularly linked in the same sentence but they really do seem to belong together. Probably not if you feel you are in the throes of a midlife crisis, but definitely if you are just reading about them.
I am surprised to find that when I consider what my image of someone undergoing a midlife crisis is, it is of a middle-aged man in a sleek, probably red, sports car driving far too fast and accompanied by a much younger woman who is demonstrably not his daughter. Oh dear. That seems a terrible stereotype. I am disappointed in my subconscious. But it also seems to be a picture of a man who deserves our pity. And that pity should be extended just as much to the woman who dresses as she did twenty or thirty years ago and whose eyes betray her desperation for male approval and attention. These are both people who feel the need for validation of their continuing sexual allure.
The term midlife crisis was first used by a psychoanalyst called Elliott Jacques in 1965. He had studied clinical patients and artists (why artists?) who were dealing with depression and anguish about getting older. The term was used to represent the time when people became aware of their own mortality and realised that many of the dreams of their youth were unfulfilled. Not surprisingly the idea caught the public imagination. After all most of us will know someone who seems to be grasping at their lost youth. And if we are unaware of anyone within our own circle of friends we are almost certainly aware of someone in the public eye. Sex scandals leading to the resignation of government ministers invariably involve a middle aged man and someone much younger.
The midlife crisis has provided fertile ground for authors and filmmakers. The 1999 file ‘American Beauty’ is the most frequently quoted example of this but there are many many examples. Some of the greatest enjoyment I have had looking into this came when I found a list of 143 books entitled midlife crisis novels.
Many of the books listed I don’t know at all but for some the term midlife crisis fails to do justice to the trials the middle aged protagonist undergoes. I am not convinced that a main character having a terrible time a midlife crisis depiction makes. A Streetcar named Desire anyone?
Beside me lies a book called ‘Top Gear’s Midlife Crisis Cars’. Published in 2008 it demonstrates just how much the concept of a midlife crisis really has entered mainstream consciousness. The stereotype of the balding man, attractive young woman and sleek red sports car graces the cover. This book mocks the whole concept. And it turns out that it is absolutely right to do so.
It seems that there is more and more research to suggest that the midlife crisis is a myth. It isn’t that there are no life crises. Of course there are. But it seems that they can happen at any age. In fact those in their twenties seem to be most at risk. I had never heard of a quarter life crisis before but there are whole articles to be found on this too.
Quarter-life crisis risk
Judging by the comments I have read I am not sure this is something older age groups are particularly understanding of but it is an age when many people are struggling to establish themselves in a career and possibly in a relationship too. It can indeed be a time of angst and lack of confidence. But probably not of men buying a red sports car and attempting to conceal a balding pate.
So I think the time has come to embrace the fact that the middle aged are no more likely to have a crisis than any other age and lots of people will never try for a sudden, total change to the way they are. We all change over time. Well, I hope we do. But little tweaks are absolutely fine. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. But nor does it matter if total reinvention is what you are aiming for.
So yes, middle age probably is when we become more aware of our own mortality. Many of us lose a parent at this age, or at the very least become aware of increasing parental decrepitude. But my favourite midlife fact is that middle age is when when you are most likely to have friends covering the greatest span of ages. How fantastic. If we are no more likely to have a crisis in middle age than at any other time let’s not try to recapture a lost youth. Let’s celebrate just how much we know about ourselves instead and rejoice in all the opportunities still ahead of us. Who needs a crisis anyway?
Do you fancy some slow reading?
Last weekend I heard about ‘slow reading’ clubs and suddenly felt the need to drift into nostalgia. Can you remember any books you have read that were almost unputdownable? I remember huddling somewhere quiet as a child just to read a book and hope to go unnoticed so that I could remain undisturbed.
At that age I turned time and again to Moorland Mousie by Golden Gorse and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. These were both written long before I was born and were old family copies that had somehow made their way into our house. Both were about horses; animals I had no experience of whatsoever, but I adored the books. And that is the point really. None of the books I remember reading for hours at a stretch, and feeling I had to finish, were about lives anything like mine.
I grew up in a house awash with books which seemed to have been acquired from a huge variety of friends and relations and covered an incredible range of genres. At around 16 or 17 I remember reading in bed at night for hours. I don’t think my parents would have been at all impressed if they had known that I was regularly reading until 2 or 3 in the morning. Nor would they have been impressed if they had known what I was reading. I remember being agog as I read both The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough and Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. I don’t believe my parents had any idea that I was voraciously reading either book. Probably fortunately. Luckily I also read Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain at much the same age and that could be acceptably revealed in any company.
