Friendshipping Is a Verb with Mary Pipher
Older women are the happiest demographic in this country—but you wouldn’t know it based on how our culture talks about them. Mary Pipher, author of Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age, joins us to set the record straight.
If you’re a woman, you’ve probably internalized a million messages about the horrors of getting older: changing bodies, diminished careers, invisibility everywhere. But Mary Pipher wants you to know there’s more to aging than gray hair—there’s also incredible resilience, growth, and even bliss. And the more we build those skills now, the better off we’ll all be.
It’s in everybody’s benefit, not just older people’s benefit, to have a new way of redefining older people that is not in terms of loss and diminishment, but in terms of growth.—Mary Pipher, author of Women Rowing North
Whatever life stage you’re in, this interview will speak to you—promise. We talk about:
- Why ageism is probably a bigger problem for older women than agin.
- The resilience of older people—and how all of us can bump up our resilience skills now.
- Why “friendshipping is a verb”—and why building lifetime friendships is “an emotional and mental health insurance policy” for women.
- Finding gratefulness and joy, even when things are tough.
- How to transcend our former selves, so we don’t just adapt as we age, but actually savor changes.
- Handling loss and the power of being with loved ones in their final days.
- What’s next for Mary: a 25th anniversary edition of her groundbreaking book, Reviving Ophelia, which changed the way we look at adolescent girls.
Plus: On our way to a 50-year friendship, caftans on the beach, and why every book needs a launch party with a book cake.
(Author photo by Sarah Greder)
- Mary Pipher
- Books: Women Rowing North, out now, and the 25th anniversary edition of Reviving Ophelia, out in June
- The happiness of older women
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Katel LeDû Hey everyone, I’m Katel.
SWB And I’m Sara!
KL And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together. Today we have someone pretty amazing on the show. Her name is Mary Pipher and she’s the author of a new book called Women Rowing North, and it’s about handling life as you age.
SWB Ughhh! I loved talking with Mary because I recently have just started to feel more anxious about getting older, and so it was great to talk with somebody in her early 70s who had so many positive things to say about getting older. Because I feel like we focus on the negatives so much. There’s just so much, particularly as a woman, that I think is kind of hard culturally. Like, you start to become more invisible, which can be great for some things like catcalling. [KL laughs] I’m looking forward to that.
SWB But isn’t great for feeling valuable or important. And, of course, older women’s looks and sexuality are always sort of negated. People act like older women definitely can’t be beautiful or can’t be sexy or things like that. Or it’s grossly fetishized. You don’t get to be a silver fox like a dude, you get to be what? Like a cougar or a hag, right? A or B.
KL No, yeah. I don’t like that. [both laugh] It reminds me of when we talked to Cindy Gallop last fall. She’s the founder of Make Love Not Porn for all of you who haven’t listened. And she’s not at all shy about being 59 and she’s not at all shy about being sexy or sexual, which I love! She launched this initiative recently called “disrupt aging” with AARP, where she’s trying to counter a bunch of those messages. And she’s got these three steps. And it’s basically don’t hide your age—say it often and loudly—promote your value, and you’re never too old to do anything! So, she’s a perfect example of a lot of those things. I love the first one—“don’t hide your age”—because I think we should do a lot more to normalize what it looks like to be 40, 50, 60, and so on. And I was actually just listening to an interview with comedian, Julia Sweeney. And I really loved something she said. She was talking about how she was just really excited that she looks like her grandmother—she’s starting to look like her—and she said she’s been waiting her whole life to be like her grandma.
SWB Awwww! [laughs]
KL [laughing] I know! And I love that. She said, “I love being old.” And she was always excited about big birthdays like 40 and 50. And I also love that because I feel like I’m starting to feel that way. And I just love that she was just like, “fuck it! I love being old!” And I feel like I used to feel really awkward about saying my age in my thirties, but now I really don’t give a shit and I’m like, “I love saying that I’m 40.”
SWB I know people who have kind of been like, “oh, it’s the fifth anniversary of my 29th birthday! [KL laughs] Which I totally get, but I am definitely like, “no, look. I’m fine. I’m 35 and it’s fine.” I’m going to be 36 pretty soon—
SWB —it’s fine! And I try to be okay with that, but it’s still a little tough, right? I’ve got to be honest, there are so many things that I feel a little bit anxious about. And some of them are really tied up in career stuff. So, what happens if I’m no longer a promising and exciting young professional? Do I fade into the background? And I think about that as I watched younger people doing really interesting and amazing work. And I start thinking about things like I’m never going to be on a 30 under 30 list.
KL [laughing] Yeah, that ship has sailed for us!
