Marina Benjamin on What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Women and Aging
British writer Marina Benjamin never thought much about aging—until a hysterectomy in her late 40s brought on early menopause and the host of physical and mental changes that came with it. She was suddenly middle-aged. Though getting older, as they say, beats the alternative, that doesn’t mean most of us are prepared for it, and Benjamin decided to write toward figuring out what it means to be a middle-aged woman today. I spoke to her about the resulting book, The Middlepause: On Life After Youth, the “many worlds” hypothesis, and why talking about aging is a feminist project.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Slate: What made you want to write this book?
Marina Benjamin: Well, I think the glaringly obvious reason I’d pose is arriving at that time of life without any pointers and feeling really marooned in my own sense of horror and ambush. Really, also feeling—I’ve come through all my decades as a feminist—quite politicized about any time of life that I would approach and feeling very much that menopause was a joke when it was talked about at all, which was not very often. Feeling that it really wasn’t getting any kind of serious attention, where what I was feeling was a kind of seismic shift in my sense of self that I hadn’t felt since adolescence.
Your book has been out for a bit now in England. In the response and conversation that followed, do you feel like you were able to raise the topic in the way that you wanted to and have the discussion you wanted to have?
Part of me wants to say no, because I think that in most contexts, readers have been invited to engage with the book as self-help, not as literature. I’ve been very keen to point out that the book is not prescriptive. It’s an inquiry. But I guess when you’ve got a bunch of women in a room, all of whom are at various statuses of menopause, that kind of gets lost by the wayside a little bit, and you do end up talking about experience. And I think partly that women were just desperate to talk about these things because they hadn’t been aired before and to get beyond the clichés as well—to get them a permission as well to voice struggle, which I also think is a feminist project.
Were there things beside menopause that women were really keen to talk about?
Yes. More women than I expected felt some kind of crashing sense of disappointment about having arrived at midlife and that feeling of you’re not where you thought you’d be. That’s a very common feeling that you have to recalibrate in everything; everything gets called up to be questioned. Are you happy with where you are—if not, why not? Was it even worth chasing after what you thought you wanted if it actually turned out to leave a hole? I think people are asking themselves really searching questions.
The importance of looking at the whole arc of life from the perspective of being in the middle, is that, if you look at it as a kind of bell curve, it is the high point, the point of maximum vista. You see all the views from that point. I felt that people in midlife were perhaps faced with aging and dying and sick parents, really having to grapple in a real sense with mortality. You get this sense that it's beating closer to your generation than you would feel in your 30s or 40s, when you’re still feeling very youthful yourself and also have very young children. You’re tied and you’re bound up in [feeling youthful], in many more ways, I think, up to the age of your late 40s. And then things really shift, very profoundly.
You talked about the question that always comes up: If you could stop the clock anywhere, where would it be? That’s such a powerful question and a sort of irresistible one—is it bad to get stuck on it?
I suppose we get caught up in that kind of thinking in a way that’s not as helpful as it should be, because generally, it encourages to put a number on our experience, to name a time in the past. It encourages a kind of nostalgia and perhaps deflects from looking at the present moment with greater care and scrutiny. We’re all human, we’re all prone to regrets and nostalgia. I certainly write about those things in the book, sometimes to the point where I feel completely disarmed by a tidal feeling of nostalgia that comes over me. But I think that you can learn to enjoy those feelings, actually, and not to have them undermine you or where you are. You can learn to understand that your life is a roving, moving thing. That your past is connected—that you carry your past with you, so you haven’t left it behind, never to be accessed. It’s a part of who you are.
In our 50s, you can kind of look at it as saying, “Well, you’re at a time in your life where you still have your physical energy, and you have all your work experience”—so you bring those two things to bear, to maybe a last window before any real decline occurs. That’s what I’m choosing to relish from the decade.
When you were younger, both growing up and as a young adult, how did you think about aging? Or did you just not think about it?
I didn’t really think about it. I think part of the thing that I was trying to address by writing about the friend of mine who never made it to 50 is that we just assume continuity until it’s taken away from us. And especially now, we have an expanded youth in some ways because it’s partly fitness culture and awareness of good diets and stuff like that, and it’s partly culture-culture—in the sense that we now share restaurant culture, movies, clothes, an awareness of popular culture and politics, with generations who are much younger than us. We don’t retire ourselves from active cultural participation in the way that a previous generation might have done. I think we have a prolonged youth—and so in some ways, when middle age hits, it’s more likely to hit as a shock. At least that’s how I felt. I just didn’t see any reason for things to change, but they did.