It is extraordinary to look back at the books I buried myself in. Now I read far more non fiction but the novels are the ones that really stick in my memory. A friend introduced me to the Anne McCaffrey dragon books and Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel when I was around 20 and I was completely entranced by both series. There is something wonderful about looking back and remembering books I could completely immerse myself in. A Town like Alice by Nevil Shute. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Baulby. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. The last of those is a book I loved so much that I gave copies to every family member I could think of who loved reading.
Suddenly more and more books are jostling to get to the front of my memory and present themselves to me as another book I will never forget. John Keats wrote: “I should like the window to open onto the Lake of Geneva – and there I’d sit and read all day like the picture of somebody reading”. Can you imagine anyone thinking like that today? And yet in the past, before smartphones became such an integral part of our lives, a whole day spent reading could have seemed a realistic dream. This is where ‘slow reading’ clubs come in.
The original club was started in Wellington, New Zealand by Meg Williams. Despite the name these are not clubs for people who read slowly but instead an effort to allow time to read a book without digital distractions. Members of the original group meet in a cafe, grab a coffee, and sit in a comfy chair to read in silence for an hour. They don’t have to read the same book and discussing what they have read at the end of the hour is optional. The aim is simply to savour a good book. The Wall Street Journal wrote about the Slow Reading Club in September.
Wall Street Journal article
I read about the idea in The Times last weekend. It is the literary equivalent of the ‘slow food’ movement. I was so inspired that yesterday I experimented to see if I could settle down at home with a mug of tea and read for an hour. Surely there is no need to actually go somewhere to read at a slow reading club? It turns out that perhaps there is.
I switched off my mobile and the computer and snuggled down on the sofa armed with my book and my tea. I had read that 30 minutes was a minimum to aim for and that if I managed this regularly it could pay additional dividends in slowing memory loss as I age but I was determined to manage an hour. The happy memories of the hours I spent reading when I was younger spurred me on and made me sure I could do it again. I managed quarter of an hour. Then the phone rang. I could have ignored it, but I didn’t.
After the call I returned to my sofa and book. The tea was now cold. I did then manage to read for a further half hour but I am disappointed to report that I failed to lose myself between the covers of the book. Even without any sounds from my smartphone my mind managed to have a lovely time drifting away from the book to think of things I could be doing instead. I had to keep dragging it back to the book. It seems that slow reading clubs could be more useful than I realised.
The chances of finding one are actually pretty remote. There are a few tentatively setting up but it is a very new concept and they are few and far between. What it has made me do is remember how fantastic it is to escape into a novel and how much I would love to be able to do that again. It is far too long since I have. What a bonus it seems that it is also good for me. So, for the sake of our memories, maybe it is time for a call to arms. Indulge in your own nostalgia and remember the books you have adored. Think how it felt to immerse yourself in a book and read it at every opportunity. How fantastic to have that joy again.
So much invisibility
Suddenly there is a lot of talk of invisibility in middle age. It seems to have started with Jo Swinson , the women and equalities minister, saying that middle-aged women have the lowest body confidence of any age group (not a statement that surprises) and are increasingly invisible in the public eye. A lot of newspapers based an article on her words but I have chosen to link you to the Daily Mail for its gratuitous use of celebrity photographs and the fact that it tells us what this middle age group is. 35 to 49.
Daily Mail gratuitous use of celebrity photographs
Try as I might I really don’t recall tumbling body confidence in my 30s. I was running around after small children but I certainly wasn’t staring dolefully at increasing signs of ageing. I definitely didn’t feel middle-aged at any point in my 30s, although I appreciate that I probably was.
Still, I hadn’t first read about Jo Swinson’s words in the Daily Mail and, although I was fascinated by the thought of invisibility, it was not enough to make me follow it up at the time. Then on Saturday I read that Sheila Hancock, at 81, ‘often feels invisible’. 81 definitely isn’t middle-aged but there did seem to be a theme of invisibility all of a sudden. Is it really the fate of all of us as we age to fade into the background much like wallpaper?
Picture the scene: you are in your late teens, old enough to drink, and queueing at a bar to order drinks. Around you people are confidently ordering rounds but, for the life of you, you can’t work out how to catch the barman’s eye. Bar staff rush between other customers but seem to notice you not at all. You are invisible. Fortunately at that age one of my housemates was stunningly attractive with extremely impressive breasts. This was a combination that seemed to allow her to escape any hint of invisibility and made her ideal for ordering drinks at the bar.
Now it is thirty years later and you are standing at a bar, again waiting to order drinks. Younger, more glamorous, people arrive after you but are served before you. Once again you are invisible to the bar staff. So, did ageing make a difference? Feeling ignored seems to happen at any age but perhaps invisibility matters less as you age.
