Women growing up, men growing down

One quick thought about gender and aging

I’m on a ferry and the rain smells a little but it’s fine, it’s a city, it’s Istanbul, and I’m up against a radiator on the long benches, drinking burnt red tea across from an old couple: an alert, confident woman and a bundled-up man looking inward and inert.

I’ve seen the same contrast of an alert wife and an inert husband so many times back in my little hometown near Atlanta, too. Old men talk about their acquired quietness like it’s a quirk of aging — the body fails and their manhood fails with it—but it’s no surprise how the relationships of the old change, how often women emerge as the clear strength of a partnership.

Old men talk about their quietness like it’s a quirk of aging — the body fails and their manhood fails with it

No surprise because many women have already spent their lives navigating exclusion and fitting their voices between louder ones, sometimes quietly and sometimes loudly, making sure they get what they need in a society that doesn’t often ask them.

But men in old age have often spent their lives being the voices in the room, heirs of borrowed authority, deciders who were told they needed to be listened to. So when old age hits them and they have to withdraw from the front of society—well, they never learned to be quietly strong, never got good at fitting in to a rolling conversation, never found confidence in what might have seemed like passivity to a younger, proud version of themselves.

How being a woman in these communities, or a member of a minority group, or queer, or disabled, or any identity that doesn’t often get heard is an education in becoming and staying strong in who you are, whenever you are. How this education may have its lows, but it keeps going.

How, if we were given an authority we didn’t earn, it’s up to us to learn to distrust it, to learn to listen, and to build a life that chooses connection over command.

How this kind of strength, once earned, doesn’t fade like the strengths we think we deserve.

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