I had a birthday this week and am developing a superpower – invisibility. Along with greying hair and daily new wrinkles comes the ability to disappear. But female midlife is also an opportunity to ask questions and finally find out who we are.
The power and beauty of youth will always be revered (although they themselves are not aware, youth is indeed wasted on the young). All those daytime TV sofas with older men seated next to young women; those relationships with older men standing next to young women. The only time this is questioned, or even noticed, is when it is the other way round – goodness, people point out, he’s much younger than her! Sugar daddies are allowed. Toy boys are not.
Societal expectations that define females by sexuality are not going to go away. Not soon at any rate. And the layer of shame and guilt that join midlife changes make for a potent mixture for women of a certain age. This is more than a midlife crisis and its attendant search for meaning. Caring responsibilities tend to fall on females, as do household chores. Then along come sleeplessness, joint pain, mood swings, hot flushes, weight gain and those pesky grey hairs and wrinkles. GPs who don’t understand. No-one talks about it and yet one hundred percent of women will face it at some point. Biologists call it post-reproductive lifespan. We call it menopause.
Only three known mammals experience the menopause – orcas, short-finned pilot whales and us humans. Even our closest ape cousins, chimpanzees, do not go through it. It puzzles evolutionary biologists who wonder why females continue to live so long beyond reproductive capabilities. To paraphrase: what’s the point of old ladies?
A fascinating study of killer whales in the wild found that the grannies (upwards of ninety years old) were in charge of training younger family members to find food. And they had stopped having babies in order to allow their offspring to thrive. Natural selection is still at work here but it is the menopause, rather than reproduction, that keeps their genes strong into the next generations.
As with orcas, so with humans. Women know what they’re about and older women have a part to play in this world. We can grow old gracefully (or fight against it if that’s your preference) but this hard-won life experience should be treasured, not ridiculed. It should be noticed, not ignored.