SWB [laughing] That ship has sailed! [both laugh] And I mean like, I don’t know, can someone put me on a 40 under 40? I’ve got a couple of years, come on. [KL laughs]
SWB But I think some of those lists are sort of ridiculous. Or at least, they’re fine, they’re fun, you don’t need to stake your value on them. But they do contribute to this sense of oh my gosh, are you too late? Which, of course, is not true. We know that’s not true and I really appreciate people like Cindy Gallop calling that out as not true. But there is that message that’s so engrained of, “well, what if it is too late?” But at the same time, I’m also like, “oh my gosh, how much longer do I have to be working?” [both laugh] Another like 25 years? At least, probably. I am so tired! [laughs]
KL Ughh, I know. Me too. [sighs] God, I used to feel so anxious about not being seen as promising or valuable professionally, but now kind of feel like—it’s not that I don’t care, I think I’m just not caring as much and maybe it’s because my perspective has changed. I think it’s because I used to think that value or worth in my career would be marked by a title. And I used to think that I would be climbing up a corporate ladder. But now I think it’s more about whether I feel like the work I’m doing is valuable and fulfilling. And I think that means a lot more. But oh my god, I’m also so tired. I’m going to have to work forever. [laughs]
SWB Yeah. So, that brings me to the other thing I think a lot about, which is financial security. And I know that’s huge for so many people and I will say I’m lucky that I think that I’m in a lot better shoes than a lot of people, most people in America, I’m sure. But I think about this a lot because of my family. That security in retirement is something some people in my family absolutely do not have and that is a bit of a stressor—a huge stressor for them and a stressor for me too. And I save a lot, but I’m also starting to support older family who need help and I don’t think that’s going to change. And I don’t have kids, so I definitely can’t rely on somebody else taking care of me. [laughs] So, I think some of it is more paranoia than reality, but I absolutely think that in our generation and younger generations, it’s like that fear of how are you going to actually to get by as you age? And you’re not going to be relying on social security, there’s no pension programs anymore—
SWB —you’re job hopping and in the gig economy. And then all of a sudden, you wake up one day and you’re like, “oh shit, where do I get money to retire?” And I think about that a lot and I don’t have any good answers there, but I do think that that’s something that people in older generations maybe don’t realize how much of a big issue that is for people our age and younger than us. And I wish that that was something that was a little bit better understood—that it’s not going to be the same for us at all.
KL Yeah! I worry about staying healthy and solvent enough to be self-sufficient as long as possible. I mean, since we’re not having kids—and I think to your point, that’s a really traditional expectation. And I don’t know that I’d necessarily have that of my kids if I had them, but that’s what you think about.
SWB And then there’s just the other piece that’s the constant anxiety about looking older.
KL [sighs] Yeah.
SWB Which I have such conflicted emotions about because I want to be able to embrace looking like yourself at any age and I want to embrace what Cindy Gallop says about normalizing what it looks like to look 40 or 50 or 60. And I think that that’s great. But it’s also hard. You see your body change. I’ve been noticing a lot more grey hairs—
SWB —and… I hate them. I’ve got to be honest—
KL [laughing] I know.
SWB —I hate them. I fucking hate them! And I wish I didn’t hate them so much. I wish that they didn’t make me feel self hatred and shame and all of these other feelings. But they do and I haven’t quite figured out how to unload that baggage, so while I have that baggage, [both laugh] I end up covering them. And then that’s like a whole fucking project—this whole part time job of keeping up with it.
SWB And mine’s not even that bad yet, but in my head it is. And I’m trying not to feel bad about the fact that yes, I dye my hair because I feel uncomfortable showing grays because I live in a world where women showing grays gets them positioned as old immediately. So, I’m just like, “look, this is a no win scenario and this is the path I’m taking. Period. Let me move on with my life.” But I do find myself thinking about it a lot and I wish it took up less of my time and also my mental energy.
KL [sighs] I fucking hate grey hairs too; they are bane of my existence. But I worry about my body in general. I worry about menopause. And it’s maybe extra scary to me because we’re barely having conversations about menstruation in this country. [laughs] So, I’m sort of like, “who do I go to for advice and help about menopause? Who am I going to go through menopause with?” [laughs]
SWB Oh my gosh. Yeah, no I think about that too. I mean, I know a few women who are a little chunk older than us who have talked about it some as they’re starting to go through or have gone through it. But I feel like it’s just so different for different women and because we don’t hear nearly enough stories about it, it’s hard to get a very clear picture of the different ways that it might look and the different ways people manage it, and what impact it might have on your life. And I wish that I had more of that. And you know what? I think as we get a little older, that’s going to change because I’m going to keep talking about my periods—
SWB —so look forward to it, everyone, [both laugh] because I’ll talk about menopause too! Eventually!
KL Definitely since turning 40, I also think about my own mortality a lot more. [laughs] I think about the mortality of my friends and family—the fact that I’ll start to lose people in my life. I’ve always thought a lot about death because I lost my father so early, but now it just feels even more pronounced. But sort of on the other hand, I also feel like I’m seeking out more of the things that make me feel more spiritually connected to life, and help me acknowledge and accept death. And I would not say that I’m [laughs] quite at that level where I’m very zen about it, but I think things like therapy and just knowing that I love being in nature and spending time with people I love—those are all things that are helping me feel balanced about it.
KL Also….[sighs] Are we going to fall out of touch with culture and what’s cool and relevant?
SWB I mean, yes. [both laugh] I already am!
