Last week a new custodian, while emptying my office trash, took one look at a framed photo of my daughter and asked me brightly, “Is that your granddaughter?” I graciously corrected him and continued working. When I mentioned this to friends their responses were uniformly horrified. It is a truth universally acknowledged that telling a woman she’s old is an unforgivable insult.
For some reason, the remark did not offend me as much as it might have, probably because I realize that in northeast Wisconsin, a 47-year old woman is more likely to be a grandmother of a 7 year old than her mother. I'm older than most of my daughter's friend's mothers, which means that my husband and I are almost 20 years older than many of the couples with whom we socialize. But everyone’s comments got me thinking.
Similarly, I have received a certain amount of concerned questions regarding my comfort with the fact that my husband, a professional photographer www.stunphotography.com, works with beautiful young models. This hasn’t been an issue in our marriage. In my book, a man cheats because he’s a cheater, not because he’s around pretty young women. But countless colleagues and friends have remarked on my fortitude and marveled at my tolerance. Their assumption, that I must feel threatened by younger women, does bother me.
What does it mean to be an aging woman? Does it automatically mean you are no longer desirable, no longer visible? While there are movie stars, women of incredible beauty, who manage to retain their looks past the age of 40, what about the rest of us?
Some have argued that aging women faculty are not as well-received by students, but I have enjoyed teaching more. I'm more comfortable in the classroom now that I'm significantly older than my students. I feel less pressure to maintain authority and I no longer worry that I'll run into them in bars or dance clubs.
Am I now a parent figure for my students? Maybe. But I imagine I'm an alternative to their parents. An intellectual middle-aged woman who had her first child at 40. That's radical around here.