I was also interested in the part of the book where you mentioned the “many worlds” hypothesis and the idea of what your life could be like in other worlds. Is this something you’ve thought about, what your life might be like in other universes?
Oh my God, all the time. I mean, I’m terrible for that sort of thing. I’m somebody who does have regrets. That whole “many worlds” idea allows you to fantasize: Well what if? What if I took that fork at that point? What if I hadn’t made that life-changing choice? What’s so interesting is that you progress along, but every choice you make is a choice forfeited. Whereas the “many worlds” hypothesis allows you to imagine an alternative universe in which every choice you might have taken has happened, and so there are multiple yous living out multiple lives across the universe. I just like playing with that idea as a thought experiment.
I feel like that maybe makes it more fun or comforting. I sort of can’t get over the image from The Bell Jar, the tree branching out. I guess it’s hard not to think of it as sad.
I know, it is kind of hard. It’s sad in a kind of melancholic way. There’s some beauty in sadness that you can salvage around the ideas of loss and regret and mourning and bereavement. There’s a lot of beauty that comes with that. Oh God, I’m beginning to sound like one of those self-help books! But I think our natural instinct is to shy away from the more difficult aspects of the choices we make and the lives we live and the way we live our lives. I’m really, really trying to keep my nose to the grindstone, to just not look away from the difficult stuff.
I don’t know if your daughter or the other younger people in your life have expressed much interest in the topic of aging, but when you talk to younger people about it, do you give them advice?
I just think: go and have adventures—this is what I tell my daughter. Just have as many adventures as you can, taste the world, because opportunities shut down very fast, and we do it to ourselves. We make choices, and those choices can commit us to a path for a number of years. I think you’ve got a good couple of decades of experimentation in your teens and 20s just to kind of go for it. I don’t want to sound too morose because that’s the opposite of the [book's] message, that you have this great sense of satisfaction in your own company and your own life and your own world. You can do that as a single person in your 50s or your 60s or whatever if you want to—there’s a kind of enrichment that comes with aging that shouldn’t be ignored.
I think that in the past perhaps we haven’t been attentive enough to the whole of life’s journey, that we’ve really focused our attention and cherished youth in a way that perhaps doesn’t give us many tools for dealing with midlife. I was talking at one point in the book about how you just have to let go of your youthful self if you’re going to be able to genuinely embrace where you are in midlife, and see it for its own time and take it on its own terms. If you don’t let go, then you kind of get into this form of arrest. I think we see it around us, actually, with this denial of aging. Perhaps in popular culture more than anywhere, music industry, film industry—women who don’t get roles because of their age, and so forth. It’s almost misogynistic, I guess, the valuing of youth over age and experience. Women collude in it because their jobs depend on it. And this ideal of age denial—the whole industry, the whole cosmetic and surgical industry, rides on the back of denialism. I feel like I shouldn’t tell women what to do or how to be. I just think: Beware. Understand where it comes from.
Could you tell me more about that and how talking with other women and spending time with other women helped you deal with aging?
Well I wrote about that in the context of losing a friend before 50. It was a group of women that looked after her as she died and became closer to each other through that illness. But the other of my female friends—I really felt a feeling of horizontal camaraderie [with them]. I felt that the sharing of knowledge and insight among your peers was a different kind of support network than the traditional communication of knowledge about secrets, if you like, that were handed down and whispered from mother to daughter. I felt that with aging, actually, it was far more flexible and interesting and organic to have that communication line open in a horizontal way with your peer group—that that was a far more meaningful thing, because you age together, and you have a parity of experience. It’s not passing the baton down to generations so much as this movement of women moving through eras together. I like the feel of that.
We meet once or twice a year and we still talk about our friend. It’s a real marker, I think, losing someone in that way, because you’re so aware of your good fortune and being around. And then you wonder in the “many worlds” theory muddle, where they might have gone, which path they might’ve taken, where in the universe they might be.
You were writing the book as you were looking at turning 50, but now you’re past 50. What was it like getting to that milestone, and how has it been since?