KL Jon and I always talk about how we need to stay cool for our niece and nephews. I remember once I earnestly asked him, “do you think we’ll be asking them to show us the new phones and new tech? Like…we’ll stay hip, right?” And he was like, “we are absolutely not going to stay hip.” [laughs]
SWB No. I mean, I have been told that I am in charge of staying cool and fashionable for my nieces. My brother was like, “yeah you have to be the one who knows about fashion and culture because we are not very good at that.” [KL laughs] So, I am going to try. I’m not sure I’m going to be successful, but I am 100% ready to take my sullen tween nieces when they’re that age to the mall… because I really hope they have the goth phase.
KL Oh my god, [laughs] god bless.
KL [laughing] Yes!
SWB I feel like every tween needs a goth phase.
KL You have to.
SWB Or it doesn’t have to be goth—
SWB—it could be something else ridiculous. But it needs to be ridiculous. And I support that. And I’m going to support some bad haircuts and some very questionable fashion choices—
SWB —because fuck it, you only live once!
KL Yeah! That’s right. [laughs]
SWB Enjoy yourself.
KL Exactly. [laughs] Stay connected to the youth! [SWB laughs]
SWB Is Hot Topic still a thing?
KL Oh, I’m sure it is.
SWB It’s got to be in malls, right?
SWB Okay, so all of these mixed feelings that I have and anxieties that I have, I think they really are why it was so powerful for me to talk to Mary. Because I actually for a little while stopped thinking about all the negatives associated with aging—all of the stuff you lose—and I started thinking about all of these things that I might gain. She talks about gaining resilience and gaining bliss and gaining time. And I was like, “okay, yeah. I could use all of that.” [KL laughs] And one of the other things she talks a lot about that I found was so moving is that you can gain power in your friendships as you age. She talks about 50 year friendships in her book. And I was like, “I want us to be friends for 50 years!”
KL Oh my god, I do too.
SWB But we didn’t meet until our 30s, so that means we have to live until at least our mid eighties. [KL laughs] I hope you’re ready for that.
KL I am totally ready. And thinking about us in 45 years taking beach trips in the winter but wearing caftans gives me a lot of joy. [laughs]
SWB We can start now though.
KL Oh, we totally can. [laughs] We’ve got to practice. But I think about our friendship a lot because when I moved to Philly, I was so uncertain about not only whether I’d be able to create a new network of friends, but would I be able to make a new best friend at 40? I just genuinely didn’t expect that to happen. And it’s different! We’re different people we were from when we formed earlier bonds with other friends and it’s just really beautiful.
SWB Yeah! You know, Mary said something that really stuck with me, which is that “Friendshipping is a verb.” And one of the big things that she called out was like, “look. It’s hard to make time, everybody’s busy, I get it. But are you spending your time in accordance with your values? Are you spending time with friends if friends are really valuable to you?” And you know what? I thought about that and I said, “yeah! That is something that I’m making time for.” I mean, we see each other all the time to do this kind of podcasting stuff, work-ey stuff, but we also see each other all the time to do just hanging out stuff. And I have strong friendship bonds with a bunch of people that I’ve invested in, which is awesome.
KL I know. I love that so much. I really like that sentiment.
SWB Do you have friends who are like your life friends? People you look at as having this permanent bond with?
KL Oh, I totally do. And I have many, like you, and so I feel really fortunate. And I feel really grateful for the friends that I have who aren’t necessarily geographically close, but always make this amazing effort to stay in touch and just keep our relationship going. I have this one friend, who I met when I was living in New York City, and I was in her wedding back in 2006. And then we lost touch for a bit when I moved back to DC. But we’d check in on each other via text or Facebook here and there, and we visited each other a few times. And then two years ago, her husband died, and we found ourselves texting and chatting like every other day. And she has young kids and she was asking me about how I coped growing up after losing my dad so young. And it just was this way for us to reconnect. And we’ve formed this completely new version of our friendship, and she’s going through this new phase of life, and it’s so incredible. I love being there for that.
SWB Yeah, I’m so glad you can be there for her through that.
KL Yeah. How about you?
SWB Yeah, I have several. Some of them I’m really close with all the time and then some people I feel like I don’t talk to them for a little while, it’s a little more sporadic, but then as soon as we sit down together, we are just right back in it. And it’s an amazing feeling to know that you can get into that zone with somebody really quickly and not feel like you missed a beat. A couple of weeks ago I was in Portland and I met up with a friend who I’ve known since college. And the last time I saw her was in 2016; [laughs] we actually watched one of the Clinton-Trump debates together—
KL [laughing] Oooof.
SWB —when I was in town before. Yeah, I know, ooof. So, now we’ve got a couple of years later and she’s got a toddler now, and her career is just going wild, and she’s amazing! And I was sitting there with her having breakfast—it was like the only time we could squeeze out to get together while I was in town—and I was thinking about how much of a mess we both were when we were 20. [KL laughs] When we first met, life was very different. [KL laughs] I mean, we were great, right? But we were also both dealing with lots of weird and hard stuff. And it was so great to sit there and look at how much we’ve figured ourselves out. And I’m so glad to know her still, and to be able to see this version of her that is very much her, but that is thriving and that is figuring out this whole new era of her own life. So, that was awesome!
KL That’s so cool. Do you have a friend that’s the oldest friend that you’ve had?
