I brought what I'd learned from childbirth to my experience facing late midlife. As I said, I was scared back then— it is hard to let go of children, of the success that came with youth, of old identities when new ones aren't yet clearly defined. I felt I could choose whether to be blindly propelled into later life, in denial with my eyes wide shut, or I could take charge and seek out what I needed to know in order to make informed decisions in the many changing areas of my life. That's why, in 1984, at age forty- six, before I'd even had my first hot fl ash, I wrote Women Coming of Age, with Mignon McCarthy, about what women can expect, physically, as they age, and what parts of aging are negotiable. It was a way to force myself to confront and rehearse the future. I was shocked to discover how little research had been devoted to women's health. Most medical studies I found had been done on men. I'm happy to say this has started to change.
At forty- six, I began to envision the old woman I wished to be, and I described her in that book: I see an old woman walking briskly, out- of- doors, in every season. She's feisty. She's not afraid of being alone. Her face is lined and full of life. There's a ruddy flush to her cheeks and a bright curious look in her eye because she's still learning. Her husband often walks with her. They laugh a lot. She likes to be with young people and she's a good listener. Her grandchildren love to tell her stories and to hear hers because she's got some really good ones that contain sweet, hidden lessons about life. She has a conscious set of values and the knack to make them compelling to her young friends.
This is an example of rehearsing the future . . . good to do at any age! I'm glad I wrote it down, because it's fun for me to read my forty- six- year- old vision of my senior self, almost thirty years later, as a reality check to see how well I'm doing. Some days, I actually think I'm doing pretty well. I'm still feisty, and my solitude (which I cherish) doesn't feel like loneliness. Humor has definitely come to the fore. I'm no longer married, but I do walk together with my— what to call the man I am with when I'm seventy- two and unmarried? "Boyfriend" sounds too juvenile, don't you think? So then, what? "Lover?" That seems too in- your- face. I think I'll go with "honey." Anyway, my honey and I walk together, we laugh a lot, and we try to swing- dance for fifteen or twenty minutes every night— when we can. I feel I may have finally conquered my difficulties with intimacy. (Or maybe I just found a man who isn't scared of it!)
Gerontologists such as Bernice Neugarten have learned from their studies of the aged that traumatic events— widowhood, menopause, loss of a job, even imminent death— are not experienced as traumas "if they were anticipated and, in effect, rehearsed as part of the life cycle." Betty Friedan, in her book The Fountain of Age, wrote, "The finding emerges that the difference between knowing and planning, and not knowing what to expect (or denial of change because of false expectations) can be the crucial factor between moving on to new growth in the last third of life, or succumbing to stagnation, pathology, and despair."