By Esther Mann, LCSW
This week’s letter is being answered by Jennifer Mann, LMSW.
I am in my late 40s, and 50 is fast approaching. I have always struggled with my weight and was never a size 2, but I took great pride in my appearance. Until a few months ago, when I began “the change,” I exercised nearly daily. I put on makeup every morning and even touched up in the afternoon. Nothing would be as exhilarating as an afternoon of shopping with girlfriends.
Lately, I have given everything up. The first thing to go was the exercise and that is when the weight began piling on. Then I stopped buying beautiful clothing for myself, and recently I stopped putting on makeup in the morning. When I look in the mirror I see an unattractive “older” woman. The wrinkles have settled in, and skin all over my body is sagging. I think to myself, why bother? I’ve thought about Botox or a facelift, but I don’t want to do that; I want to be natural.
When I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and see the woman standing there, I do not relate to my image and I can’t comprehend that the older woman looking back at me is me. I am struggling with getting older and it’s affecting my self-esteem and body image. I have become one of those women that I used to pity. I couldn’t understand how they could walk out the door without regard for their physical appearance.
Over the past five years, I have married off my three children and became a grandmother several times over, which I know is a berachah. I feel selfish saying it, but I miss having my kids around and being “mommy.” When I married off the last one, I felt a piece of me dying. I feel almost irrelevant and it’s not because, G-d forbid, my kids exclude me from their lives. The opposite is true. They want me to babysit and visit and come for Shabbos, and usually I decline. I guess I am not adjusting well to the role of mother-in-law and grandmother. I’d much rather be mommy.
Recently my husband and dearest friend got together and had an intervention. They both told me they are concerned about me and life’s not over, yada yada yada. Though it didn’t help me, it was a wake-up call that the new me is depressing those around me, and I don’t want to bring anyone down with this sinking ship.
What do you think is going on with me? Do you think I will snap out of it and embrace my golden years?
Much of what you are describing is actually quite normal. Imagine having a TV show that you have been loyally committed to for many years. One season, without warning, your favorite actor on the program is replaced. Some people may give the new guy a chance and will continue watching the show, though there are sure to be some bumps along the way. They may find that, though they will always remember the original guy fondly, with time they have found a place in their heart for the new guy, and can enjoy what he has to offer. For some, though, that is reason enough to give up the show completely. After all, this “new guy” couldn’t possibly be as good as the original. They see him as an impostor, playing a role meant for someone else.
I think this “new guy” analogy may pertain to what you are experiencing. You are seeing a new person in the mirror, someone whom you can’t relate to and perhaps don’t like. Does she look like an impostor? Is she someone who appeared one day and replaced the “original”? And major life changes have come along with the physical changes. You have married off your three children and have had grandchildren in the last five years. No doubt about it, your life certainly looks different than it did ten years ago. You are in transition.
Transitions aren’t necessarily easy. I would have a hard time finding a woman who likes her wrinkles. Your struggles are shared by women around the world. We live in a society that values youth and appearance. We are told to have flawless skin, to be thin and stay young. The message of our culture is loud and clear: To be worthy and lovable, you must be young and beautiful. The way I understand your e-mail, you feel the same way. You are having a difficult time embracing the woman you see in the mirror. You don’t believe she is worthy of your love. I gathered this from your complete halt on exercise and self-care. You don’t believe that the woman in the mirror is worthy of a healthy body, a made-up face, or beautiful clothing. She gets extra weight to hide her from the public eye and your own eye. The woman without the wrinkles was worthy of your time and attention. The woman with the wrinkles deserves nothing.
You have lost something dear to you: your youthful appearance and all that entailed. You have also lost the role of “mommy,” which I think means you feel you are no longer needed in the way you once were. No longer are there children at the table screaming “mommy” as you prepare dinner. There is no one to put on the bus early in the morning nor are there any bloody knees for you to clean up. All of these losses are real and painful. I think you have been in mourning over what once was. It is perfectly OK to acknowledge the loss and even sit in it for some time. However, if your appetite or sleep patterns have changed, you don’t feel like yourself, or you have lost interest in things that once excited you, you may be depressed. If that is the case, you may want to consider seeing a professional.
I would like you to keep a list of what exactly you miss. Get everything on this list, no matter how silly you may feel. There is no shame in this list. It’s very important you be fully candid and honest with yourself. Give yourself time to acknowledge and honor everything on the list. Once you have taken your time and completed the exercise thoroughly, I would like you to make a new list of all of the activities you are missing out on because of this mourning period.
The nature of life is transition. Seasons change, and people change and grow older. We don’t have a choice in that. But we do have a choice in what we do about it. We can sink into a depression over it, obsessing over all that is no more, or we can embrace it with dignity . . . and a little humor never hurt, either. I would suggest you no longer turn your back on the woman in the mirror. You have to get along with her and call a truce. Though you are no longer “mommy,” you are a grandmother now.
Once you embrace this new stage of life and start living it, you may find you adore being a grandmother in a way you could never have imagined. You might even find it to be better than being a mom. You get to enjoy these children, spoil them rotten, and return them at the end of the day. Many women I speak to tell me their 50s are their best years yet!
You have a choice. You can mourn what is no longer, or you can accept yourself the way you are and get in the game. Maybe take on a new hobby, find a new interest. Find something that will make you feel good about yourself, having nothing to do with appearance; for instance, you might get involved in a chesed or a book club.
If you choose, you can put on your sneakers after you read this article and go work out. You can put your makeup on again and go shopping with a girlfriend. Good for you that you have decided to age naturally. Now, you can decide to age gracefully.
There are women who would die to be in your shoes. At nearly 50, you have married off your children and have a few grandchildren to show for it. You have at least one friend and a husband who care for you deeply enough to stage an intervention. Yes, the years have given you wrinkles, but the weight and lackluster attitude are self-imposed. It is my hope that you find peace and acceptance as you enter your fabulous fifties. And by the way, didn’t you hear? Fifty is the new forty! You have a lot of living to do!
Jennifer Mann is presently working as a psychotherapist at Ohel. She also works as a relationship coach and can be reached at 718-908-0512.
Jennifer invites everyone to tune in to www.Syriousradio.com Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m., where she will be cohosting a talk show with Rebecca Gordon, LMSW, called “Talk to Me.” It is interactive, so tune in, and call! They will be discussing interesting topics and would love your feedback.