SWB The oldest friend I have that I’m still really in touch with is my friend Brandee, who I met when I was maybe 12 or 11—something like that. She’s a teacher now, which is what she always wanted to do. She was like a little girl playing school—
SWB —and she was always wanting to be the teacher and then loves it. And she’s got two kids and she’s super into crafting and sewing. And so, you know, her life is pretty different than mine, but I feel like as soon as I see her, it’s just like it’s always been. And we do make time. I tend to see her when I go back to Oregon as often as I can. She’s come out here to visit. And it’s so easy to get back into just feeling like me and Bran, right where we always have been. And I was thinking that and I was like, “oh my gosh, that means I’ve been friends with her for almost 25 years. [KL laughs] I’m almost halfway to having a 50-year friend!” [both laugh]
KL That’s really exciting! God, my oldest friend is my friend Nicole, and she and I met when we were five!
SWB Wow, you’re really getting close to that 50 year friendship!
KL [laughing] I know, we are! And our lives are also so different. She’s a veterinarian at an exotic animal hospital in Hong Kong.
KL [laughing] I know. But we see each other every once in a while and it’s like we are still kids. We just pick right back up. And we always text each other in all caps whenever we have a birthday come around because we’re like oh my god, happy birthday, we’ve been friends for like [laughs] thirty years, etc, etc. It’s really cool.
SWB It’s so great. I love thinking about having friendships for decades and decades. And I’m excited for our caftans on the beach phase.
KL Yes. [both laugh]
SWB Okay. I really wanna get to this interview because Mary’s words are just so powerful and I think it’s going to change some perspectives about aging. [short transition music plays]
Interview: Mary Pipher
KL Mary Pipher is a psychologist whose work specializes in women, trauma, and how culture affects mental health. Her bestselling 1994 book, “Reviving Ophelia,” was a groundbreaking look at the mental health and emotional needs of teen girls. This year, she published a new book about a different demographic: older women. It’s called “Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age.” Mary, welcome to Strong Feelings.
Mary Pipher I’m very happy to be on the show, thanks.
KL So, first up, can you tell us about what inspired you to write about older women?
MP Well, first of all, I always write about what I want to learn. And I’m 71 now, and so I am in this life stage. And so are most of my friends and my siblings and my husband. Our particular generation of baby boomers is in a very different place than our parents and grandparents because if we’re 65 right now, we may live 30 more years. That’s a long time. And we also are a generation that has always dealt with life changes by exploration and looking for growth. So, that was very interesting to me. But the main thing that got me started on this was the disconnect between the cultural messages about older women, which primarily were defined by diminishment. We’re not as pretty, we’re not as sexy, we’re not as useful, and we’re in the way. The cultural messages are almost all negative. Whereas, my experience with my own friends is we’re happier than we’ve ever been and we’re telling each other we’re happier than we’ve ever been. So, that strange contrast really made me interested in writing the book. It’s kind of like Reviving Ophelia. What I realized when I was doing that book was there was such a disconnect between the cultural messaging about girls and real girls and their needs. And so that discrepancy is what’s really intriguing to me when I choose a topic.
KL What did you learn about aging in the process of writing this book? Was there anything that you came across that really kind of surprised you or was new to your thinking that you hadn’t explored before?
MP When I’d tell people I was writing a book about older women, they would invariably say, “I’m not old or you’re not old.” In other words, they were saying, “I will not be described or let you describe yourself by the stereotypes and cultural scripts for older women. That’s not my self experience and I know it isn’t yours.” So, that was really interesting to me, how much immediate pushback there was to the word “old.” And as I explored more fully, I realized that ageism is probably a bigger problem for women than aging. So, that was a particularly interesting thing. And ageism is a funny thing because it’s prejudice against one’s future self. I mean, if we’re lucky, we get old. But yet if you think about it, a lot of cultural, negative stereotyping about old people, we’re all going to run into that at some point. So, it’s in everybody’s benefit—not just older people’s benefit—to have a new way of redefining older people that is not in terms of loss or diminishment, but in terms of growth.
SWB I am so glad that you brought that up because I was noting before this interview that you had written about that—this idea that when you would talk to your friends about writing this book, they would be like, “oh, but we’re not older women exactly.” And I’m curious what you think we can do — all of us, not just women who are older—but all of us can do to try and do more to reject some of those really toxic ideas about women and aging. And how can we combat some of that ageism even though it’s not necessarily something that’s easy to fix?
MP Well, first of all, I don’t know how to change American culture, I don’t think any of us do. [SWB laughs] But I do think that my goal writing this book was some new cultural education on older women because the ideas that are out there right now are so toxic that, of course, no one would want to be labeled an older woman. So, I really wanted to reframe that whole developmental stage for women in a way that was much more positive, primarily to help older women be happier. If we don’t believe in our own growth, we can’t grow. If we don’t have some ideas about how to view ourselves in a positive way and form a positive identity and move forward in our lives with happy expectations, we won’t be happy. And so, it was very important for me to write this as a piece of cultural education. The other thing I think is very important is connecting people across generations. The better older and younger people know each other, the better they get along. But what we tend to do in this culture is put older people in one set of buildings, middle aged people in another, and college students in another, and babies and daycare in another, and we don’t intermingle the generations. And it’s a great tragedy because each generation has its own kind of energy, and wisdom, and its own ways of loving. And the more we can mix things up, the healthier culture we have and the less ageism there is.
