Middle Aged? Not An Excuse To Hide

Reaching MIDDLE AGE is NO EXCUSE for women to become INVISIBLE, writes HELEN WALMSLEY-JOHNSON in her book 

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There are moments in most people’s lives when they look down, or back, or around and think “how did I get here?” The band Talking Heads wrote a song about it called ‘Once in a Lifetime’. The ‘how did I get here’ moment that’s currently occupying me is the one I had at the end of last month, when somehow I arrived at my own book launch. I don’t mean ‘somehow I arrived’ in the practical sense (I’d taken my youngest daughter with me to make sure I was physically there) but ‘arrived’ in the sense that at the grand old age of 59 I have written my first book and managed to get the thing published as well. As achievements go it’s not quite on a par with Mary Wesley, who published her first novel at 71, but it is one of which I can feel justifiably proud.

Since starting my research, I’ve discovered all manner of interesting and surprising things about my subject – the determinedly unsexy topic of middle age – and quite a few things about myself too. Four years ago, quite accidentally, I was asked to write a weekly column for the Guardian website on style for women d’un certain age. (We employ a lot of euphemisms for middle age – many of them are French.) The Vintage Years column (there’s another one) kicked off in 2011 and ran for three years. For the first two of those years I wrote anonymously as The Invisible Woman, chiefly because I wasn’t sure I’d be any good at it and anonymity gave me the freedom to fail with less public humiliation than might otherwise be possible. The other reason was that the Guardian was employing me to do something else at the time – I was working as the editor-in-chief’s personal assistant and I didn’t want to compromise the demanding day job, which I loved. A bit further down the line it became clear just how important taking that opportunity was – on such small chances entire futures can depend. I was squarely middle-aged myself and everyone knows that in our 50s we seem to drop off society’s radar. The good news is that my (exhaustive) investigations of this theory indicate that there is a remedy and it mostly involves red lipstick.

In the four years since my inaugural Guardian column, quite a lot has happened to me in the way that life does tend to happen to the middle-aged. My father and my stepmother both died, three friends also died and then, with an opportunistic eye for an emerging trend, my cat died as well. I unintentionally retired myself by taking redundancy to give me more time to be with my expiring family and friends and to write. I say ‘unintentionally’ because my plan had been to find a part-time job to help keep me financially afloat but it seems part-time jobs do not exist for the over-50s, however well qualified they are. I gave up applying for vacancies after just shy of 500 applications and moved out of London, where I could no longer afford to live, and back to the Rutland countryside where I could and where I am now much happier. I watched as my savings dwindled away and I ploughed all my energy into making the one opportunity I had left work and I wrote the book. It sounds tough and a lot of it was but there were also things that struck me as hysterically funny – like being at a House of Commons Christmas coffee morning and surreptitiously dropping mince pies into my handbag because I was ravenous and I had nothing to eat. A situation so ludicrous I had to leave the room, laugh ‘til I cried and go back when I’d recovered my composure.

The thing is that this sort of ‘flip-siding’, as I call it, happens a great deal to women (and men) in middle age. It seems to be part of the process. On the one hand we might well be helping to care for grandchildren in their early years, while on the other we could be coping with parents for whom life’s clock is winding down. We might also be balancing the first time we lose someone close to us and of our own age against a compelling need to seize the day for ourselves and push forward with a long-held ambition. It’s amazing what we can achieve in middle age – what we possibly lack in physical strength and energy we compensate for in wisdom, wit and experience. I have met so many women who have started their own enterprise in middle age and watched it thrive – statistically, older entrepreneurs are far more likely to succeed in starting a business than their younger counterparts. As I have proved to myself over the last few years, at this age we have the determination, skills and commitment to push on with something when we know in our gut it is the right thing for us to do.

Which brings me back to my own dreams. When I moved house last year it was in many ways the worst possible timing – I was halfway through writing the book and the inevitable upheaval made carrying on with it extremely difficult – but it also prompted me to go through a lot of dusty boxes full of “stuff”. In those boxes I found pieces of my writing going back to adolescence. I’d never done anything with any of it. Reading it back now it is clear to me that this is perhaps the road I would have taken had circumstances been different 40 years ago, which adds to a sense that in my 50s I have finally become myself. That, I think, is the whole point of middle age. It presents many of the same choices and feelings I remember as a teenager, only this time I know what I’m going to do with them. Middle age, to me, is a time for the realisation of dreams. It is, undoubtedly, my ‘me’ time.

The Invisible Woman (Icon Books, 2015) 

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our July/August issue, out Thursday July 7.

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