When I was a student, long long ago, I wanted to seem witty, intelligent and attractive to new people I met. Now I wonder why. I had far more fun just meeting people I could laugh with. But the fact remains that I really didn’t want to be invisible. Now I realise there is a lot of be said for being largely overlooked on occasion. If my shoes are scuffed or my top slightly stained there is a good chance that no one in the street will notice. There is a lot to be said for being able to go about your business unnoticed. If I go to a party it is a relief that people will notice the young and the beautiful but their eyes will skim over me. Invisibility can be a relief as long as you have friends whose eyes stop and smile when they see you rather than moving on. Without that, invisibility must be a source of anguish.
Perhaps Jo Swinson was right about middle-aged women becoming increasingly invisible in the public eye. What about the middle-aged generally? This is entirely unscientific but I have been looking at the ages of a few people as they come to mind. Jo Swinson herself is but 34 and a rising star in politics. Definitely not middle-aged yet. The time has come to share a bit of my televisual experience over the weekend I feel.
On Friday night the new series of the Graham Norton show started. Graham himself is 51 and his guests were Hugh Grant (54), Emma Thompson (55) and Luke Evan (35). Hmm, this was not suggestive of the invisibility of the middle-aged. What about Strictly now Brucie has retired? This year the hosts are Tess Daly (45) and Claudia Winkleman (42). They are neither young nor invisible and by now I was rather thrilled by the ages I was finding but desperate to discover the suggested middle-aged invisibility in the public eye. So I tried radio.
If I drive around during the day I listen to Radio 2 so how old are their main daytime presenters? I know Radio 2 is a very middle-aged station to be listening to but it made me happy to check. So, five main daytime presenters and they range in age from Chris Evan at 48 to Ken Bruce at 63. No wonder I like Radio 2.
My brief investigation suggests the middle-aged are all over the place in the public eye, and that is fantastic. I know a lot of these people are male and there really should be more middle-aged women in so many places. Many of my favourite journalists and television and radio presenters are middle-aged women or older but we do see far far more of the men. But a decade ago who would have guessed that a prime time Saturday night entertainment show would be fronted by two women in their forties?
It seems that you can feel individually invisible at any age and may even enjoy it. But I am hoping that the invisibility of the middle-aged in the public eye ceases to be a phenomenon at all.
Theodore Roosevelt said: The only time you really live fully is from thirty to sixty. The young are slaves to dreams; the old servants of regrets. Only the middle-aged have all their fives senses in the keeping of their wits.
So, go on, embrace middle age and enjoy any small slices of invisibility that come your way. This is when we are at our very best.
Do reading glasses come to us all?
Picture the scene as I sit down to write this. I settle down at the table armed with a notebook and pen. Not for me the writing, even just of a draft, straight onto the computer. But I don’t just have a notebook and pen for beside me there is also my glasses case, lying empty because my glasses are perched on my nose. Ah yes, reading glasses.
Four or five years ago I first came across the word presbyopia as I waited at the optician for my son to emerge from an eye test. As I waited I idly read the only reading matter available: a small, informative, leaflet about presbyopia. There were even diagrams to show what it means for the lens of your eye, for presbyopia is long-sightedness related to ageing. The following shows the closest diagrams I could find to the ones I remember.
Useful presbyopia diagrams
I hadn’t actually given it much thought in the intervening years. Indeed, although I remembered the word began with the letter ‘P’ I had to look it up to write about it now. But just in the past year or two I have noticed that more and more of my friends have taken to carrying reading glasses about with them ready to whip out when faced with small print. Perhaps I was particularly aware of it because I have had reading glasses since I was 17. However, due to a genetic quirk I have one short-sighted eye and one long-sighted and this means I can usually read without glasses as long as I am prepared to close one eye. It isn’t actually a look I recommend but it does mean I am spared the necessity of remembering to carry reading glasses about with me. For now.
The one fact about presbyopia that has surprised me the most is that, according to multiple websites, it is common by the age of 40 and everyone over 50 has it to some degree. Can it really be true that everyone over 50 shows some sign of it? The good news seems to be that the decline in our ability to focus on close objects and writing is gradual and seems to stop at around 65. But that is around two decades of deteriorating eyesight so does not sound especially encouraging.
On the other hand there is one great advantage of presbyopia that I have been aware of for some time. The timing of its onset seems to be impeccably planned to allow for the blurring of our wrinkles as we look at ourselves in the mirror. Wrinkles start to appear and our close vision starts to blur. This seems to me to be an amazing bonus especially as we now know that everyone, as long as they age naturally, will get both eventually.
Do my hands look old like this?
I have just fearlessly looked down at my hands. In fact, almost recklessly, I allowed someone to take a photograph of one hand, of which more shortly.
You may be wondering what inspired my forlorn examination of my hands. Age spots! I am not entirely sure when they first appeared. The first time I was really aware of the increasing number of light brown blotches colonising the backs of my hands was a year ago when a friend mentioned hers.