It’s funny because I know I was very vociferously saying that this is not a self-help book, and it’s not. But writing it did help me. Writing it out helped me figure out what I was reacting to so strongly, what I was so averse to, why I was living in such an existential bubble, really not letting myself look away from those things and making myself write out the meaning of them—it was a helpful thing, and I haven’t found 51 and 52 difficult. They just feel like numbers, numbers I’m actually thinking about in much longer swaths of time now, about phases of life. What might the next phase of life offer? That’s been quite liberating.
Why the Face of Resistance to Texas’ Bathroom Bill Is a Little Blond Girl and Her Mom
The new faces of the transgender movement in Texas are a sunny five-year-old named Kai Shappley and her best advocate: her mom, Kimberly, a former evangelical, “ultraconservative” Tea Partier.
It’s easy to see why the Shappleys, profiled Monday by Fusion, are an appealing poster family for trans bathroom access. Kimberly, whose first response to her child’s gender identity was to “pray it out,” is a relatable proxy for many parents in the southern states where this issue is most contentious. And Kai—who came to activists’ attention after a humiliating experience in which, in her telling, she wet herself at school while teachers tried to figure out which bathroom she should use—is adorable in the most normative sense of the word, with pixie-like features and straw blond hair that she sometimes adorns with a big pink bow. Refusing to sympathize with this little girl’s plight would be like resisting the Olsen twins’ charms circa Full House. That straight-from-central-casting quality makes her a powerful symbol, if also a slightly troubling one.
Texas is becoming ground zero for the trans rights movement, as the Fusion piece points out. Last year, in response to a lawsuit by twelve states led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a judge issued an injunction blocking the Obama administration’s guidance that schoolchildren should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice. (More recently, the Trump administration has said it will reverse Obama’s policy on bathroom access, leaving states and school districts to sort out the issue.) This January, the Texas legislature introduced a “bathroom bill,” SB6, mandating that students and others in government buildings use bathrooms of their “biological sex”—a term legislators chose in “a seeming end-run around trans people who have rushed to change their birth certificates in the wake of Trump’s election,” according to Fusion.
Texas’s SB6 was transparently modeled on North Carolina’s HB2, a similar measure enacted in 2016. And North Carolina was, in turn, inspired by Texas, and by a 2015 anti-trans initiative in Houston that succeeded based on the slogan “no men in women’s bathrooms.”
Trans rights advocates have spent the last few years trying to counter these misleading attacks. One strategy is to point out that trans people are hardly looking for trouble—indeed, they themselves are disproportionately the subject of violence and harassment—but just need a place to pee, like anyone else. Denying them safe and comfortable access to public restrooms can effectively bar them from public life. As Fusion’s Kathryn Joyce writes:
In a new survey of more than 27,000 trans Americans, 59% of respondents reported that they avoided using the bathroom when they were out in public. Lou Weaver said he hears over and over about trans Texas students who won’t eat or drink water at school, because they know it will force them into a crisis of what restroom to use. Eight percent of transgender youth reported a bladder or kidney infection in the last year as a result of avoiding public restrooms.
The LGBT cause has also gotten a boost from the business community. The AP reported Monday that North Carolina’s HB2 will cost the state “more than $3.76 billion in lost business over a dozen years” in “financial hits ranging from scuttled plans for a PayPal facility that would have added an estimated $2.66 billion to the state's economy to a canceled Ringo Starr concert that deprived a town's amphitheater of about $33,000 in revenue.” The Texas Association of Business has calculated that SB6 would cost the state roughly $8.5 billion and 185,000 jobs, and powerhouses from Facebook to the NFL have threatened to vote with their feet if the legislation passes.
Most of all, though, effective activism hinges on savvy storytelling, and in Texas, advocates have decided to highlight the struggles of children like Kai—and like “Erica,” Fusion’s pseudonym for a girl whose community rallied around her in the Trump-voting town of Dripping Springs. Recently, an image circulated there on social media of four little blond girls walking hand in hand. It’s impossible to guess which one is Erica, or, in other words, which one is trans.
Of course, not all trans people are tiny blond prepubescent girls clad in pink bows. They include plenty of adults who also need to be able to safely use the bathroom, regardless of how tidily they fit into other people’s gender norms. In the real world, black and Latina transgender women have faced an astonishing toll of violence in the last few years: As Fusion reports, at least three trans women of color were murdered in 2016 in Texas alone. Texas’s bathroom bill would force these women into the men’s room—which sounds awkward at best and hazardous to them at worst—or simply force them to find accommodations elsewhere.