SWB Yes! So, one of the things that I really love about this is this idea that we all need to get a little bit closer to people of different age groups, which is one of the reasons why we wanted to have you on this show!
MP Thank you.
SWB And one of the things that I’m really interested in that you talk a little bit about in the book—and actually you mentioned earlier even if this interview—was the way that older women are often actually very happy, and that the story that’s told about older women is very sad, but it doesn’t really align with reality. So, something you’ve talked about is how older women are the happiest demographic in the country. And you have some research that backs that up—that the happiest people are women in their sixties and seventies. And I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about why that is and where that comes from?
MP Yeah. The research is by Dilip Jeste out of UC San Diego. He looked at happiness as it correlates with age and found that older women are the happiest people in our country. You know, the main thing I argue in terms of why older women are happier is that happiness is a choice and a set of skills. And that over the course of say, six or seven decades, we have a lot of time to build up of resilience skills. And resilience is essentially a question of attention and intention. And the intention is the desire to be happy, and the desire to be kind, and look for joy, and look for beauty. And then attention is deciding what it is we’re going to focus on. So, for example, if we focus on whatever we could possibly have done wrong or any self criticism that we can give ourselves, we’re likely to be pretty unhappy people. But if we wake up in the morning and set our intention—“I’m going to go around the world today looking for joy and beauty”—we’re going to have a different life experience of that day. So, that’s part of it. The skills are really basic skills, which, of course, women don’t need to wait until they’re 65 to acquire. But what happens is these skills, over a lifetime, accrue so that by the time were 65 and 70, we really start seeing the benefits of them. And one of the skills, for example, is just having reasonable expectations. As my aunt Grace said, “I get what I want, but I know what to want.” So, especially when we’re young, we sometimes feel like we can do anything or we can do everything, or that it’s really important that everyone like us all the time, that we would expect everyone to be happy with us all the time. But in fact, reasonable expectations are that every day is going to have joy and sorrow as mixed up as sea salt and water. And that every day is going to have problems because there is just virtually never a moment in time when we aren’t dealing with some kind of life problem. So, that’s one thing—reasonable expectations. Another thing that is very important is female friends. And, in fact, my number one piece of advice to women your age, Sara and Katel, is to have a really good, strong group of female friends. To me, that is an emotional and mental health insurance policy. And I’m very lucky. I have some of the same friends I had in 1972. So, my friendships are very deep. And I’ve been going camping with the same group of women since the mid-eighties. And we’ve gone through everything together. We’ve gone through having babies together, we’ve gone through complaining about our husbands together, we’ve gone through dealing with the school system together, and seeing our children graduate. We’ve gone through menopause together, during which time we were pretty cranky with each other. [SWB laughs] And now we’ve gone through, in some cases, the death of parents, and the death of friends and siblings. So, it’s a beautiful, tight group. And women friends are people that support us and people that validate us and will listen to us and nurture us. Older women tend to do a lot of nurturing, so it’s just wonderful to have women friends who will nurture us.
SWB It really validates me a lot to think about this. I know me and Katel have that kind of friendship and I look forward to us being in our seventies and beyond and still having that kind of friendship. But I also know a lot of people—I think we both do—who are maybe in their mid thirties, early forties, raising little kids right now, trying to hold down professional jobs. And a lot of them have talked to me about how hard it is to sustain those deep friendships during this time when they feel like they’re barely holding it all together. And what do we do now to make sure that we’re building those fifty year old friendships as you talk about by the time we are in old age?
MP Friendshipping is a verb. You only have friends if you actually act in a way that keeps those friends close. I mean, I’m very sympathetic with younger women with children. I remember when I was a working woman with children—I just barely had time to make a coffee. And I know how tired women are at the end of a day and how many things there are still left to do on their todo list. On the other hand, I think it’s a good example of “are you spending your time in accordance with your values?” If one of your values is friendship, somewhere in there it’s important to make time for your closest friends. And I would actually argue even further that that can’t be text messaging or email, it has to be phone calls or face to face where you’re actually together in some meaningful way and having a conversation.
KL Thinking about time and growing older and this idea that perhaps we have more of it to devote to appreciating and just experiencing maybe littler things and finding bliss in that, when you talk to other older women, how do they talk about time that was made different from what you heard from younger women?
MP Well, the really beautiful thing for most older women is we have more time. So, for example, one thing I never did when I was a working mom was get up in the morning, make myself a cup of coffee, and sit for half an hour and watch the sunrise. And just kind of settle into my day and set my intention. It’s a beautiful thing. And there’s a line author Vicki Robin uses called “slowing down to the speed of wisdom.” And there’s really something to that. If you slow down, you have time to be present, you have time to be kind, you have time to be aware of the world around you. If you’re moving at zero warp speed, there’s just so little time to be awake and present to the world. And most older women have more time. They don’t have children. A lot of times they’re not, at least, full time in the workforce. And so they have really the ability to catch their breath and do things that are a great luxury for older women. And that’s one of the real joys of this life stage is just simply having more time. For example, one of the gifts of this life stage I write about is bliss and epiphanies. Where you’re just having this moment where you feel like, “I’m connected to everything and this is a beautiful moment and I feel so whole and so peaceful and so happy and so awake all at the same time.” It’s much easier to feel those moments if you’re not in a hurry, if you just can move more slowly around the world. And that’s something many older people report—is that they’re much more inclined to feel bliss and epiphanies than when they were younger.
KL I think that’s so beautiful. Sort of related, it seems like a lot of people in my generation—women and a lot of folks—are anticipating and even excited about working well into older age. And you’re so actively engaged in your career, how does that fit into your older age plans, and has your relationship to your work and your career shifted at all?
MP Our need to be useful and have a meaningful life are over when we stop breathing. And I can’t imagine a life without some kind of work because I like work, I like meaningful work. And I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve been able to do meaningful work most of my life. And meaningful work is very different than unmeaningful work. One of them is something that at the first moment’s chance, people abandon. The other is something that no matter what, they want to continue doing. So, that’s a really important distinction. But I’ll always be writing and I’ll always be engaged with working with people in some ways because I like people and I like to see new people and meet people and experience the change process in people. On the other hand, one of the things I’m not doing anymore because I don’t enjoy it so much these days—I’m not traveling and speaking. I used to do a lot of traveling and speaking. I spent as many nights in a hotel room one year as in my own bed. And that’s just not something I choose to do and I’m very grateful; I don’t need to do it anymore.
SWB So, when you were talking about continuing to work, continuing to have meaningful work, it made me think a lot about the women who are getting older who aren’t necessarily working because they feel that tug, but because they need to work to survive.
SWB Right? And the economic reality of a lot of older women are working in ways that aren’t necessarily something they’re choosing. And I’m wondering if you talked to any older women who were in that circumstance as you were working on the book, and how were their perspectives different or how did they relate to aging?
MP Well, actually, the way people relate to aging has almost nothing to do with income. In fact, one of the things that was really interesting to me was that the women who had objectively the hardest lives in terms of pain or disability or income or tragedy in their past were the women who had the most highly developed gratitude skills. And they were survival skills for them; they needed to feel grateful and be able to create joy and appreciate life in order to be happy. And they’d had a lot of experience with utilizing survival skills of gratitude to make themselves want to face another day of pain or another day of loss or another day of hard work at the grocery store. So, it’s very interesting to me that a lot of people assume the people who would be happiest would be upper middle class women. And that’s actually not true at all. In fact, people who haven’t suffered tend to be rather insufferable. [SWB laughs] And they’re made miserable by the smallest of calamities. Whereas, people who have suffered or are currently suffering are really looking for opportunities to be grateful and find joy. I mean, first of all, women who are working jobs they don’t like or are physically uncomfortable obviously wish they could quit their jobs. But it certainly doesn’t mean that they don’t have all the resilience skills of everyone else and aren’t able to use humor, for example, at their job, aren’t able to make close friends at their jobs, and also aren’t able to define even a drab job in a way that gives them some sense of meaning and accomplishment. You know, almost any job can be improved by realizing that there’s a personal investment in some aspect of that job. So, for example, if I had a job mopping floors at a hospital, I wouldn’t like it very much. I’d find it dull and I’m not very strong, so I’d probably have some physical aches and pains from it, but I know right now that what I would do with that job is say, “I’m helping people who are very sick not get infections. And that’s an important job. And I’m going to do the best I can.” And there’s almost always a way to frame work—even unrewarding work—that allows you personally to feel it’s meaningful.
SWB That feels like something that I can definitely think about later and I don’t need to be in older age to have that be meaningful. So, one of the things you mentioned in the book is that you say, “we cannot just settle for being a diminished version of our younger selves.” And you talk about how we tend to feel like these diminished versions of ourselves. And I’m wondering, what are the ways that that happens for older women and how do you encourage all of us to look at this differently as we age?
MP I see this age as a very serious challenge. There’s a lot of things that happen, including—at least from my point—the most serious challenge of this life stage is we start losing people we love. And I’m really lucky so far; I haven’t lost my partner, I haven’t lost my siblings, all of my close women friends are alive. So, I feel very, very lucky. But I know that within the next few years, I’ll lose people I love and I’ll eventually say goodbye to everyone I love. So, there’s a lot of challenges. And what those challenges do is create in a person a sense of emergency. And emergencies call for emergent behavior. And there’s a lot of emergent behavior that comes from this life stage because first of all, we’re very aware that the runway is short and that if there’s anything we want to do with our lives, now better be the time we’re doing it. So, eventually, it’s no longer work to me. If there’s something I want to do, I’ll do it. So, partly what happens with this life stage is because we oscillate between sorrow and bliss, gratitude and pain, it’s very catalytic for growth. And we tend to grow bigger and deeper as a way to deal with the sadness and challenges of this life stage. So, it’s enormous portal for growth and people move into a larger self. They tend to get kinder, they tend to be more appreciative, they tend to have a much more inclusive moral imagination and be more tolerant. And they tend to have this long view of seven decades that allows them to keep things in perspective in a way that’s very hard to do if you’re 22 years old or even 30 years old. Perspective is a beautiful word. And as we age, it’s easier and easier to keep things in perspective. So, those are some of the ways that we balance the pain. Now, of course, Sara and Katel, I want to be clear. We all suffer, but we don’t all grow. And unfortunately, I know—and I’m guessing you know—some women who haven’t grown. Partly that’s because I don’t think they’ve realized they have the potential for growth. Old age transfigures or it fossilizes. And one of the things I want to do with Women Rowing North is help older people transcend in a sense their former selves and move into a bigger, more resilient, more adaptive self. For not only facing what’s coming, but for deeply savoring the time we have left.
