wrinkles in time

Fast-Forward to Middle Age

Photo: My Mother’s Covered Belly; 1996; Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery

A series investigating the effects of gravity on the female form.

Lately, I’ve been trying not to think about the wrinkles starting in on my chest. It’s not going so well. Aging is the perfect late-night preoccupation because there’s nothing that can be done, and it’s definitely happening. Other than change my mind about the efficacy of certain creams and supplements, all I can do is try to catch up, mentally, with the physical reality of my body. There are lines: deep, definite, irrevocable wrinkles. God knows what’s happening where I can’t see it.

People shake off delusions according to their own schedules, but for me it was childbearing that rid me of the mostly subconscious idea that my life would be lived on some trajectory of self-improvement. The illusion of progress can make up for so much! Had made up for so much, until recently. I think I had the sense that I’d not only grow more comfortable in my own skin as time wore on, but that my skin would get better, somehow, too. I imagined my 30s would take place in the Venn diagram overlap between self-acceptance and objective physical attractiveness. I figured that would coincide with a peak in earnings and maybe even career visibility —allowing me to, I don’t know, travel the country wearing expensive, well-tailored outfits, looking my best. Then, when I was 29, I had a baby.

Parenthood has given me the existential assuredness of a much-older woman. Or a much-older me. (Having a kid did settle, once and for all, the looming question of whether I would have a kid. No take-backs!) I’ve come to think of parenthood as an aging accelerant: It feels like I’ve leapt forward through time, arriving in a new life as if I’d been hurled there, and with more force than I might have preferred. Now, I’m dusting myself off, looking around, looking in the mirror, and feeling a little horrified. Other parents feel like peers now, and my peers all seem to be about 37.

My body, meanwhile, feels much older than 37. I started going to the doctor almost weekly in pregnancy, and, thanks to a few autoimmune diseases that showed up after childbirth, I feel like I haven’t stopped going since. My thyroid has shut down, my body has stopped absorbing B12, and my body’s stores of iron are depleted. It’s as if my body reproduced, and then, having accomplished the directive of its DNA, began attacking itself: We’re done here, time to start turning these cells into something more useful, like cancer. These health problems are ultimately minor, and treatable, and I am lucky to experience my body betraying me as a revelation. The worst thing about them is how unlike myself they’ve made me feel. But — not unlike the way I don’t much remember my body without the stretch marks and the C-section scar and the extra 20 pounds — I hardly remember what I was like before.

I thought getting older would mean becoming more and more myself: Some inner core would radiate outward and put off highly secure vibes, translating into great lipstick and naturally wavy hair and, okay, also a pleasing waist-to-hip ratio. Wrinkles would be nothing in the face of my hard-won, clear-eyed, honest-to-goddess personal satisfaction. I was always sure that I’d get there eventually; otherwise, what was the point of all this self-loathing? After pregnancy, though, I was back at square one. My body did a lifetime of changing in a matter of months, and I learned that you did not need to have a particular affinity for your body to be really disturbed when you could no longer recognize it. Even when I didn’t always like myself, I always knew what I looked like naked. My ass was my ass but at least it was mine. There’s vanity, and then there’s feeling safe and at home in your own body. Whose ass is this?

That initial and extreme postpartum alienation (my whole life was changing — not my dumb corpse, too!) made my history of self-loathing seem quaint. I was a panicky brain stuck in a wobbly body that felt like one giant, sleep-deprived breast I’d never met before. I saw myself in the mirror and broke down into tears. More than anything in the realm of “good” or “bad,” I wanted known. I still want known. I wanted my body to be a fixed point, more or less, that my brain could orbit around. I wanted corporeal stability so that my inner monologue could catch its breath.

No such luck. I go to the doctor these days and find out I’m deficient in something new and think, This is what life is going to be like from now on, isn’t it? My body is in decline — all adult bodies basically are — and my self-concept may never actually catch up to myself, and I have to learn to live with it. I’m doing the thing older people tell you you’ll do, the regretting you didn’t wear a bikini when you could, and that’s the least of it. I not only have to throw away all my old pre-parenthood bras and let go of any notions of those jeans fitting again, I have to rethink my entire broken gestalt. So be it. Will I get any better or will I only get worse? Can I make peace with worse?

The thing is, I do have great feelings of warmth and comfort associated with the sun-damaged bosoms of older women. I grew up in Florida, where sun-damaged bosoms were invented, and when I close my eyes I see them, freckled and burnt-tan, peeking out over a perfumed blouse. I hope I wear fewer pastels. Maybe more turtlenecks. I’m hoping for more of a Grace Paley vibe when the time comes; a cultivated frazzle; a natural gray. In the meantime I guess I have some work to do.

I’m a moving, aging target, and the only way to revel in anything, I’m learning, means letting go not only of progress, but control. It’s not enough that I made peace with some previous incarnation of myself, or even the current one (a work in progress, let’s call it) — I’ve got to make peace, wholesale, with all possible incarnations. That’s my new goal. Much harder but much richer, too.

Fast-Forward to Middle Age