Rather than just paint that everyday scenario, though, trans rights advocates are seizing on Kai and her peers as the precise polar opposite of the bathroom-bill advocates’ boogeyman—the scary guy who wants to use the women’s room. To the archetypal white, conservative, Texan voter spooked by this vision, they offer a counterargument: Instead, these campaigns say, picture a harmless blond girl child, raised by nice Christian people just like yourselves, who wants to use the same bathroom you’d expect. The hope is that the first step to rejecting Texas’s bill and ones like it may be coming face-to-face with kids like Kai and Erica and seeing them for what they are: little girls who just need a comfortable place to pee.
A 94-Year-Old Woman Who’s Worked at McDonald’s for 44 Years Is Making the Rest of Us Look Bad
Last week, friends and co-workers in Evansville, Indiana, threw a party for Loraine Maurer, in celebration of her 44 years of service at area McDonald’s locations. Maurer is 94 now and didn’t plan to stay when she started the job in 1973—her husband had retired on disability—but here she is, four decades later, still happily working two days per week.
There’s a lot of things you could say about Maurer. “Role model,” one customer told the Evansville Courier & Press. “The sunshine of this place,” another one raved to ABC News. “Wish I had like 50 more just like her,” restaurant manager Whitney Klinock confided to the paper. Those are all very nice sentiments. But fine, I’ll be the one to go there and drop this truth bomb: This hard-working, dedicated woman is making the rest of us look like slackers.
Do I rise at 3 a.m. for my 5 a.m. Friday and Saturday shifts? No. Do I attract a loyal following of eager customers to my place of employment? Also no. Do I put off retirement because I would simply miss seeing the members of my community that I’ve cultivated over the last 44 years? Hell no. So yeah, you can bet your patoot I’m worried that my bosses are going to read about Loraine Maurer, friendly Indiana great-grandmother, and wonder why I seem so unproductive and sulky in comparison.
Maurer is a member of the Greatest Generation, or people born before 1928, and according to the Pew Research Center, not even a statistically significant percentage of them were still working in 2015. Can you say “showoff”? It’s people like her who are ruining the con of “gainful employment” for the lazy ne’er-do-wells that actually make up the majority of Americans. We want to barely earn our health insurance, malinger through two weeks of vacation a year, and retire the second we’re eligible so we can start draining the Medicaid and Social Security coffers. Loraine Maurer, how could you ruin such a purely American scam-tasy for all of us? Millennials have been coddled far too much to compete with the likes of this. Still, maybe there’s a silver lining in the fact that Maurer didn’t even start at McDonald’s until she was around 50. Life is long; your greatest adventure could be yet to come. And it may even come with a Happy Meal toy.
There's Not a Missing-Teen Epidemic in D.C.—Just Confirmation of the Sad Status Quo
Two black members of Congress have asked the Justice Department to look into a spate of missing-child reports in the Washington, D.C. area. In a letter sent Tuesday to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey, Congressional Black Caucus chairman Cedric Richmond of Louisiana and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.’s nonvoting delegate) asked the agencies to “determine whether these developments are an anomaly or whether they are indicative of an underlying trend that must be addressed.”
The Associated Press reports that 501 predominately black and Latino minors have gone missing in D.C. since the start of 2017; as of Wednesday, 22 of the cases were still open. Many of the cases have been getting a surge of attention in the past week on social media, where users are using the hashtag #missingdcgirls to demand results from the D.C. police force and condemn news outlets for not giving due notice to the story.
To some, the social media push has made it seem like there’s been an alarming spike in black teen girls gone missing in D.C., leading them to wonder about a sudden failure of city services to keep girls safe. Celebrities, including Ava DuVernay, Sophia Bush, LL Cool J, and Zendaya, are tweeting about the missing girls. Others, like Michael Flynn Jr.—the son of Donald Trump’s disgraced ex–national security advisor Michael Flynn—are using the story to accuse D.C. law enforcement of ignoring conspiracy theories about a child-trafficking ring at a pizza place.
But D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department insists that there has been no increase in missing-person reports lately—in fact, the rate of reports is lower than usual. WUSA9 cites MPD statistics that say an average of 200 missing-person reports have been filed each month over the past five years, 99 percent of which have been closed. In 2017, an average of 190 cases have been opened each month.
