Three writers in different decades of their lives reveal how they feel about being a woman right now.
In Your Twenties
By Dolly Alderton
When I was seven, I dressed up as a doctor for World Book Day at school. ‘Can I be a doctor when I grow up?’ I asked my mum. She smiled. ‘My darling,’ she said, placing a plastic stethoscope around my neck. ‘You can do anything you want.’
Well, mother of mine, with your boundless love and your hippie affirmations – boy, did you set me up for a fall. Bang in the middle of my twenties, I can confidently declare that adulthood has not been the magical kingdom of achievement I had anticipated.
I am 26, often skint, always anxious (did I leave my hair tongs on? Should I be eating ‘raw before four’?) over-worked (TV producer by day, freelance journalist by night), under-sexed (two years single, gave up dating officially in early 2014 when I realised the man I was seeing was on holiday with his girlfriend… via Instagram) and renting a 1970s ex-council house for an unfathomable amount of money, complete with artex walls, a poster of Anthea Turner and a downstairs loo that’s never flushed.
I am that person. You know, the twenty-something every broadsheet journalist and politician in the country is worried about (side note: they’re not meant to worry about us, they’re meant to want to be us). We’ve even been given a name: Generation Y. We are an experiment, the first of our kind, a formula to be solved.
I, rather arrogantly, always assumed I would be the anomaly to this formula. I thought I would breeze in from studenthood to adulthood with graceful ease; I was 21, I had a 2:1 from a top ten university, a journalism masters and work experience at 15 magazines and newspapers. But this was not enough to get me a job in journalism. The forecast was correct; there were 100 Dolly Aldertons for every job and, sadly, I was nothing special.
Then the Internet saved me. Ah, the Internet. It’s been my best friend and my worst enemy. Born in the late eighties, it is exactly the same age as me and I’m more attached to it than I care to admit. I struggle to be present and enjoy the moment (or believe it’s even occurred) without recording or documenting it, which I loathe myself for. And I have Perpetual Lifestyle Dissatisfaction thanks to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook with its boast-posts and opportunities to stalk exes.
But, for all its faults, the Internet has been very good to me. I live in a world of constant connection, where my voice can be heard. A world where women can raise £8 million for cancer research just by scrubbing off their makeup and posting a photo; a world where a 20-year-old called Lily can put some songs she wrote on MySpace and four years later be singing at Glastonbury. The Internet has been an incredible tool for a young writer like me; Twitter has made sure my words are read, my scenes are watched and it’s helped me network my way into an industry that would have been unreachable 15 years ago.
On a recent solo trip to New York to celebrate my 26th birthday, away from panicked articles about ‘poor’ Millennials and all those frightening stats, I revelled in the familiar feeling of rootlessness that’s typical of my generation. Really, I don’t mind paying to live in a house that looks like it was made of Lego if it means I can do so unsupported. What a wonderful thing it is, to owe nothing to anyone. I don’t mind that I don’t have a load of money or assets. I am filthy rich in so many ways; I’m free of the responsibility and pressures – to marry, to settle down, to own my own home – that would have pushed over so many young women generations before me.
After a trek to the top of The Catskills at the end of my trip, on the clearest, sunniest day in August, I looked down on the sprawling land below me. Look at all that world! I thought. Look at all that stuff; those millions of moments spread out, just waiting for me to gobble up! I knew then that my mum was right. My darling – you can do anything you want.
Follow Dolly @dollyalderton
In Your Thirties
By Emma Jane Unsworth
Recently I found an old teenage diary at my parents’ place, in which I’d painstakingly planned my life trajectory, around earnest critiques of Judy Blume. By my late 20s I’d be “married with at least two children”. Instead, when I turned 35, I was newly single having just come out of a ten-year relationship. The one I thought would be forever. The one I thought was The One. Most of my friends were married with babies and tastefully tiled semi-detached houses. I on the other hand felt like writing my 13-year-old self a letter of apology for the big old mess I’d become.
There was one saving grace; alongside an over-anxious cat and a mild addiction to Battlestar Galactica, I had a book deal with, oh hang on, a book full of sex and drugs due out the following year, just in case everyone I knew fancied disowning me. So I did what any sensible person would do in the same situation – I spent a stupid amount of money on exotic foreign travel, and the rest on alcohol.
Before I hit my mid-30s, my life was generally characterised by panic: panic about being (and staying) in love, panic about paying the rent, panic about never getting a novel published, panic about waking up naked, hungover and surrounded by sausage roll packets on a leatherette sofa in Cheshire (probably not done that for the last time to be honest). I made a lot of breathy, nervy mistakes. I got engaged and quickly realised I didn’t want to get married. I bought a house and quickly realised I didn’t want to live there. I thought it was more important to get a book out than write a good book. I was ricocheting wildly, pinballing off various, often conflicting, responsibilities and desires, never daring to stop and analyse in case it wasted precious time.
When I did stop moving, in crashingly dramatic style at 35, I had a moment of clarity. I realised that I didn’t look back on the break-up with anger, or pain – just a sort of natural sadness, and tons of respect. Too often we’re forced to view relationships that have ended categorically as failures, when in fact they can be the exact opposite. Because sometimes things end, and that’s okay – in fact, that’s right. Crucially, I wasn’t panicking. Which, in my life, was news.
