There will be nearly 70 million women over the age of 50 in the United States by the year 2030, according to a report in the July 2000 issue of Women’s Health Issues. This century will see aging become ever more a women’s issue. Because most caregivers and care receivers are women at midlife and older, caregiving will also enter a resoundingly female awareness.
Yet the psychological and verbal denigration of older women continues unabated in most patriarchal bastions – not the least of them political, religious, media, and medical. Attention must be paid: If we are to remove the pathological stigma from caregiving, we must look at the language and psychology, our very values and belief systems, that define how older women are perceived – and cared for.
Because women are the traditional nurturers, and because they are also socialized to be dutiful, caring for aging relatives opens a Pandora’s box of mixed messages. Women are expected to care naturally, but are made to feel that caregiving is “women’s work” and therefore unworthy of the same status or respect of a CEO. The fear of wrinkles, gray hair, dry skin, and widowhood are all foisted upon older women. Society tosses about epithets like “old woman,” “little old lady,” and “granny” and finds them humorous. Witness that “old lady” and “old gentleman” do not have the same connotations.
What’s more, all too many doctors write off the problems of older women with a Valium and a pat; pharmaceuticals market their products as if aging were a problem and one that can be medicated or creamed away. If this is not enough: Many midlife women caregivers are also at the threshold of menopause. This is a time of great hormonal change that many women find physically and emotionally challenging, with complaints like fatigue and hot flashes, brain fog and anxiety, insomnia and heart palpitations. (It’s interesting that many of these symptoms are the same for both caregiving and perimenopause.)
When women at midlife become caretakers, especially to their mothers, they are already carrying on their backs overwhelming negative myths and stereotypes. Small wonder, then, that caregiving can become an insidious emotional maelstrom.
Psychologically, there is a good explanation, however: More than being a cultural phenomenon, the turbulence of caregiving opens the door to finding inner strength. This is a time when a woman must address her worst fears and let go of her socialized training in order to come into her true female power. It is what psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls leaving behind “the old parents of the psyche” by journeying into a remote land and healing the wounds of compliance.
At midlife women come up hard against unfinished business, but it especially reveals the ways in which we have not cared for and honored ourselves throughout life. We see how we have believed that we are not good enough, strong enough, caring enough; because of that we suffer guilt, anger, resentment, and frustration as caregivers.
But there is always a more positive, broader picture. What women so desperately need is a new perspective, a revisioning of caregiving as one of the soul’s tasks in the second half of life. This wider perspective brings hope, courage, meaning, and joy.
According to fairy tale and myth, the second half of life is a time of regenerativity. It belongs to the crone or wise woman archetype – not the hag but the woman who has freed herself from the need to fulfill society’s demands. She chooses instead to answer the mandates of her own creative heart. It is a time when relationships are more mutually giving and receiving, when women slow down, even stop, to find new purpose and to develop their gifts.
Author and psychologist Allan B. Chinen says that one of the tasks at midlife is coming to terms with fate, destiny, or chance. In midlife fairy tales, he says, heroic illusions collapse. We turn within for guidance and courage. Chinen has found that “middle tales” are astonishingly feminist, portraying strong, independent women exercising their talents and overcoming tremendous obstacles (especially those laid down by society). Unlike youthful fairy tales, midlife stories encourage people to question social convention and to be revolutionary by bringing up truths that people would rather ignore. These truths reach the core of who we are at heart. Thus they are healing: They offer guidance, wisdom, and compassion for the conflicts and changes at midlife.
Cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien notes three major forces that bear upon this special time of life: 1) generativity, or bringing our gifts into the world; 2) intimacy, or the capacity to deepen relationships and express our true nature; and 3) creativity, or the ability to support our life dream and become a teacher of the heart.
With practice and intention, all of these tasks can become the legacy of caregiving. Living fully, accepting all that life has to offer, is an invitation that can best come to fruition in middle to later years as it is the grace of wisdom and experience, substance and integrity, mindfully cultivated.
This is soul work and the great gift of longer life. It suggests that caregivers can be models for lives of greater beauty and authenticity if we are willing to do the deep inner work. Instead of fearing that life will never be the same and pushing away what we do not understand or cannot control, we receive life. We allow ourselves to belong to the world in a way we never have before – by becoming co-creators instead of victims.
The wisdom of indigenous cultures warns us that if we do not bring our gifts and talents into the world, the earth itself becomes sicker. At the individual level, we must take this wisdom to heart and trust in the process of becoming whole.
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Beth Witrogen McLeod