Two decades ago, when I was 36, I took over a major-market newspaper column called “Women in Business” at the then-thriving Saint Paul Pioneer Press.
The women part interested me. The maneuverings and machinations of business? Less so, which is why I gravitated toward interviews about how women in the 1990s were navigating the careers they thought they wanted with the maternal and domestic roles they were raised to have.
These women, I wrote then, were a “breakthrough generation.”
My favorite article, then and now (when I’m living it rather than researching it), was called “The Best Decade: Women in their Fifties.” It was published in December 1994, six weeks before I gave birth to my second baby.
Women from ages 49 to 58 told me of the freedom their mothers’ generation had bequeathed them. None mentioned contraception or the women’s movement directly, but they knew they owed a debt to the birth control pill, to the trailblazing careerists who were the “first” in their professions (lawyers, physicians, stockbrokers, business executives) and to the Mad Men-era mothers who raised these women with the bittersweet admonition to “do more” than they themselves had done.
An editor eventually helped me evolve the “Women in Business” column to “On Balance: Issues That Affect Work and Home.” That allowed men to join the conversation, too. As I launch an updated version of that column — with a new title, in a different medium and from the path, farther on, of 20 more years of experience — I want to review the wisdom those women in their “best decade” shared with my younger self.
Help me measure what holds true today:
- “Women of my age or younger have a sense of possibility that is really greater than our mothers had,” said a woman of 57, an entrepreneur who returned to college to earn a master’s in theology.
“Midlife is a period of reflection. That is not a new concept, and it’s true for men and women,” said a business executive, 51. “What may be different for women, and women in business, is that the issues they’re looking at aren’t necessarily what midlife women traditionally were looking at.”
- “The public perception is that this is a negative time of life,” said the founder of what was then called the MidLife Women’s Network in Minneapolis. “But a whole group of women is saying, ‘I don’t buy that.'”
Women told me they wanted to develop the creativity and space for contemplation that, by necessity, they’d set aside to pursue careers:
“The midlife issue is how to get more time for oneself,” said one executive. “We want to cook on Sundays. We want to have a conversation with a friend. We want to read a book. We want to take long walks. We want to be not so much career people.”
Integration was a common word among these women — the generation that had worn a uniform of blue suits, had resisted any urge to personalize their offices with pictures of family and children, had taken up golf in order to meet men on their own turf.
“I used to wear two hats,” said a Target executive. “One was my professional self,” she explained, drawing a small box in the air. “The other was the personal side: more fun, more relaxed. It was a protection, I think. It was how I fit in a man’s world. Now, who you see is what you get.”
Many women acknowledged the price they’d paid for their fast-paced careers — a topic that my blog, “The Middle Stages,” will continue to explore. “Whenever you make choices,” one explained, “it is at the exclusion of something else.”
Middle age is the chance to fill that void, to take the risks that seemed impossible at a younger age. As I look back on my earlier article about women enjoying “The Best Decade” of their 50s, I am struck by their ease and comfort with themselves. They refused to become “invisible,” to be sidelined by society. Having operated in a masculine world, they were learning to embrace the feminine virtues and pastimes they’d once shunned as old-fashioned or irrelevant.
“If I think about who I am — the athlete, the broker, the person who likes to knit or cook — all parts are equally valuable. They all deserve attention,” said an investment broker about to turn 50. “Looking back when I’m 100 years old, the only thing I’m going to have regrets about are the things I didn’t do.”
Lesson learned: A “sense of possibility” is essential at middle age. Embrace aging, don’t mourn it. And see how much more expansive life can become.