If color has a hometown, it must be Oaxaca City, Mexico.
The streets, stores and people are brimming with colorful handmade items. Food here is a picturesque patchwork of dishes that satisfy before you even eat. The flowering trees lining the stony streets mock the stern reserve of the Spanish architecture. It is a beautiful, energizing place to reflect on the changes happening for the women here as well as some conversations I’ve had recently with American women. It has me thinking about the colors of our dreams.
The conversations I've had recently were with women in midlife around changes they would like to see in the next 6 months. Nearly all of them referred to some sort of change in their work.
It’s not always comfortable but it’s totally normal - it makes sense that after a couple decades of working we would step back and say, huh. What am I doing and why?
I’ve thought about that as I’m learning more about the changes that are occurring as Oaxacan society continues to respond to an increased demand for weavings and other crafts that started in the 1970s. Oaxacan women and men have participated in efforts to retain majority control in the development of their economy. Women are now better educated and leading in ways they did not before; managing businesses, showing up at meetings that were previously male only, making collective decisions that may have previously been handed down by one or two male leaders.
(That gives a very broad brushstroke to a complex subject that I can’t cover in depth here. I’ve noted a reference that I’ve been reading at the bottom of the blog post. )
We can see an analog in the U.S. with female entrepreneurs, especially women of color. An American Express Open study from 2016 reports that women-owned firms are increasing at five times the national average rate, and nearly 8 in 10 new women-owned firms are being launched by women of color.
Like the women in Oaxaca, many female entrepreneurs of color in the U.S. are organizing around a common cause - to share learning and resources, to have a say in how changes affect them and their families, and to keep each other accountable to their bigger goals.
Contrast this with another approach that many women fall back on. They have worked like crazy for years, many have gotten to a place of accomplishment, but are feeling like something is missing.
What got them there isn’t interesting to them anymore. One woman said “I tend to be extremely resilient, no matter what comes up, I focus, follow through, and then get back to where I want to be. Until now. I just can’t seem to find that motivation right now. Its really surprised me.”
The challenge I am observing ( and have lived myself) is one reason we get stuck is that we are bringing the same set of tools that worked before for us (or our mothers) to try to progress, or bump along, or even procrastinate to stay in our comfort zone.
Does this sound familiar - “I need to think about it, do some reading, research, plan a little more, see where I’m at in…” - in when?
I’m not saying that research and planning are unnecessary. I am saying that by this point in our lives we know a hell of a lot more than we give ourselves credit for, and for sure more than our culture gives us credit for. Why don’t we give ourselves credit for our hard-earned moxie?
We live in a society that is so obsessed with youth that American women, with all our education and first world trappings, are less validated for our wisdom than middle-aged indigenous women in Oaxaca!
The messaging of our popular culture is this: the older you get, the more irrelevant you become.
Try this: take a moment and disconnect how that feels emotionally - step back and look at that as a fact and not have a feeling about it. Now, who or what is served in our society by this messaging?
It serves commercial interests, primarily.
I’m calling it out because we cannot expect the message to change for us.
We can choose to see it for what it is and to take action in spite of it. We can choose to work compassionately with our fears around money, aging, our changing body. (More on that in future posts, I only bring it up here because nothing in midlife happens in a vacuum. If we are disconnected with and resentful of our amazing bodies, it affects everything else. )
What is happening, especially for this generation of women in midlife, is that we are being called to leap.
In general women in midlife way overdo the planning and thinking. Studies and our experience tell us that women are actually fairly confident in our zone of expertise. We are much less confident than men when we are out of known territory. One study showed that women were much less likely to apply for a job if they couldn't check off every requirement. Men applied even if not completely qualified. Men tend to do, women tend to wait
Yes, there are external obstacles to our progress, but we also hold ourselves back.
f you’ve been feeling unsettled or discontented for awhile now, you don’t need to think, research, plan or see how it feels 2 weeks from now.
You need to take some action, something sharp enough to get your attention, something that pokes a hole in your routine or comfort zone.
Macro view: As I’ve pointed out before, while this generation of midlife women was growing up, the world began trending at an exponential rate on almost every major indicator. For those of us in midlife, it may not seem like it matters personally, but changes in society and the planet are moving faster than ever and it IS the energetic backdrop of our lives.
Micro view: Many of the women I talk to are accustomed to figuring out their lives by themselves, really. Some have had extensive leadership development paid for by their employers, and that's fabulous, but we all know that we show up differently to things when we have sought it out and paid for it ourselves.
In my own journey, I woke up one day at 52 years old, newly single, with lots of question marks around my “job”. I had always put my spouse’s career first; he made more money, and we unquestioningly prioritized money as the priority goal in designing our lives as a couple with young children.
After my divorce, I had some savings to work with. I looked at it and thought, I could shrink my life, get 2 jobs and several roommates (I was living in Northern California at the time), and spoon feed my retirement account in little bits for the next 15 years. I could spend my 50s - the last decade or so of relative youth and energy - working for someone else. I could put my faith in the questionable ethics of Wall Street and cross my fingers that the market wouldn’t crash again in the meantime.
For what? Let’s face it, at 52, if you don’t make much money, the amount you can put into savings is not going to move the needle much in terms of return. I’m not a financial planner and actually would love to find a brave one help me create a chart of diminishing lifestyle returns.
What is the flexion point in your 50s where saving doesn’t make much difference to your retirement budget unless you can sock away a good chunk from one salary or double income?
For me, the outcome of being “sensible and safe” would have (maybe) been a few more dollars every month from Social Security at 65, at which point I would shrink my life even more, and probably still work at least one job on the side for low pay so as not to endanger my monthly check. That seemed like a life drained of color.
Leaving my former husband was the hardest thing I have ever done. I didn’t tear a piece out of my family’s heart to settle for shrinking my life.
I decided to sell what I owned, get scrappy about side work and cutting expenses, take some risks, see the world, meet a bunch of new people to enrich my network and influence - so I can begin to contribute to them and others as well.
I’ve had anxiety attacks looking at my numbers sometimes, but I’m the Boss of Me, right? I have a plan and I’m working it. My progress is imperfect and fabulous. Money doesn’t get to rule my life anymore, it’s a part of the puzzle but it's not the only goal. And right now I’m working to make ends meet, just like most of you and the women I have talked to.
This is my experiment now. Unlike most “how I did it” stories on the internet, I can’t tell you that this approach has made me wealthy in monetary terms. (Yet!)
I can tell you that I’m living my dream. One of my motivations is I'm creating a scrapbook for my 80 year old self (Try it!)
I show up to life in full color. I’m traveling the world, living where I want to, and making significant trade-offs (such as drastic downsizing) to make it sustainable because I don’t have a trust fund or alimony to rely on.
I’m not saying that my dream is yours or that it should be. Its different for everyone.
What I am saying is I know you have a dream, and I know you are capable of so much more than you probably give yourself credit for. It is the risk is what makes your dream pop! It fills your dream with colors. If it wasn’t risky, it wouldn’t be a dream because you would be doing it.
How do we do this?
If I had stayed where I was, trying to figure it out on my own, as I had always done, I would have stayed stuck.
Its almost impossible to blaze a new trail in your heart, soul and life alone. The difference is I am connected to and accountable to other women now. I have a mentor and a coach. When those arrangements end, I’ll look for creative ways to replace that accountability.
The reason I’m so passionate about connecting us to one another is that it’s the only way to make our own rate of change and progress match the rate of change in the world around us.
And that is the way our contribution stays relevant and we increase our influence, something the world desperately needs right now.
I invested in some personal development programs and coaching in the last couple of years. What I see is that there are basically 2 camps.
The women who break through and really leverage what they have learned the first half of their careers are the ones who invest in themselves - yes, spend money on a program or coach - so that they are accountable to other women for some significant stretch goals. This is because knowing we have to show up pushes us to move a little faster and take a little more risk.
The point is, I used to sit on my couch, alone, and try to recreate my life in a silo. Guess what happened? I was chronically discontented with my progress. I had friends and clients, of course - but that is different from the accountability of other women when you have put some skin in the game. That is what gets us taking action and risk, learning faster, and increasing our impact.
And here is the proof: The women who are changing society and their lives in a big way are organized and accountable to one another. Just ask the strong women of Oaxaca and thousands of female women of color entrepreneurs in the U.S.
I want to start this post with the Truth.
The promise of midlife is this: Your experience is ready to come together and renew you in a way you cannot imagine. Your brilliance is already created for you, all you have to do is claim it if you haven't already.
But it doesn't always feel that way, does it?
Have you noticed lately? Everyone in stores and restaurants looks about 24 years old.
We have to speak up to order at the bar whereas before we attracted attention just by standing there.
The man who smiles across the room is looking behind you at a younger woman.
We show up to situations feeling the same inside and people begin to react differently based on our changing looks.
These moments can ruin your day, or your week, or your life, if you let them.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You may be jolted with the realization your family hasn’t seen you for years.
Did you see the movie Bridges of Madison County? Francesca, Meryl Streeps character, is a WWII Italian bride, living on a farm in Iowa years later with her husband.
He and her children have a very specific mirror they hold up to her, the only problem is the reflection is a simplistic line drawing that only reflects her domestic role in the family.
She has an complex, passionate colorful dimension hidden inside that is unleashed by a handsome stranger during a visit one week when her family is out of town. With him, she feels “seen” for perhaps the first time in her life.
If you saw that movie, I imagine many of us were holding our breath as Francesca sat at a red light in the pickup truck with her husband, debating jumping out and rushing through the rain into the waiting arms of her lover, who was in his truck just in front of her about to make a left turn on his way out of town.
How did you feel when the light turned green, and the truck in front didn’t move, and still she stayed put? When her lover finally turned left and drove out of of her life. When her husband switched on the radio as she started to cry?
That scene still gives me chills to this day. And to think the book was written by a man! Wow.
But we are not in a movie.
Feeling invisible is something we need to tackle head-on, because its the biggest threat to you living the most amazing 20 - 30 years of your life.
Its the biggest threat to you staying with or finding a passionate relationship.
Its the biggest threat to our responsibility to be strong, positive mentors for our young people.
Its a big threat to society because it weakens our collective contribution, from a generation of women that is quite frankly the best equipped to be leaders in this moment. It’s not the Boomers and its not the Millennials. Its Gen X.
I do not feel invisible. My outline is crystal clear now, I know who I am now and don’t care too much what others see or don’t see in me.
However, it is pretty rare for an American woman to come to that place of confidence without a fight. Losing my edges was the core of my midlife crisis, and something in me that refused to become invisible rose up and fought back.
Redefining my edges again is the outcome of my midlife transformation.
Before we go on, I want to put “feeling invisible” in perspective.
I saw a poignant response in a FB group for midlife women where the “I feel invisible” thread was on fire. The comment was from a woman in a wheelchair who had never felt conventionally attractive. She pointed out that there are many of us who have been “invisible” our whole lives.
Minority women have also grappled with feeling invisible for decades.
We can learn from and admire women who craft inspirational lives even though they were never celebrated in our mainstream cultural messaging to begin with.
Can you imagine a teen girl who may be realizing she has no interest in attracting boys, trying to sort out her emotions while navigating the hypersexualized ads targetted at young people? Where does she “see” herself in all of that?
This at the same time when her straight friend is suffering a lack of self-esteem from over-identifying with advertising, beginning to believe that she has to be thin and sexual to be noticed.
And that, of course, is where it all started for most of us. Our looks = attention = approval = being seen.
Here is another truth: whatever our situation, once we get clear on our edges and our gifts, we will attract people and attention that is authentic, not just based on what we look like - which is mostly about their ego noticing ours.
We feel invisible because we don’t know what we look like without someone else’s mirror reflecting back to us. We look to others to define our edges.
Feeling seen is about self-acceptance and self-confidence. Its about recovering your feminine brilliance no matter what society says. Then we can be strong mentors and help the young people in our lives navigate toxic media, too.
The inner critic starts out there
If you are in midlife - your 40s and early 50s - you probably already know you are sandwiched between 2 huge, very different demographic groups - the Baby Boomers and the Millenials.
Marketers have tripped over themselves for years in a frenzy to be relevant to one or both of those demographics. Women do 85% of the buying in the U.S. - so you can imagine the amount of ads targeted at women over the years.
For better or worse, in the U.S., marketing defines the collective ego of our culture. Marketing messages are woven into storylines of popular shows; product placement in shows, movies and videos accelerate this affect. Marketing has become our social narrative.
Midlife women today, who are by default members of Gen X, are not very well represented in this narrative. A study of midlife women by SuperHuman marketing agency found that 91% of midlife women don’t believe advertisers get them.
So in a society where marketing is so influential and pervasive, it is easy to confuse being invisible to marketers with being invisible in general.
Let’s turn that around and consider it a gift that we have not been as heavily marketed to as women in their 60s and 70s.
I have interviewed many women over 65, retired from successful careers, lives filled with contribution to family and community. For too many, you would never guess that from talking with them.
Their language is peppered with self-doubt. Second guessing has become a reflexive habit. I have a theory that life long exposure to advertising is one reason for a lack of generational confidence among many (not all) baby boomer women - which is crazy considering what they have accomplished.
For decades, on a daily basis, society’s messages have told them that they are lacking and need to buy product x to be whole, beautiful, loved and accepted.
Fast forward to today, where the marketing landscape for women is all about the millennials. In the same SuperHuman survey, 84% of the (midlife) women surveyed used products and services they felt were aimed at younger women. This is why we raid our daughters’ closet.
This is potentially toxic for us as we spend time immersed in advertising and media that is aimed at younger women. That is not going to help us feel better, much less celebrate, our middle age changes.
Internal vanishing point
When we are young, we see ourselves through our parents. Later, through our peers and still later through our lovers and partners. