by Helen Fisher

I was walking down Park Avenue in New York City recently, heading home from an introductory appointment with a plastic surgeon. The walk inspired some (more) reflection on middle age, on the trajectory of my life, on women in our modern world and on passages, transformations and self-maintenance.

In short: I engaged, as I suspect most women often do, in "taking stock."

I used to do this self-reflection as a child every summer when I went into my mother’s garden behind our home in Connecticut to pick lettuce. Farmers say that lettuce "bolts." By this they mean that it holds it shape and youth for a limited length of time, then the center shoots up into a tall stalk and suddenly the lettuce is old. "One must be sure to pick lettuce before it bolts," my mother always said. And for some reason, picking lettuce always made me "take stock" of my year’s failures and accomplishments. 

Now, at age 62, these seizures of self-analysis come more frequently, often when I look in the mirror. And so, my first (and perhaps only) trip to a plastic surgeon. There are pros and cons to this adventure, but it is yet another opportunity for transformation. And, if I decide to do it, I can. This is my leitmotif: We can.

Foremost, I have enough money to engage the surgeon. This as a definite
achievement for me –an unmarried working writer whose great ambition
has always been to have a bedroom by the time I was 50. I didn’t make
that goal; but I moved into my first real apartment at 51. And to this
day, when I take my knives and forks out of my kitchen drawer, I
reflect on the many years I kept them in an ice bucket below the sink
in my studio apartment. Today I, like many women, work. And I own a
kitchen and a bedroom to prove it.

But my kitchen drawer stands for something far grander than Helen Fisher’s personal ascent into the middle class. In my mind, it speaks also to the rise of all women in the workforce. My female friends often grumble that our progress into the paid labor force has been slow. But actually women’s entry into the working world is one of the great revolutions of humankind. 

Working women are not new, of course. For millions of years, ancestral women commuted to work to gather fruits and vegetables and came home with between 60 to 80 percent of the evening meal. The "double income" family was the rule in our hunting and gathering past. And women were just as socially, sexually and economically powerful as men. This changed with the agricultural revolution. But as women around the world move into the labor market, they are reassuming their birthright as equals.   

This trend shows no signs of stopping. A recent United Nations study of 130 societies reports that women are closing the gap with men in terms of education, health and economic power (though obviously this depends on the degree to which women are empowered). Had I lived a hundred years ago, I wouldn’t have owned my own home with my own kitchen drawer, or have written four books, or traveled the globe giving speeches, or studied the brain in love or survived economically or socially — all without a husband. Like lettuce, I and many other women are bolting out of servitude.

Which brings me back to the issue of growing older. There are two great trends in our modern era: women moving into in paid labor force; and the aging world population. Some demographers say we should now regard middle age as up to age 85, because some 40 percent of men and women in the age cohort of 75 to 84 have nothing seriously wrong with them.   

With technology to lessen women’s load in the home (we no longer have to make the candles, soap and blankets), with time to get an education and to build a career, and with some patience and determination, we finally have the opportunity to transform ourselves in to what we really want to be.

We can also love whom we choose. In fact, today many women do not live traditional married lives with a single spouse ’til death do them part. The divorce rate is currently going down — to 43 percent from 50 percent in 1981. But many women now have the resources to leave unhappy unions to make happy ones. Moreover, older women no longer live with their children and grandchildren; they live alone and are expected to express feelings of romance and sexuality. And we can.

So, I am still at odds with my reflection in the mirror. But I feel tremendously fortunate to be alive here and now. I know that life is tough. Nobody has it all. But today many of us have remarkable opportunities to work and to love.

I don’t know what I will do about the plastic surgeon. But as I think about my life and our times, I know I can — and will — continue to follow my family motto: semper ad astra. Always to the stars.

Helen Fisher, Ph.D., is a research professor and member of the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies in the anthropology department at Rutgers University. She has conducted extensive research on the evolution and future of human sex, love and marriage and is chief scientific advisor to Chemistry.com. Her latest is book is "Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love."

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