It was one of those midlife days. I was lying on my bed watching Queen Elizabeth’s funeral and feeling old. Used up, like a grubby tea towel. Spent, like the last few coins scrabbled from the emergency jar on the kitchen window sill. There she goes, I thought, as those emotional-looking young guardsmen carried the coffin on broad shoulders through Westminster, out into the sunshine and on to the ancient gun carriage ready for the navy men to pull the queen home along wide London roads. The crowd clapped and cheered or stood still and sad and silent. There she goes, I thought.
There goes Elizabeth, a woman who through an accident of birth, decent genes and fairy-tale carriagesful of privilege lived until she was 96. It was one of those days when I felt about 96. I wondered as I watched whether Elizabeth ever felt like throwing in the towel. Or maybe it simply never occurred. It was some life sentence, her reign. It was some life.
One tried to imagine it. Elizabeth clearly worked jolly hard at being the queen, but it’s not like one ever had to make one’s own fish fingers or mop the floor or come up with interesting lunch boxes and non-boring dinners or figure out how to use Snapchat or Sendit in case it might be dangerous for the children or fret about teenage ear piercings or nearly have a heart attack when one saw the price of Irish college but then have to suck it up because one had already paid the deposit online in a panic. An bhfuil cead agam get my money back? Níl fhios agam.
I know a woman who ran away from Dublin to a caravan in the country. I know a woman who just got the top job. I know a woman who is contemplating Botox. I know a woman who is having a wild affair
Midlife for women lucky enough to get there and well beyond it is as fascinating as it is mundane, as explosive as it is ditchwater dull. The women I know are exhausted, but the women I know are also circumventing the exhaustion by doing interesting things. I know a woman who ran away from Dublin to a caravan in the country. I know a woman who just got the top job. I know a woman who is contemplating Botox. I know a woman who is having a wild affair.
I know a woman who is worried that this is the rest of her life, looking at the shopping list on her phone in Aldi, wondering whether to get an aubergine or a green pepper because there’s a cost-of-living crisis and energy bills to ring Joe Duffy about and because the woman on Instagram said she could make five dinners for a fiver. (She’s not sure she can.)
I know a woman who wonders if Elizabeth ever bought an aubergine. If HM took HRT. If she got hot flashes in the middle of state banquets the way this woman does in the middle aisle, sweating among the bedsheets and the salad spinners. Ah, look at all the middle-aged women, where do they all come from? Only Eleanor Rigby knows.
‘Crone’ used to be an insult, but now we’re supposed to embrace our inner crone. Whether with children or childfree, we are powerful and wise and uninhibited. We are not afraid. Except on the days when we’re bloody terrified
My pagan friend calls maternal middle age the age of the queen. “You go from maiden to mother to queen when your children are old enough to take care of themselves and your fertility gives way to power to make things happen outside the hearth at last.”
Then there’s the age of the crone, when you are imbued with wisdom and answers, and random, wiry hairs appear like some kind of mad sorcery on your face. “Crone” used to be an insult, but now we’re supposed to embrace our inner crone. Whether with children or childfree, we are powerful and wise and uninhibited. We are not afraid. Except on the days when we’re bloody terrified.
Many women report feeling less visible as they age. Fading in the face of society’s ambivalence. Nuala O’Faolain was ahead of her time writing about it years ago in Are You Somebody? Now I keep being sent books about it. It’s very trendy. There are lots of books to stop you fading away. Age Proof. Wise Up. Hagitude. Books to help you not become an invisible woman. Books about how to reclaim yourself in your 50s and beyond. How to books about self-reinvention. How to. How?
For years nobody talked about the menopause, and now we can’t stop talking about it, a bit like the auld mindfulness
Feminist firebrand and friend of mine Mona Eltahawy is editing a book about the menopause. For years nobody talked about the menopause, and now we can’t stop talking about it, a bit like the auld mindfulness. Mona has been writing brilliant essays about the discombulating menopausal experience. She has in the past couple of years shaved her head and dyed her hair a succession of striking colours, not to make herself more visible but, as she puts it, to clear her decks.
Mona refutes the notion of invisibility, this mass ghosting of middle-aged women. “It’s not because I no longer exist that I shaved off all my hair,” she explains in her latest Feminist Giant essay. “It’s because I no longer want to exist in the ways I once did. I shaved off my hair to unbecome, to emerge, to unlearn … I don’t remember what I used to be and I don’t know who I am becoming but I welcome her!” My Taoist friend says a similar thing. She quotes Lao Tzu, who said: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
There’s a knock on the door as the coffin is shunted from the gun carriage to those shoulders and into a hearse. Elizabeth is driven through the streets to be interred and another book is delivered to me. It’s called Girls Who Slay Monsters: Daring Tales of Ireland’s Forgotten Goddesses, by Ellen Ryan. I flick it open and land on a story about immortal Cailleach, the Old Lady, the Hag from the Otherworld Land of the Young via the Beara Peninsula. Some woman. Some lives she lived. The older Cailleach got, the wiser she became. She learned new things in each life, about healing properties in plants and how to control the weather. She shape-shifted, learning to become so still and present that she became part of the landscape, part of the rock and the sea.
Cailleach was not afraid. She let go and she became. Legend. Goddess. Queen.