KL I’m over here just feeling more hopeful about aging and the future than I’ve ever been before, so thank you for saying all of that. [laughs]
MP Wonderful! That makes me so happy. [KL laughs] That’s the goal of this book, of course, so that’s wonderful.
KL Yeah, yeah. Well, hearing you talk about suffering a little bit ago, I’m actually also interested in your perspective on grief. You say that it’s not just something to endure, that it’s also a reflection of our capacity to love. And this feels like just such a really important way to think about and reflect on challenging moments in life. What led you to that perspective?
MP Well, for example, sociopaths presumably don’t feel much grief because they don’t have any feelings for people. And on the other hand, I’m someone with very strong feelings, very deep feelings. I’m a mammal; I like heat, I like emotion, I like warmth. That’s the primary way I relate to the world. And I have a lot of people I love very deeply. And so from my point of view, the idea of loss is really difficult. And even when I lose people that are somewhat peripheral members of my community—like, for example, when I lose a dentist or I hear someone that I used to see in a grocery store died—that for me feels really sad. Because even though they weren’t people that were really close to me and I saw all the time, I cared about them and there’s a part of me that feels really sad whenever I hear anyone has died. It’s very interesting. With the more intense grief people feel when they lose someone in their inner circle, we don’t have adequate language to describe that. We really don’t have this sense of how much we love someone and at the same time how grateful we are for their memory and how comforting it is to have their voice in our heads. There are words like bittersweet and poignant, but we have so many complicated feelings when we lose someone we love. And even helping someone die, on the one hand, it’s a responsibility and it’s sad. And on the other hand, I know from doing this many times by now that it’s also a great honor and it’s some of the most beautiful and joyous moments of a person’s life are in those last few weeks of life when they’re aware they’re saying goodbye. Because as they realize how short time is for them, everything they do because infused with meaning and beauty. And it’s a really miraculous thing to be around someone who is dying well.
SWB I’m actually tearing up a little bit over here to hear you talk about that. And I’m thinking about that honor—
SWB —and how beautiful it is to look at grieving that way and being there for someone in that way, thank you for that.
MP Well, and it may come in handy for you. You’re still young, but it’s probably not that long until you start losing older friends or aunts or people that really matter to you. And it’s a very good idea to go into that process as a learning process where you want to do everything you can to take advantage of being with someone who is facing the end. By growing and learning and increasing your ability to care for people and your own appreciation for life; it’s very important. One of my friends told me a beautiful story about her mother when she was dying. And one of the very common stories I hear is about people just at the end of life or in a very difficult situation finding a way to make that moment good instead of tragic. So, this friend’s mother was in an ICU with pneumonia and she’d never been in hospital before except one night to have my friend, Gretchen. And at the same time, she’d never taken prescription drugs and she’d never taken over the counter drugs; she did not like drugs. So, she’s in a lot of pain and Gretchen’s in the room with her mother and the doc comes in and says, “I want to give you a shot of morphine for your pain.” And the mother starts to shake her head no. And my friend, Gretchen, says, “please, please take it, mom.” So, she nods to the doctor and he gives her the shot of morphine. And her body had been really clenched up and tight and when she got that morphine, she just totally relaxed. Her arms fell away from her body and you could see all the pain disappear from her body. And she looked at Gretchen and said in a big smile in a joking way, “I’ve made a terrible mistake with my life… I should have been taking drugs all along.” [SWB & KL laugh] Well, what a funny thing to make a joke on your deathbed! [SWB laughs] But older women do that. And so when we see that, when we see that, we realize, “well, we could do that too. We could make a joke. Or we could say something beautiful that allows people to remember us.” So, if you’re resilient at twenty, if you’re resilient at thirty, you’re going to be resilient on your deathbed. Resilience is an attitude and a set of skills. And those skills increase. you’re more resilient. If you weren’t more resilient in your last life stage, you couldn’t possibly handle it. But because older people are happier than anyone else, they obviously have those skills; they’ve learned how to handle it over the years.
SWB This has been so wonderful and so heartening for me. And we are just about out of time, so I want to ask one last question before we let you go. There’s this quote of yours that I really love that is, “let’s aim to become more curious and less worried, more self aware and less reactive,” which I think that you were just speaking to in some ways. And I want that now, right? I want that now, not just as an older woman. And so, what would you tell women like us in our generation to help us get there as we age and as we grow?
