I am a single woman who is entering midlife. I am a therapist and a poet. I am also a woman who is struggling with a drive for internal freedom, external connection, a shift in the manifestation of my masculine and feminine energies, and a strong desire to explore what my innermost being needs to be happy versus the prescriptions of happiness that have been doled out to me over the years. I am virtually separating the wheat from the chafe, as we all do, only I am hoping that at this time in my life, I am doing so with more intention and consciousness.
Please note that recently, nothing has made that more challenging for me than dating. Not only have I come up against the strange stigma of being a single woman entering midlife, but also the oppressive buzz of how a woman should behave if she is going to, *ahem*, “catch a man” (I say that pejoratively, in case you didn’t catch that). Add reaching a milestone that implicitly includes a low tolerance for other people’s expectations and/or careless hijinks, and you get a woman that has bouts of frustration, outrage, sadness, and despair. Thank God that I have a sense of humor.
Still, I want to change the world so that I can get what I want: a nice balance of individuation and true connection. I am old enough to know that these two things do not have to be separate, and yet, living in a culture that likes to categorize things into neat and tidy boxes (including male and female stereotypes for both sexual preference and gender role identification), striking this balance is not an easy task. Besides, I can only change myself.
So here’s the back story: I went through a break-up a while back. I grieved hard. I encountered self-doubt. I came up against the strong opinions of others, and much of those opinions were in relation to my role as a woman, what men want, and what I supposedly need to do to change myself because of what men want. I was worried that perhaps I was an emasculating woman (note, there is not a word in our culture for “efemination”—worth paying attention to).
Being vulnerable and thus easy prey to the relentless marketing sludge designed to offer me a false sense of hope, I am embarrassed to say that like countless other women I know, I started reading online newsletters about how I should change myself as a woman. In truth, some of the information was helpful. I would highlight that focusing on one’s own happiness was the helpful part. I would also highlight that being happy to “catch a man” was the part that makes me want to severely chide the front men and women for this popular online marketing campaign. Talk about the quintessential double bind. Be yourself for him, not for yourself. I still can’t quite wrap my head around that one.
Another aspect of these marketing campaigns is the discussion about how men think and how women think, what men want and how women should be to become wanted. The basic psychology very explicitly is stated as the following: attraction is unconscious, and thus the rational mind can’t change it—it is not about reasoning. It is about being primal men and women. For example, women are to be passive and mysterious, and men are to be dominant and simple. Where does that leave a shy, quiet man? Where does that leave an outgoing, motivated woman? Inadequate, unhappy, and single, apparently.
So what does that mean for a woman in midlife? Or even not in midlife? What does it mean when I am entering a phase in which I am more interested in moving beyond the conditioning the first half of my life steeped into my brain like red wine on a white carpet: expanding my role, breaking free from social stereotypes, being assertive rather than passive, enjoying being sexually aggressive, developing a poetic voice that reveals rather than conceals (I guess I can say goodbye to being mysterious), understanding the heroine’s journey, and in a more condensed way, exploring what Carl Jung (1964) called for women, animus (i.e., the female shadow of exiled male energy).
Enter, stage right, my new fascination with Patti Smith, rock icon. I always appreciated her, but didn’t find myself exploring her as ardently as recently until some fellow women artists revealed their mutual love of Patti Smith. I started listening to Patti read her own book, Just Kids (2010) in my car at the recommendation of another artist-therapist, discovered that my own therapist was in the throes of love with Patti Smith, and even more amazingly, discovered that a client of mine was also having a very healthy Patti Smith binge. The parallels were nothing short of synchronistic. It was Kismet.
Enter stage left, a dream I had just prior. I was in a large city courtyard at night, surrounded by mist and under a full moon. Dozens of short haired women dressed in sheer gauze were holding hands and running fast in geometrical patterns. I could see the outline of their bodies through the gauze beneath the moonlight, and the mist clung to them. I wanted so badly to be a part of those women, to sing and dance with them, and I wondered if there was room for me. Next, I entered a small room. A woman was lying on a Freudian couch in an exotic dress, bare shouldered, arms falling back as if she were tied down. A man I found myself attracted to was facing her and taking her picture. I then looked over to a large set of French Doors. A little girl with short brown hair dressed like the women dancing in the moonlight emerged and walked up to the exotic woman on the couch and placed a large pair of fake, red waxed candy lips in the woman’s mouth. As beautiful as the woman was, she looked miserable, bound and gagged. I felt sorry for her, and suddenly a strong urge to get out of that room as fast as possible came to me. I went back into the city courtyard to the shorthaired women dancing their collective, creative dance, and a single word flashed over my head like a bright red neon sign: “freedom.” I knew I wanted to be one of those dancing women. I didn’t just see it, but felt it with great clarity. Being in the androgynous sisterhood of embodied creativity would bring me freedom. Becoming a dolled-up spectacle to gain the attention of a man would be utter bondage.
