I’ll admit it. As the years go by, I seem to be getting meaner. If I gave a damn, this would be a troubling development.
I was born on March 20, the vernal equinox, the first day of spring when everything’s coming up daisies. As a Pisces, I spent most of my life a brooding but compassionate dreamer, friend of the underdog, empathic helper. But March 20 is also on the cusp of Aries, the bullheaded, competitive, pull-no-punches sign. That makes me an astrological Dr. Jekyll, Ms. Hyde. So, I’m not surprised that in my second act, I’ve gone from friendly fish to full-tilt ram.
What worries me is that my prickliness may not be written in the stars so much as imprinted on my genes. I don’t aspire to be an old shrew, but when I look at some of the women in my family, I wonder if it can be avoided.
I’m far more prone to hang up on someone, claim space for myself, cut off ridiculous prattle, even threaten court action when I feel threatened.
My Aunt Mamie was 96 when she died three years ago. To be fair, she was always a pistol and had been married three times. When I was a blushing bride-to-be, she advised me that the first thing I needed to learn was how to roll my eyes.
Without shame, she’d always recount the story of how she escaped her first marriage. While her husband was at work, she took only the clothes on her back and her dog. When he came home to an empty house, he went looking.
“Mamie’s not coming back, so you can just go,” her mother said, when Mamie’s husband showed up on the porch.
“I didn’t come for Mamie,” he answered. “I want my dog.”
What I’m trying to say is that Aunt Mamie didn’t turn mean just because she got older, she already had a good head start. But in aging, she became cruel. She’d demand that someone immediately bring her food to slake a craving, then refuse to eat it. She threatened people with her nonexistent will. She spread vicious lies about those who cared for her most. She belittled her last husband so intensely that he died skeletal and demented. She carried a profound sense of injustice, powerlessness and vulnerability her entire life. And goddamnit, if nothing else, she would make everyone around her pay for it.
My Aunt Lucy had a similar, lifelong, mean streak that masqueraded as humor, but flared to bald anger as she got older. She never saw a bridge that she wasn’t willing to torch. She once stood up in church and accused her devoted daughter of stealing from her. When she died, she hadn’t spoken to our family for decades. We still don’t know why.
As the beloved baby girl in her family, my mother was more secure about her place in the world. She had lots of love and generosity to spread around. I adored her as a child. Even in my teen years when most girls find an enemy in their mothers, I found my best friend. That’s not to say that she wasn’t difficult at times: She was always demanding, often judgmental, and sometimes manipulative. But she was never mean.
Except that blistering August day when she was 83 and I decided to take us for a ride to nearby Virginia Beach. I’d noticed that, as she aged, she was always cold. She interpreted any kind of moving air as refrigeration. That meant central air, ceiling fans, summer breezes — all evoked a shiver.
As soon as we got in the car, I naturally turned on the air conditioner. It was Virginia, in the dog days of summer. If you touched the chrome bumper with your exposed kneecaps, you’d come away with third-degree burns. But my mom immediately started squirming and adjusting the collar of her light, cotton blouse.
“Are you for real?” I thought. I closed the passenger vent and said nothing. Still, she flailed around uncomfortably as the temperature in the car dropped to a cool 95 degrees. Furious, I flipped off the air conditioning and rolled down the window, letting in the humidity to steam us alive.
As we drove off, my sweet, kindly mother squinted her eyes like Clint Eastwood and splattered me with some malevolent 70s slang: “Heifer.”
In order to head off becoming a bitter, angry, old woman myself, I’ve decided to clear away all those things that make me simmer with resentment. My frenemies are now nonexistent. “No” is a frequently used, four-letter-word made more obscene by the fact that I’m not obliged to explain why not.
I’d spent my 25-year marriage avoiding conflict, protecting my husband from difficult decisions, worrying about how to work around his punishing silences. But now that we’re divorced, I don’t sugar coat the issues that face our family. For him, our conversations must be like drinking bad news from a fire hose. But I don’t cut the volume so that he can take easy sips. He gets it the same way I get it, unrelenting and unvarnished.
I’m far more prone to hang up on someone, claim space for myself, cut off ridiculous prattle, even threaten court action when I feel threatened. This Christmas, I’m giving everyone who relies on me a pair of big girl panties.
Is that mean?
Last summer, columnist Caitlin Moran offered an interesting explanation about why women may be predisposed to a late-life mean streak. Writing for The Times in the United Kingdom, Moran suggested that women don’t get mean when they age, they get sober. For most of our lives, she wrote, women are blissed out on powerful drugs — estrogen, oxytocin, progesterone — all designed to keep us from killing our kids. During menopause, we begin hormone withdrawal. We grow moustaches, beards (not where they used to be), and, as a bonus, the swaggering, angry entitlement of men.
Moran is not a doctor, nor does she cite any medical research to back up her theory. But it just feels true. Once our kids (and the possibility of having more) are gone, once our wedding vows are renewing or reneging, and once our careers are crammed against glass ceilings, we sober up and realize we have nothing to lose by letting it rip. Indeed, we have ourselves to gain.
My mean Aunt Mamie put it this way: “After my period stopped, I paid off my mortgage. Nobody’s ever going to make me do anything once a month again.”
Aging men bristle at losing the control that they’ve come to expect. But for many aging women, their anger isn’t about losing something, it’s about finding something. Boundaries. Expectations. Selfishness. Agency. Power. And, yes, access to those “nasty” emotions. For us, anger is a newfound joy. And we’re making up for lost time.