Author Archives: Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

A community relations director in higher education and mother of two adult sons, Amy Gage spent the first 20 years of her career as a journalist and public speaker in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The issues addressed in her award-winning newspaper column, "On Balance: Issues That Affect Work and Home," remain relevant today. In "The Middle Stages," she continues the vital conversation about women's work and lives, with a focus on the challenges and contradictions of aging, the mixed blessings of forsaking family time for the more immediate rewards of a career, and how middle-aged women can continue to forge full lives even as their priorities and sensibilities change.

Cooking for funerals and other feminine arts

“You’re cooking a lot lately,” my husband said recently on one of the below-zero days that has defined our Minnesota winter. Actually, I have not been spending more time than usual in the kitchen. He is just reaping fewer of the rewards.

A plastic tub of banana muffins made with honey, oatmeal and mini-chocolate chips went to Mary, whose father died at 93. We delivered sweet potatoes with ginger and orange juice to Karen, after her third surgery for a detached retina appeared to be successful. (She had reminded me that “orange vegetables” are good for eyes.)Beef stew photo

Earlier we had brought her a calories-be-damned comfort meal of beef stew adapted from my mother’s ’60s-era recipe and soft spoonbread full of oil and cheese.

It is both a sign and a symptom of my sixty-something stage of life that homemade food is the essential gift to nourish friendship. Parents’ funerals have replaced weddings as the defining ritual of our age. Health has become less an assumption and a birthright than a blessing that can vanish in a flash.

My own mother died in September 2015. The spontaneous gifts of food from friends and colleagues meant so much that I noted them in my eulogy:

  • Rachel’s platters of fresh vegetables delivered the day she heard the news
  • Sarah’s homemade desserts for the funeral reception
  • Cathy’s fresh rolls and minestrone, still warm from her stove
  • Kate’s vegetable soup, which she urged me to freeze and then reheat on a day when we were overwhelmed with company.

When my father, a more conventional Christian, died last October, the women of the church served up a meal of tuna hot dish, fresh fruit and slabs of cake on paper plates. The United Methodist Men’s group that he attended for years was not in evidence.

Neither did any male friends bring gifts of food when my parents died. Cooking as a tasty and tangible sign of caring remains a feminine ritual among us aging feminists.

Kitchen confidential

I was a 34-year-old career woman who out-earned her husband and hadn’t yet decided whether to have a second child when Hillary Rodham Clinton made her infamous, on-camera remark about not having “stayed home to bake cookies and have teas.”

Clinton was an emerging hero to feminists of my age and ilk, middle-class white women whose mothers had forsaken any dream of paid careers to be homemakers and helpmates to their husbands. Today’s cultural commentators would call us “privileged,” and we were, but not for the reasons they might claim. We were the first generation of our race and class to have choices: about work, about reproduction, about marriage. About all of it.

Taken in that time, 1992, and in that context, Clinton’s “cookies” comment was more bold than condescending.Cookies

“Hillary was a revolutionary,” I told my younger son in 2016 when he caucused for Bernie Sanders. “You might not see it now, but for a woman then to be a lawyer and wear suits and keep her name and have only one child was remarkable.”

I am grateful, at 60, to recognize that “women’s rights” takes many forms and that feminism, at its core, means having the freedom and opportunity to be whomever you want to be. I practice some of the feminine domestic arts out of necessity. Preparing meals is cheaper and more healthful than eating out. Knitting is relaxing and can carry me through a multi-segment Ken Burns documentary. Cotton pants and blouses require ironing to look professional.

Cooking for others? That is a true gift of the heart and a legacy of yesteryear’s “church ladies” that I eagerly uphold. I keep the refrigerator and pantry stocked for my sons when they drop by. I relish cooking dinner during my brother’s annual Christmas visit. I am the first to volunteer to host potlucks for friends and neighbors.

“I’m just someone who likes cooking and for whom sharing food is a form of expression,” says no less an accomplished woman than Maya Angelou.

Who knew that the future of our democracy came down to baking cookies? Had Hillary recognized  the domestic arts as no threat to her independence, she may have softened her divisive qualities and sharp-edged reputation. We could have had a different president.