MP It’s wonderful to accept oneself. It’s wonderful to stop the self criticism and the rumination and the worrying about if we did the wrong thing or if we made every, single person in the world happy every moment of the day. And instead of that, to learn to look inside ourselves and just be really kind and tender with that crazy baby that’s in us all. Just really practice kindness and tenderness toward our own selves. That is the best thing that we can do for ourselves at any age.
KL That is a beautiful note to end on. Mary, thank you so much for being on the show. Where can folks find more about you and just keep up with your work?
MP Well, I have a website—marypipher.com—and Women Rowing North is in most stores now. I also wanted to mention that Reviving Ophelia, the book I started out with earlier mentioning is going to be reissued in June—25th year anniversary edition—and I wrote it with my daughter, who is a teenager. I’m really excited to see Reviving Ophelia come out. But thank you, Sara, thank you, Katel; it was a wonderful experience.
KL Thank you.
SWB Thank you so much for being here and everybody should definitely pick up Women Rowing North and the new edition of Reviving Ophelia—this is such meaningful work, Mary. Thank you.
Promo: Millennial Money
[music starts playing with Shannah’s voice coming in over the top]
Shannah Game Hey, Shannah here. I’m the host of the Millennial Money podcast. And before you start thinking, “why do I need to listen to a podcast about money,” Millennial Money is the podcast where it’s just okay to talk about money. I’m a certified financial planner with an MBA, but I promise you I’m way more interesting than my three degrees. In fact, I’m just like you—I’m someone who has made some mistakes along the way, but is determined to live my best life, and so can you. Our episodes go live every Tuesday and Friday, and in each episode, you’re going to uncover ways to reduce financial stress, learn tips to create financial independence, and manage your money better. Be inspired by everyday stories, and leave each episode empowered to go out and crush your goals. Be sure to subscribe to Millennial Money on iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, Google Play, or Stitcher to join in on the fun. Yes, talking about money can actually be fun! [music plays out]
Fuck Yeah of The Week
SWB Okay, Katel! What has made you say, “fuck yeah” this week?
KL Alright. Well, you know that I work with authors all the time, and I’ve recently been working with someone that you know—Lisa Maria Martin, who’s an author. She’s also our managing editor at A Book Apart, and she’s just also a really great friend. So, she wrote a book that just launched, and it was really great because she really did it up for the book launch—like she celebrated. She had a party, she lives in Boston. So, I knew she was going to have this party, and I also knew that I really wanted to try to go and I don’t often get to do that. So, I coordinated with her friends in Boston and flew up and surprised her—and it was so awesome. It was just so fun to be able to surprise her, and to celebrate with her because I don’t always get to do that. And because she’s also a friend, it was just super special. She even had the requisite book cake.
SWB I think everybody should have a book cake. [KL laughs] Oh my god. I will say, I regret not having a book cake for my first two books and if I could go back in time, I would absolutely get a book cake for both of those. [KL laughs] It is so satisfying to get a book cake. Even though it feels a little ridiculous, [KL laughs] and you feel a little bit like, “who am I really here?” Fuck it, get yourself a book cake!
KL I think so! I want to get them retroactively for you. [laughs]
SWB We’ve got to get a podcast cake.
KL [laughing] Yes!
SWB What was the look on Lisa Maria’s face when she saw you in the room?
KL [laughing] Her mouth just was totally wide open and she was like, “what? Oh my god!” [laughs] And then she did tear up a little bit and, of course, we hugged it out and it was great. It was awesome.
SWB I’m sad I didn’t get to be there since she’s also a friend of mine—
SWB but I did get FaceTimed by her partner during the party—
SWB —so I could be there for the toast, which was pretty exciting for me because I got to see the look on her face too. And it was just a lot of pure joy and excitement. And then the next day, I got this package in the mail from her. And it was her signed book with a little package of homemade macaron her partner, Mat, had made. By the way, Mat Wilton makes food—makes an incredible macaron.
SWB And then also this delicious tea from a company she uses as an example in the book. And… a book mug! [laughs] So, with the picture of her book on it! And all of it was color coordinated, including the macaron—they were the same teal as her book.
KL I love it.
SWB Apparently Mat was disappointed because the teal of the macaron was not as deep as the teal of the book cover. [KL laughs] And Lisa Maria was like, “you can’t get food coloring that—
KL It just doesn’t happen.
SWB No. But it was incredible to get this package. It was so thoughtful and so sweet. And I was also like, “I have never in my life had it together enough at a book launch to also send out goodie bags to people who did a blurb or helped in some way.”
KL I know…
SWB I’m like, “how are you not only shipping out these lovely packages, but also perfectly color coordinating everything, and literally buying the tea brand that you used as an example in the book?” Seriously, who are you?
KL I know, she’s amazing.
SWB Not me! Not me, that’s for sure. [both laugh] But it was so lovely to get that in the mail and it made me so excited for her. And I’m still jealous you got to go up there in person because fuck yeah, celebrate yourself when you have a book come out, right?
KL Yeah, fuck yeah. And fuck yeah to Lisa Maria!
SWB Fuck yeah. That’s it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer. Check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Mary Pipher for being our guest today, and thank you so much for listening! If you liked our show today, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. And hey—you can get strong feelings right in your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]