By Sandy Burgham
First our daughter left home, then my husband went to LA on an extended work trip. Then, we sent our son up there to join him on a father/son holiday. And I was left … alone. It was the first time I had been completely alone for more than 20 years. It was … bliss. As an extreme extrovert I draw energy from external experiences, and people, so to come home to an empty house was a little odd for the first day or so. But I soon got the hang of it. Just me and Hunny the spoodle, Thelma and Louise-ing.
It’s hard for me to admit as a vocal feminist that I have not had long gaps of time without a man in my life. I remember years ago, in a break between boyfriends, that a well-wishing friend gave me some good advice – “stop going out, make it a rule: two nights by yourself, at home, getting used to your own company”. In my 20s I found this rather agonizing, particularly when another well-meaning friend gave me Stephanie Dowrick’s Intimacy and Solitude to read. I skimmed it with little interest, as with an acute case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), my mind was consumed with loneliness, secretly thinking “Oh I wish I had a boyfriend”. It pains me to reflect on my past insecurity.
This time around I really didn’t want, or need, anyone around. One evening, I indulged in a five-hour binge watching session of my favourite TV show, in bed eating salted caramel ice-cream out of a tub. Twenty-five years ago I would have considered myself a loser. But that night I was triumphant, and went back for seconds.
Recently I listened to Liza Mundy being interviewed on National Radio by Kathryn Ryan. She is a US social commentator and writer on gender, policy and work issues. She spoke of 60 being the new 40 (I know, now we’ve heard it all) but her point was that for women, after they have got their kids to a certain age, it is no longer the time to put on the gardening gloves and play golf, but to stop compromising and start living. For many it’s the time when they can — and want to — prioritise their career.
I talk a lot in my leadership development work with women about on-ramping and off-ramping the career highway. You can have it all, but possibly not at once, so take the scenic route until there are fewer competing agenda and obligations in your way. But at some point, women literally find themselves on a freeway, with a clean licence, a good car and nothing to lose by just going for it.
We are seeing a generation of educated baby-boomer women coming into their own as they approach 60 and beyond. Mundy cites Hillary Clinton, Christine Lagarde and Angela Merkel as just three high profile “older women” who have left their big play till later on in life. They have the credentials, the contacts, and most importantly, the wisdom. Admittedly this may be a middle class occurrence, and not all women have this luxury. But while we don’t all want to play on the global political stage, I have over the years observed an interesting phenomenon — so many women as they break through the 50 barrier really come into their own in some way. It can be as simple as actually seeing themselves as a separate entity to their husband. Call it the second flowering of the post-menopausal woman. And this is often the time where their counterpart, the mid-life male, is following a more traditional trajectory and at least planning to slow down (perhaps a story for another day).
This new awareness of older women is just one of the many contributors to a rising divorce rate in couples over 50. And this is not just a western world trend — it’s the same in Japan. In the past, it was “man running off with secretary”. Today I suspect it’s independent women simply running off, with no desire to repartner. (Major disclaimer in case my husband is reading this, I’m not suggesting divorce, but aren’t you just loving this time apart? I suspect the answer is ‘hell yeah’). Loneliness and solitude. There’s a huge difference, and I suspect embracing the latter helps cure the former.
— Sandy Burgham
This post first appeared in The Hobson September, 2015