Chew on that.

Advertisements

Speak truth to power: Declare your age

I turned 60 on July 4th.

There, I said it. Can I still write a blog about middle age?

No less an august authority than The Economist recently illuminated my dilemma in an article that argued for a new “age category”: What do we call this vital period between midlife and old age? I feel less affinity with a retiree of 75 than I do with a 40-year-old just entering middle age. Yet I am past those years of raising children, long commutes, holding an all-consuming job that could support a family and wearing stress like a badge for my achievements.

I still work. I exercise daily. I am engaged in life. I have good friends. At 60, I am not young anymore, but I am not old yet, either. What do I call this stage of life? Am I a “tweener”?

“Branding an age category might sound like a frivolous exercise,” says The Economist article, published two days after I tumbled out of middle age. “But life stages are primarily social constructs, and history shows that their emergence can trigger deep changes in attitude.”60 is classic

That explains why I have decided to be open about my age, despite the risks to my employability. I want to debunk the idea that women lose value as we grow older, which is true only in a society that prizes us primarily for reproduction. In fact, we have more time and far more perspective once we have made it through the child-rearing years.

Gloria Steinem’s famous rejoinder to an intended compliment on her 40th birthday, “You don’t look 40,” seems apropos: “This is what 40 looks like.”

For me, this is how 60 looks and feels:

  • wrinkled skin;
  • more need for sleep;
  • a lean body that craves yoga but can no longer sustain a runner’s 9-minute mile;
  • a determination to volunteer because I have less time to change the world (but still enough ego to believe I can make a difference);
  • more patience and self-acceptance;
  • more gratitude and humility;
  • and, thank goodness, still much to learn.

A woman can find freedom when she refuses to lie about her age, when she finds the gumption to declare her truth and share her story.

Wisdom from Bruce Willis

“Most of us have an inner age,” wrote the late author and gay-rights activist Robert Levithan in his book The New 60 (2012).

When I was in my mid-40s, working at a publishing company in downtown Minneapolis, I posted a quote in my cubicle from a Vanity Fair profile of Bruce Willis: “I see the lines on my face, but I don’t feel the weight on my shoulders. In my heart, I’m still 27,” he said.

MotownI could say I still feel young, that I take pride in keeping fit. I preen a bit when friends tell me I don’t look 60 and feel relieved when some commentator declares 60 as the new 40. What is all that, however, but a denial of the inevitable and a denigration of the gifts that come with age?

Ricka Kohnstamm calls these the wisdom years. “Age is totally an asset,” says Kohnstamm, who will turn 61 in August. A former partner with her husband, Josh, in Kohnstamm Communications, she recently earned a master’s degree in integrative health and well-being coaching.

“I bring a whole different set of experiences,” explains Kohnstamm, who is about to launch her own business, ALIGN Whole Health Coaching. “Many of us at 60 have experienced a lot: disappointments, joys, dreams that may not happen, transitions, deaths and losses.”

Over coffee, I tell Kohnstamm that I did not expect to feel so much uncertainty at 60. Her laughter breaks my fearful, reflective mood. “I want uncertainty!” she declares. “We have to learn to ride that wave.”

The secret? Keep learning

Loss can teach us lessons. Here is what the loss of youth is teaching me.

Being 60 means becoming acutely aware of time — in work, in relationships, in how I spend my days. I no longer have time to waste, and I use it wisely.

Being 60 means becoming more deliberate. I love to work and expect to hold some sort of part-time job for decades, but I likely am entering the final stage of my career. That makes me more careful than I was in my 20s and 30s, when I changed jobs too quickly, loving the energy of the chase, always seeking the next challenge and the thrill of something new.

Being 60 means accepting other people’s choices even when I think they’re wrong (a sentence that my husband will love to read).

Being 60 means breaking free of the façade. I look at women wearing layers of makeup and hobbling around on high heels, and I want to ask why they invest in their own subjugation. I dress up when circumstances warrant and relish the attention it grants me, but I don’t fool myself into believing that those appreciative glances define my worth. “Elegance attracted me,” says the protagonist in Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time (2016). “I liked the way it hid pain.”