Lying Doctors, the Right to Marry, and “Prenatal Nondiscrimination”: This Week in Women’s Rights
Republicans in Congress were très busy this week trying to make a health care bill comprised of as little actual health care as possible. A Quinnipiac poll found that 13 percent of women support the bill, no doubt persuaded by the room full of entirely white, male legislators working on it. While they were occupied making a deal with the White House to axe maternity care from the list of essential health benefits all insurers must cover, state legislators had their hands full with other bills restricting women’s health care.
Thirteen Percent of Women Support the AHCA. What Do They Know That We Don’t?
According to the results of a Quinnipiac University poll released on Thursday, just 13 percent of American women support the American Health Care Act, the GOP’s “repeal and replace” proposal for Obamacare, compared to 22 percent of men. 56 percent of men and the same proportion of women disapprove of the bill, with the rest undecided.
It’s fair to say this is a massively unpopular bill, even among Republican legislators. They were supposed to hold a vote on the bill on Thursday, but postponed it in part due to lagging support from the far right. So I have to ask—what’s so reassuring to that not-insignificant sliver of women ready to throw down for the AHCA? What have they heard about this bummer of a bill that makes them say “yes, sign me up, I support this?”
New Emoji, Including Many Genders of Magical Humanoids, Are Coming
New emoji are coming to phones this summer, offering texters the means to compose ever more specific missives through tiny images their parents can’t see. Emojipedia revealed mockups of the several dozen candidates on its website—and the mind positively spins with potential storylines the new emoji might create.
Donald and Melania Trump Reportedly Sleep in Separate Bedrooms. How Should We Feel?
There are a few appropriate responses to the news, broken by US Weekly on Wednesday, that Donald and Melania Trump allegedly sleep in separate bedrooms. One is anger: How dare this magazine make me think about the president of the United States in the snoring, bedheaded, pajamaed state of slumber or in any proximity to conjugal activity?
Codes of Conduct Around Inclusion and Harassment Are a Sadly Necessary Trend
Within the last few years, “codes of conduct” have become such standard practice in tech settings that a conference or community without one is considered suspicious. Many open-source projects abide by a “contributor covenant” that forbids behavior like harassment and unwelcome sexual attention, for example. At Microsoft’s upcoming Build 2017 conference, the code states in part, “We do not tolerate harassing or disruptive behavior, messages, images, or interactions.” For Facebook’s annual developer conference next month, organizers have issued detailed community guidelines that includes a list of specific “conduct that is not OK,” including:
- Derogatory or insensitive jokes, pranks, or comments
- Slurs or epithets
- Harassing photography or recording
- Displaying or sharing images that are derogatory or sexually-oriented
- Making offensive comments about people’s bodies or appearance
Recently, the March for Science became the latest STEM-related entity to clarify in writing that it does not tolerate harassment or bigotry. What many of these communities have in common is that are supposedly neutral, meritocratic spaces that in reality can be incredibly hostile to anyone not part of the majority culture. The protest, which takes place Apr. 22 in Washington, is intended to rally scientists and “science enthusiasts” to “support and safeguard the scientific community” in the context of the Trump administration’s confusing and alarming approach to science policy. But issues related to diversity and harassment have been a problem for the event from the start. Stat News reported Tuesday that “plans for the march are plagued by infighting among organizers, attacks from outside scientists who don’t feel their interests are fairly represented, and operational disputes.”
The AHCA Would Force New Moms on Medicaid to Find Work 60 Days After Labor
On Monday night, Paul Ryan attempted to lure more of his far-right Republican compadres on board with the GOP’s proposed health care plan with a set of changes to the bill. The so-called “manager’s amendment” makes the American Health Care Act a significantly more conservative proposal that would mean severe cuts to coverage for the poorest Americans.
The AHCA, which would repeal the Affordable Care Act, already represented a sweeping rollback of women’s health care coverage—it effectively dismantles all insurance coverage for abortion; eliminates requirements of essential services to be covered under Medicaid; and defunds Planned Parenthood, a move 75 percent of Americans oppose. Monday’s amendment goes even further to restrict women’s access to lifesaving care, particularly if they’re unemployed. Health Affairs has a good, detailed description of how the amendment slashes coverage standards for people on Medicaid in general and children in particular, who make up a disproportionate chunk of Medicaid enrollees.