A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to join my neighborhood book club. The women, who are mostly middle aged like me, are friendly and the discussion is lively and interesting. But I have to admit that, while I enjoy being with this group, I don’t really feel as if I fit in. We’re never going to read any of my favorite books because they aren’t popular, which means there aren’t enough available copies at the library. (Most of my favorite books are also out of print.) I almost always have a different opinion about the books we read than the rest of the group; I’m one of the few women who can’t easily and quickly look up potential book selections on her phone; I am often the only one in the room not wearing comfort shoes (my feet are too big), and I don’t have any grandchildren yet. But I don’t care. I don’t need to “fit in” to enjoy my book club; I enjoy it because it gives me the chance to read books I’ve never heard of, to get to know my neighbors a bit better and to hear new and interesting points of view.
Admittedly, I’ve spent most of my life paying very careful attention to what the other women in my age group were doing, what they were wearing, what they thought, etc. It started in grade school, when fitting in was extremely important, and I remember the distinct and rigid groups of my high school years, and how it seemed that everyone tried to belong to at least one of them. When I was a younger adult, I know I tried to fit in with my co-workers, with the other mothers, with my neighbors, etc. Of course I had my own tastes and ideas, but they were always tempered with what I thought was expected of me, and what was the “right thing” to be doing and thinking.
Then I hit middle age, and gradually the old rules of conformity just slipped away, and not just for me. The issues of middle age may be universal: the physical decline, the changing family dynamics, knowing that retirement and the “golden years” are just around the corner. But from what I’ve seen, the way we cope with those issues are as unique as they are varied. I know middle aged women who are happy to let their hair go grey, and I know others who dye their hair every three weeks just to make sure they don’t have grey roots. (I’m in the second category.) I know women who feel their sags and wrinkles are a sign of a life fully lived, and others who have had plastic surgery to smooth the wrinkles away. I know people who are reveling in the freedom of the “empty nest,” and others who are spending their days helping to raise their grandchildren. Some people are using their middle years as a time to slow down from the hectic pace of their lives, while others are busier than ever as they juggle the demands of a career, their children and caring for aging parents.
And I think that is exactly as it should be, because there is no right or wrong way to live out our middle years. Each of us gets to make the choices that work best for our unique situation and our unique personalities, and the pressure to conform seems to be over and done with. Personally, I love the freedom to follow my own path, and the diversity that I see in my middle age contemporaries. I’m just sorry that it took us so long to realize that it really is okay to be different, and wish that we had all figured this out a long time ago. Just think how much easier high school would have been…..