The latter half of thirties have become about allowing myself time to ponder, even when the world seems to want to rush me. Case in point: The Baby Thing. The pressure has been tangible this decade, since my fertility is apparently on the wane and time is Running Out. As social milestones go, this is a tough one. The default setting in our culture is that women should want babies. But what if they don’t? Or what if they do, and can’t?
Human beings – and in particular women – have been trained to see life as a speedy, super-competitive game, and the race to the finish line really revs up in your thirties. But we don’t want to play anymore. We would rather see pregnancy as a physical state than a moral victory. Same for being in a relationship rather than single.
Don’t believe the hype of having it all. Because we don’t have to have it all, ever. We can just have the bits we want, at our own pace. Right now, day-to-day happiness feels like a better focus than the massive, over-arching life-plan. I’m no wise woman on the hill. I have the emotional fall-out of my past with me for the ride. I have my triggers. But I’m able to self-monitor more, making the freak-outs fewer and farther between.
Now I can see that my ten-year love story was a chapter of its own and also a prologue, setting me up to be franker in the future. When I was getting together with my new boyfriend earlier this year, I was more honest than I’ve ever been. We’ve talked about our hopes and fears, straight up. We got to know each other before we made any promises. I can say to him, ‘This is where I’ve come from, tell me where you’ve come from, aren’t people brilliant and ridiculous?’ and build on that. It feels liberating – and, for a sausage roll-eating, filth-penning, booze-addled nomad, it feels something like progress.
Emma is author of Animals and Hungry, the Stars and Everything (Canongate).
Follow her @emjaneunsworth
In Your Forties
By Alice Smellie
It infuriates me when people patronizingly suggest that forty is the new thirty or twenty. Forty is sexy, successful and superior. It is a joyful and determined leaping along the crest of the mountain. There has never been a better time in history to reach your fifth decade as a woman. Turning 40 for me was about renewed confidence and a surge in ambition rather than the death of my youth.
It has taken me forty years to become happy. If I could go back in time, I would swipe my silly selfish twenty year old self around the head, tell her to stop dieting and fussing about idiotic, badly behaved boyfriends and focus on friends, family and career. I would inform her that nobody who matters is going to admire you for dating an actor/musician/model or despise you for putting on a few pounds. Long term, they will judge you on achievement, personality and possibly kindness to others.
Just a few generations ago, my age represented the grey streaked beginning of a gradual decline towards old age. Today you need only look all the fircely intelligent attractive forty somethings amongst us from Gillian Flynn and Charlotte Gainsbourg to Rachel Weisz and Esther McVey to see brilliant role models with a lasting sophistication that can only come from the confidence of age and experience.
Twenty somethings seem a little bland by comparison. Cara Delevingne, 22, may have Vogue covers under her belt, but no grown up would aspire to her party lifestyle and ever-changing new best friends. Her best work is undoubtedly yet to come.
Yes I’m more frantic now as the mother of three children aged 9, 8 and 6. But I also feel also more empowered, like the benign (mostly) dictator of a small and messy country. The twenty year old me struggled to make toast for myself first thing in the morning, never mind cook porridge, egg and bacon for three whilst simultaneously feeding two pets, tidying a kitchen and overseeing inane bickering whilst not raising my voice above a light yell – all before starting my working day as a newspaper journalist. Sometimes I reflect proudly on how much more able I have become.
It saddens me that at 39 I was obsessed with my forthcoming birthday checking my bathroom mirror daily and agonizing over emerging wrinkles on my face. Forty loomed like a dark milestone. My husband, meanwhile, well into his forties was rather bemused. In the end, when it came, 40 was something of a relief. I relaxed, and started to thoroughly enjoy myself. My brain today is in excellent nick. In my twenties I cheerfully clouded much of my better judgement with alcohol. In my thirties having three babies very close together left me in a sleep deprived haze. Now that I’ve given up both (weekend prosecco aside) I’m the sharpest I’ve ever been.
Im also blessed with the perhaps the best benefit of being 40: There comes at this age, a liberating realisation that you can’t please everybody. I once wished I could be a fly on the wall and hear what people said about me so I could change, and make myself more popular. These days, I am well aware that I cannot be liked by everyone so I don’t waste my time trying. Being disliked on account of my naturally stoney resting demeanour – or ‘bitch-face’ as my friends jokingly call it – plagued me all my adult life. Now I shrug it off. I know who I really am inside. If someone judges me based on how I look, then its their problem. Not mine.
I am occasionally haunted by the sagging skin which is starting to manifest on my forearms. Yet I can honestly say that on the whole I like my looks. OK, I glug down collagen drinks as though they’re water. I take a daily probiotic and a fish oil capsule. I have a separate cupboard for skin creams and have enjoyed a rainbow selection of facials, including ones involving lasers and ultrasound machines. I even count my portions of fruit and vegetables. But I draw the line with actually changing the shape of my face or resorting to surgery. I am not trying to shave a decade off my age and be fancied by builders or twenty-something boys. I simply want to look my best. I have finally realised that people genuinely do not care if you look less than perfect.
And yet at 41, despite having three children, a house, a dog, a cat and a husband, I still question whether I am truly adult. When I go to parents evenings at the children’s school, where, incidentally, most of the teachers look like teenagers themselves, I want to whisper to someone, ‘Look, there has been some mistake. I’m too young to be here.’
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Fortunately though, this is clearly not the case.
Follow Alice on Twitter @alicesmellie