Why is it that the heroines of fiction are rarely menopausal women? Best-selling author Joanne Harris asked the same question and when she wrote her new bookBroken Lightshe made sure her 49-year-old protagonist had a super power.
In her page-turning thriller, Harris casts an eagle eye on society’s attitudes to women in midlife and by giving her main character, Bernie, a power she’d suppressed all her life, she upends the traditional narrative usually given to the older woman in literature.
In a recent interview on her latest work with BBC Radio Five, Harris explained that there was a sense that women of a certain age were less visible and not as valuable anymore and it was important that conversations about menopause keep happening “over and over again until it becomes normal”. She even gave Bernie the experience of going to the GP and being told to power through it and let nature take its course because that’s what she heard too.
Change may come, dropping slowly, but it’s coming. The don’t-talk-about-it-at-all-costs attitude to menopause is changing and while midlife women may not have Bernie’s super powers, they’re rewriting the script of their lives on their own terms, taking control of their destinies and not settling for societal expectations that tell them how they should behave now they’ve reached a certain age.
Becoming a mother at the age of 42 without a partner in her life was the first in a series of what 50-year-old Nicole Murphy calls “big, bold decisions” in her life. Up to that point she says she had completely signed up to the happy-ever-after relationship story.
“I’d been in and out of relationships for over 20 years, always in love, falling in love or recovering from it. At 39 I had just finished with a relationship. I always said I’d stop and think about my direction in life at that age,” she says.
And while she admits it was tough at times, making the decision to go it alone and become a mum was the best thing she ever did. Nicole had the lightbulb idea for her business venture when she was going through fertility treatment and began doing her own market research on meal planning with colleagues. Her business The Magneplan, a magnetic meal planner, was born hot on the heels of her twins who are now eight years old. And in another of her bold moves, Nicole sold her home in Dublin and moved to Listowel, Co Kerry to rear her children and build her business.
The latest add-on to her business is to put chores and activities of the family on her magnetic board in a bid to make all the daily chores women do in the home more visible. While she says it could cause a few rows in households she believes it will put a value on tasks and be a good communication tool for talking about this invisible work that women do that often leaves them feeling invisible too.
“I made a few big life-changing decisions — I’m not a gambler, I’m very rational — but those decisions have made me more confident. I’m much happier on my own. People would say, ‘Would you not go out and meet someone?’ but there’s nothing missing in my life. There was something I read years ago about getting your confidence back and it was about starting with small things, taking small steps.
“If you have one foot in your comfort zone and one out, you can retreat any time you want to. Sign up to a class — your emotional, mental and physical muscles like that. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks,” says Nicole.
Tracy Byrne, a 53-year-old mother of four who runs her own fitness business, Burnzone, says society’s attitudes to women’s choices can make them feel afraid to step out of their comfort zone, particularly as they get older.
She recalls going to a wedding when her children were small and a man she knew saying to her that he never envisaged her as a stay-at-home mother. Tracy, who had stepped back from her career jet setting all over the world with an international bank when her children came along, was shocked into silence at the blatant judgment held in the remark.
“I would still always put my family first and I would never apologise for that but I also need to be happy and fulfilled and I need that sense of community that gives me the drive to get up every day,” says Tracy, who went back to college at the age of 47 to follow her passion and become a personal trainer.
She says finding your purpose in life — especially when your confidence is low — can be as simple as saying yes to something out of your comfort zone. For her it was saying yes when a fellow mother asked her to go to a fitness class. As someone who always loved to exercise, she describes the feeling as having the lights go back on, so much so that she literally made it her life’s work.
As she entered her mid-40s, Wexford-based artist Helen Mason says she gradually began to feel fed up adhering to what she felt were society’s rules and regulations of what women of a certain age were supposed to do in life.
“There were labels I felt I wanted to counter going into older age. I started rowing in my 40s and I started taking on challenges. "
“There were labels I felt I wanted to counter going into older age. I started rowing in my 40s and I started taking on challenges. I think these things were just an instinct in me. I had a mindset that I wasn’t going to let others define me,” says Helen, now 53.
Through taking on physical challenges including endurance swim events, Helen says she also stopped putting labels on herself about what she was capable of.
“I would’ve always said, ‘I’m not sporty’, but that’s bullshit. I may not be running marathons but I can swim 3K. You don’t have to be in your 20s to do these things. Maybe there are some people thinking, ‘That one’s cracked’, but I don’t need to listen to it. I’m not doing these things for any reason other than I can. I’m not trying to prove anything. I don’t have anything to prove to anyone”.
A mother to two, she believes that getting older has allowed her to tap into her gut instincts more and more, something she’s tried to instil in her two children. “If I was to go back and talk to my younger self it would be to say, ‘Follow your gut, always use that’,” she says.
When she reached her mid-40s Helen returned to education to study culinary arts. It wasn’t the only way she found to express her creativity. After signing up for a community art class she began to paint and fell in love with it.
“I loved how it made me feel — you have to be present in the moment to paint. It’s much like meditation for me — you’re expressing what’s inside of you. I was 45 when I did that community art class and 46 when I sold my first painting. I remember applying to have my painting in a gallery and going to the opening thinking I didn’t belong there. I was terrified of what people would think and I felt like I was laying myself bare. But I also enjoyed painting so much it was like I was driven to do it.
“By slowly doing one thing, you can do the next thing. I relate a lot of this back to sea swimming. In the winter you go in up to your neck and you’re screaming, ‘Get me out of here’, but you go into yourself and you breathe. It can take a minute or two but I remind myself if I can do that, I can do anything,” she adds.
According to midlife coach Alana Kirk, author Midlife, Redefined: Better, Bolder, Brighter, more and more women are thinking, “This is my time”. Experiences in her own life had left her feeling like a ghost and Alana said she knew it was up to her to colour herself back in once again. Midlife, she says, is a time women start to tune in to their own voice rather than listening to it be drowned out by others speaking louder. Hearing this voice may not be classed as a super power but it could be life-changing all the same.