I think it is time I faced up to showing you the photograph so you can see what I am talking about. You may prefer not to look as this is a close up of the back of my hand and I hasten to add that the photographer positioned my hand, not me. That may explain the strange position of my ring and the fact that it really is just a photograph of the back of my hand.
I am not sure what I expected when I investigated age spots on the internet but what I found is that the articles are surprisingly similar to those concerning middle aged spread. Both focus almost entirely on either preventing the thing before it appears or getting rid of it once you have it. I have taken to searching the web by feeding in things like ‘age spots blog’ and feeling crestfallen when all I can find are blogs from companies claiming they can reduce age spots. Someone, somewhere, must have written about having them. There are certainly poems that mention them.
My searches left me feeling twitchy. Before I started I had idly wondered whether using hand cream with a decent sun protection factor more regularly would slow down the spread of the creeping brown smudges. Then I discovered an article saying that many people worry that age spots on their hands give away their age even if their face doesn’t. So I started to worry about how old my hands do look.
Stop. This paranoia was ridiculous. I have never cared if I look my age. I would prefer not to look older than I am but my actual age is fine, so why on earth was I worried about how old my hands look? I have never tried to guess anyone’s age based on how their hands look so there is no reason to suppose that anyone is looking at my hands and reeling away in shock as they speculate on how old I must be to have hands like these. My hands don’t look the same as they did in my twenties but as I am middle aged, why on earth should they? They are what they are. Yours are too.
Where, oh where, is my waist?
Back in my late teens and early twenties I knew exactly where my waist was. Very fleetingly my measurements were 36″, 24″, 36″. I think that lasted for about a month during my second year at University but those measurements are etched firmly in my memory.
A decade later and I had two small children and was firmly pear shaped but still knew exactly where my waist could be found. By then it measured 26″
Even in my early forties there was no sign that my waist was planning a vanishing act. It hovered somewhere between 27″ and 28″ but that was still at least 10″ smaller than my hips and I was quietly grateful not to be apple shaped amidst dire warnings of increased heart attack risk for those storing fat around their middle. Oh, foolish me.
I am not sure when everything changed. I had laughed at those who said that weight gain was an inevitable part of ageing. No wonder they say pride comes before a fall.
Even now I don’t believe increasing girth is inevitable. I am sure of this because I have been glancing wistfully at slim older people and their non-rolling stomachs. But I have also noticed that there are a lot of rotund middle aged stomachs around. Sadly, my own included.
If I encase it in high waisted garments my tummy can be contained but faced with a lower waist, and a sitting position, things are very different. It gleefully rolls over the waistband so that I can gaze forlornly down at it. I know that my drop in exercise over the past couple of years has far more to do with it than my age. Well, that and my increasing love of sugary foods. Something tells me that is a love of which one should never speak but oh chocolate, how I love thee.
The internet is awash with articles on beating middle age spread and I would, of course, love to return to the flat stomach and identifiable waist of my youth. I may even manage it one day. For now though, I just wanted to share the tale of my own expanding girth. I may not be overweight but somehow a spare tyre has insinuated itself into my life so I wanted to write this for others who have mislaid their waist. You are not alone.
Where are the normal middle-aged women?
Welcome to my blog.
I know that is a predictable opening line but anyone reading this is very welcome indeed. After all, this is the very start of my blogging career.
Have you ever looked for blogs or articles for women over about 45? Google happily advertises dating sites if you type that in – when I tried earlier the top advert was aimed at older women looking for toyboys. Not actually anything I am after.
Further down there are pictures of beautiful celebrities and sites encouraging fabulousness. Those are great but I don’t ever intend to model myself on a celebrity and nor do I wake up thinking ‘Wow, I feel fab today’. Well, not often anyway. That makes me envisage a slightly (possibly more than slightly) wrinkly version of Natalie Wood singing ‘I feel pretty’.
There may well be blogs and articles about women with a few menopausal symptoms being pulled by the generation below and the one above but I haven’t found them yet. Although I have a suspicion that a blog solely about that would send anyone into decline.
I did find one article I loved.
It made me laugh so I shot off to look at the website for the organisation it mentioned to find out more. I felt a touch deflated to discover it wasn’t the group for me. It is a great idea but I am neither divorced, separated nor bereaved so fear I am but an outsider looking in.
So this is going to be my chance to write about being a non-fabulous middle aged woman who is slightly bemused by both her body and her children. Actually quite a lot of other things too.
Oh, the website title came from my teenage son. I had quite fancied something like ‘the middle-aged spread’ which I had imagined was a nice little play on words. He failed to agree and actually suggested ‘there are too many candles on my cake’. It wasn’t flattering but is certainly true so I just shrank it a bit.