Being 60 means becoming willing to share that pain, to risk being real, and that requires the courageous work of being vulnerable. “The majority of people, if they’re awake, have pretty complicated lives,” says Kohnstamm. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to pretend we didn’t?”

‘Emerging’ into a new stage of parenthood

“All I can do is feed him and listen.”

I have repeated that sentence like a commandment, a mantra — a helpless prayer — since my younger son moved back home in February. Only 22, he had his heart broken when his longtime girlfriend left him, their apartment and the shared life they had built. They had been together since they were 15 years old.

This past Monday, they would have left for a four-week excursion through Europe, where he had planned to propose. “You will look back on this as one of your life’s most significant losses,” I have told him, acknowledging both the worth of his former girlfriend (whom Nate’s dad and I loved, too) and the depth of his pain.Millennial T-shirt

Since Nate moved home, he has graduated from college with honors, increased the hours at his part-time job and gradually built a new circle of friends. He and I have taken long walks and had soul-searching talks. I iron his shirts. He helps pay a few bills.

Repeatedly I have asked myself whether I am helping or enabling him. Truth is, I don’t know. My late mother had Dr. Spock (“and Dr. Penn,” she would say, referring to the general practitioner who delivered her five babies). But I have no guidebook for how to parent a young adult, and neither do my contemporaries.

Consider:

  • A majority of young adults live independently in only six of this country’s 50 states, according to 2015 U.S. Census data. Minnesota is not among them. That compares with 35 states a decade earlier.
  • Social scientists have coined the term “emerging adulthood” to describe this uncertain, often scary period between adolescence and functioning without parental support.
  • Conversations with my female friends increasingly involve whispered worries about our young adult children. The son, 27, who lives at home because half of his income goes to child support; the accomplished daughter whose tumultuous relationship could affect her career; the promising college graduate who may be with the wrong woman, though his mother feels powerless to help him see it.

“I thought I was done, and technically I am done, but you have these concerns,” says the mother of the young man whose sons she is helping raise. Her son left home after high school and did not return until he had a college degree. “I really didn’t think about him on a daily basis,” she says. “Now it’s lying awake till he comes home at night. It means letting go and trusting that he’ll find his way, and that’s hard.”

Navigating a new terrain

Helicopter parents? I find that label too dismissive. Instead, Nate and his dad and I are three adults renegotiating the rules in a household that had been an empty nest.

My husband claims I have reverted to “Mom mode” since our son moved home four months ago. I see myself as trying to guide him through the grief and toward a productive life that will help him feel useful and happy.

“Both adult sons and adult daughters reported more tension with their mothers than with their fathers, particularly about personality differences and unsolicited advice,” reads a report about a study of parent and adult child relationships by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. “It may be that children feel their mothers make more demands for closeness or that they are generally more intrusive than fathers.”

Since Commencement weekend in May — when my son flew to Portland, Oregon, with his brother rather than face his former partner at their college graduation — I have been thinking not only about what I owe him. I have been pondering what he is teaching me.

Three conclusions, so far:

  1. Worry does not serve him. Tempting though it is to twist and spin about Nate’s future, it is his problem, his journey — his opportunity. “Worry is a lack of faith in the other and cannot exist simultaneously with love,” writes Duluth-based yogi and author Deborah Adele in her book The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Principles. “We need to trust suffering and trust challenge and trust mistakes; they are what refine us when we don’t run from them.”
  2. Learning crosses generational borders. Just as Baby Boomers can choose to learn from Gen Xers and Millennials in the workplace, I am intentionally seeking my son’s perspective. Yes, I raised him, shaped his values and oversaw his education, but it is arrogant to assume that I still have a “one up” role. He has nudged me to examine how much I invest my identity in work and helped me see that mothers have no monopoly on wisdom.
  3. Risk is its own reward. The notion that a person has to marry, choose a career or have children by a certain age can become its own self-constructed prison. I wish I had taken more risks as a young adult, so why am I uncomfortable with my son doing so? Having him home again has taught me to hold my tongue, withhold judgment and resist my tendency to manage or fix.

As I approach the final third of my life, I want nothing less for my son than I seek for myself: courage, accountability and resilience.