I’ve had some welcome experiences and surprises since my book, The Second Half of Your Life, was published earlier this year. First, it was hailed by one esteemed reviewer as “one of the most important women’s books for a decade”.
Then the charity I set up, The Second Half of Your Life Foundation, was adopted by the new mayor of Kensingston and Chelsea, Julie Mills, as one of her charities for 2011-12.
I set up the charity to build a centre to make my book come alive and help people engage in successful ageing. The work of the centre, which will be run in partnership with the charity Open Age, will benefit the inhabitants of North Kensington.
It teaches new skills, gives people a place where they can connect socially, and educates people through the provision of classes and lectures for the over-fifties. One hundred per cent of royalties from the sales of my book have and will be going towards its funding.
I see the book as a kind of ‘hands-on manual’ that provides advice and guidance to inspire and help women use the gift of menopause to make the most of the second half of their lives.
It is written from the perspective of menopause as a new beginning, a chance for women to rediscover the best in themselves and reconnect with the world in a new way.
This is the first of two extracts from the book, specially adapted for high50.
During the first half of life, many of us had a life plan waiting. It was as if we were handed a script and all we had to do was follow it. The script read like this: go to school, go to college or university, find a job, earn a living, meet a guy, fall in love, plan a wedding, have babies, get your figure back, have more babies, try to get your figure back again, look after the family, cook dinner, do the food shopping, clean the house, pay the bills, go to work, organise workmen, exercise, make a house a home, meet with teachers, make sure the kids have clothes and shoes that fit, book appointments, schedule activities, coordinate everyone’s social lives, plan and book family holidays, make time to talk and listen, ensure you are there (and in the front row) for every school play, every recital, every sporting event, graduation ceremony and anything else that really matters.
You pack up your last child for uni… and then what? Has anyone been given the script for the second half of life? Most women I know are just not sure how they are supposed to live for the next 30 or 40 years.
We know what we like and don’t like. We have the accumulated wisdom of all our years, and finally have more of that precious commodity — time — to look after ourselves and do some of the things we always wanted to do. And we may just have to make a few small changes to make sure the second half is the best half…
The power of hormones
Throughout our twenties, thirties and early forties, our brains relied on heavy supplies of oestrogen (and a few other hormones), which provided us with a natural mothering instinct, the ability to closely track the emotions of others, and the determination to keep the peace.
To pass into marriage and then motherhood, we needed to kiss self-absorption goodbye and make the maximum investment in what our bodies have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years: preparing ourselves for the continuation of the species.
Giving birth to yourself will surprise, even shock, the people closest to you. The five Ss — supporting, sublimating, safeguarding, sheltering and shielding — will be replaced with altogether different ones: social life, serious exercise, self-confidence, self-discovery and security.
With this change comes a new sense of stability, creative energy and clarity of vision that helps bring into focus what we need to do to create a happier and more fulfilled second half of life.
Menopause is often referred to as ‘the change’. Another word for change is ‘transform’. We go from our reproductive years to our self-productive years. Although we can’t give birth, we can finally give birth to ourselves.
Many women I interviewed while researching my book believe that the years after menopause are the best years of their lives. They feel a “new confidence sneaking up on them” and want to “embrace new challenges”. They finally “feel awake again after so many years of semi-consciousness”. Many women are surprised by the changes. But no one will be more surprised than your family, who may be bewildered by the change in you.
When the ‘you’ they’ve known for the past 20 years doesn’t turn up to cook supper with a smile every evening, they may suspect a nervous breakdown or worry that you are on the verge of filing for divorce from the entire family.
Once you can no longer create biological life, fertility is expressed in a different form , through the creation of new thoughts, purpose and rediscovery.
After you have been through menopause, you will have changed in more ways than one. Menopause will not only alter your hormonal balance, but the way your brain works and the way you look at the world. When the hormones that have made your life hell rebalance again, you will be able to prioritise in a way that will allow you to flourish and blossom.
It may take some time to recognise and interpret the new messages your brain is sending, but it’s definitely talking to you, and you need to start listening.
This is change at the deepest level. Thoughts such as ‘Now is my time’,’ It’s my turn’ or ‘There’s no time like the present’ begin to infiltrate our consciousness.
The voices of self-doubt that prevented us from moving forward in the past become a little quieter. We consciously begin to re-evaluate what matters. And, through this, a new list of priorities is developed.
What’s your attitude?
Some women believe they must simply accept the fact that they will get fatter, weaker, lonelier and more crotchety with every passing year.
There is almost a passive acceptance that they will be too old to worry about what they look like, feel like, and still need to accomplish.
My mother was old by the time she was 60. She stopped exercising, isolated herself from her friends, and watched her body start to fall apart.
There is nothing that will make you feel and behave old more quickly than living in a body that has stopped functioning the way it should.
By ensuring you have a body that continues to do what it was designed for, to walk, run and move, you are giving yourself the best chance of healthy ageing.
The happiest and most vibrant women look after both their emotional and physical health daily. We are all living longer. According to Professor Sarah Harper, director of the Oxford Institute of Ageing, “My mother’s life expectancy at my age was her mid-seventies. Mine is 96! That is two decades more of life in one generation. Every hour we live adds five minutes to our life expectancy.”
The women who most successfully negotiate this time are those who look at their lives with optimism and make positive choices to create what they want from their lives. They realise they have the whole of the second half of their life to complete what they didn’t do in the first half.
How you decide to tackle your life ‘to-do’ list has broad-reaching implications that will determine whether you will thrive or simply survive the next 30 or 40 years. Getting older really can mean getting better.
• The Second Half of Your Life (Vermilion, £12.99): TheSecondHalfofYourLife.com