In her exploration of Anne Sexton and the midlife crisis, Ilene Serlin (2008) writes of a case study about a woman named Maria who was struggling. Serlin observes of her client “how was Maria part of a tradition of women, from Anne Sexton to Sylvia Plath to Marilyn Monroe, who identified with a tragic heroine whose creativity led to death? These women wrestled with the ultimate existential concerns of freedom and limitation, but in a way that was unique to their particular roles as women” (p. 147).
Many of the talented women I have worked with, most of whom had not had children, balanced the needs for autonomy with the needs for relationship, felt vulnerable, and faced aging alone. Their creativity was not in the service of work and consciousness, but in the service of the unconscious; they immersed themselves in journal writing, doomed love affairs, and dreams. Like many women generally, they knew how to swoon, and their form of surrender was sexual, mystical, and ecstatic. Darkness exerted a strong pull and death a romantic fascination. (p. 147)
Most poignantly and relevant here, however, Serlin noticed that for many of these women, their fascination was “an escape from living” (p. 147).
So, here we have women grappling with the shadow, the unlived part of themselves. We have men and marital status as a huge distraction from the joy of being. We have brilliant, creative women who don’t know how to integrate. They are up against the culture. They are up against their own confusion, but not all of them. I am thinking of Patti Smith as this young woman who, as a friend of mine stated, epitomized androgyny. She was sexy in a very strange way, and yet she was not a sex symbol. She lived for her art. Her partnerships fed her art and vice versa. She explored, did not close herself off, was curious, and made her impulse to create the focal point of her path. She did not seem to struggle as hard with the expectations of other people. And as she aged, she confronted her losses with grace.
I look to this very true statement about women who suffered, even to the point of ending it. Yet, I look to this woman who exemplified freedom, demonstrating it as a model of internal and external exploration and expression. Smith did not hold back and even stated very plainly that she did not let gender define her. She was who she was. She loved and she lost, but this is a woman who did not use art or her men as an escape. Rather, she was fully engaged and very much alive.
I really didn’t expect the dream I had. I really didn’t expect to have an amazing synchronistic experience around Patti Smith impact me so deeply. The lovely surprise is that I am finding myself breaking free of the bondage of so many expectations that relate to the roles men and women have been cast in. I have renounced dating etiquette. I have renounced what it means to be happy and successful in life as a woman. I have looked around me to find that I am surrounded by love.
Looking through the creative eye helps me to realize that love is a dimension through which we enter, not something we achieve through the alteration of our personalities. The popular marketed dating rhetoric is nothing short of metaphorical plastic surgery, the message being that “there is something wrong with your core self, but for a monthly installment of $39 we can make the correct alterations and thus make you perfect, desirable, and married.” It’s like selling one’s soul to the devil. I won’t do it. If being more “feminine and attractive” in order to be partnered means reversing the process of integration, healing of culturally perpetuated splits, and sacrifice of my spiritual quest for wholeness, I’ll take being single, thank you very much.
Please understand me. I am not anti-feminine. I am not anti-relationship and marriage. I am not anti-children. I am, however, pro-choice in the sense that there is more to exist for than those things, and that life will bring many possibilities that transcend those messages. I want to be open to my process and the good things that I have and that come to me naturally.
Really, what I am against is the oppressive male-female split and how it manifests itself mercilessly in the dating world to the point where unhealthy models of being are pandered to vulnerable women who are afraid of being alone. These splits only perpetuate a sense of failure and heartache. If most people derive their attraction from an unconscious place, well then perhaps I am looking for a more conscious partner. I may not find one, and that’s OK, because as nice as it would be, my desire for a love connection is secondary: my primary aim and measure of success in this life is to shake up my shadow and bring it into the light, animus NOT sold separately.
I hope this personal disclosure inspires other women, whether young or old, to foster a sense of adventure in their exploration of all aspects of themselves, and ultimately brings them closer to a sense of internal freedom and personal integration. I also hope that it inspires men to the same aims. I realize that I have not explored the oppressive side of my brother gender. I am not a man, so I do not have tacit knowing of this. I do believe, however, that the central message is applicable to both sexes. Life will unfold as it does, but no matter what the outcome, finding joy lies within learning to be as whole as is possible in this lifetime, and the sense of freedom derived from that wholeness. Good relationships will allow this, not hinder this. Then you will be free, whether partnered or not. Just be yourselves. Just “be.”
Jung, C.G. (1964). Approaching the unconscious. In C.G. Jung (Ed.) Man and his symbols (pp. 1-94). New York: Dell.
Serlin, I. (2008). Women and the midlife crisis: The Anne Sexton complex. In K. J. Schneider (Ed.) Existential-integrative psychotherapy: Guideposts to the core of practice (pp. 146-163). New York: Routledge.
Smith, P. (2010). Just kids. New York: Ecco.
— Candice Hershman