What's Left?: Aging is not a burden, but an accomplishment
Too often, I think women regard aging with resentment, and I wish this wasn't the case.
It is my mom’s birthday this week. December 7, an infamous day indeed, but in our household, it has always been first associated with chocolate truffles and gifts on the breakfast table. She doesn't want breakfast in bed, because she wants to make things her way, but she will accept a mug of chai tea if someone else brings it to her. My mom is a particular woman, and I'm not just trying to flatter her when I say that growing up, our household would not have functioned without her. Despite working a full time job and being a person with her own hobbies and interests, she also kept track of three girls and we did not always make it easy. It is amazing really, how much she did and still does, and I don’t tell her that enough.
When asked about how old she is, my mom tends to shy away from the answer. She makes a show of it, says “well, I’m 42 again!” and laughs, and she’s not alone in this practice. So many of the women in my life — fantastic women who I admire greatly and have looked to for guidance and comfort, inspiration and camaraderie — seem just a little ashamed of aging, even if they hide it behind jokes and smiles.
I watch them, the way they deflect the question and skirt away from answers, and for years I have received the message that aging is not something to be embraced. I've heard the sentiment "don't get old," so many times it's disheartening. When we do talk about the topic of aging honestly, it's filled with undercurrents of unease and tension and more than a little resentment.
I can think of a number of causes to this phenomenon.
The internal fear of growing older, of no longer feeling youthful, is one I am not immune to. Time is a ticking clock, and when there is so much I want to do in life, the older I get, the more I am sometimes overcome with the frantic sensation that I am losing out on the time I do have. Then of course, there are the consequences of aging, which are similarly frightening. There will come a day when my hands won’t write anymore, where my body and mind will be unable to accomplish the tasks I ask of them. That day is far off, but I watched my grandmother lose the ability to close her hands around anything she tried to hold; my grandfather, a man who loved telling stories, struggled to recall details like the names of his granddaughters before he died. These are terrifying thoughts; of course people fear — even resent — aging.
However, neither of those lines of thought seem to account for the way women seem almost ashamed of aging. For that, I would point to a more insidious, external source: the pressures of beauty in American culture, and the way women have been taught to associate appearance with value. It is impossible to interact with media without the addition of ads for how to maintain the image of youth. How to hide greying roots, which anti-aging products will keep skin free of lines. How to appear younger; how to keep people’s interest.
The older I get, the more I find myself absolutely hating these trends, this need for women to constantly be erasing the proof of our endurance. Every year, my hair grows grayer, and I thank my dad, because it’s his genes that I inherited. I am glad to continue aging — glad to be growing and changing and gaining experiences — when I know so many people who no longer are.
Life is so incredibly hard. Making it from one year to the next is an accomplishment, and when the last two years have been filled with so much national and global turmoil that has resulted in an enormous cost of life, I am so grateful to be counted as someone who has survived. Why on earth would I want to go backwards, look younger, be younger, when there is more ahead of me?
So, to my mom, when you read this: Even if a part of you is less than thrilled with it, I am grateful that you are getting older. I am so glad you are here with me. To think, if either of us had stopped aging — if you were forever 42 — we would never have the relationship we do today. I have come to rely on your years of wisdom, the hardships you have made it through, and your steadfast comfort. We joke that I am a copy of you, and as I have watched you change over the last few years especially, I hope this is true. When I am your age, I hope I am still open to the possibility of the new, of growing towards something better. Mom, I am so grateful you continue to age, and hope you continue to do so for a long, long time. I wish you the very happiest of birthdays, and all my love.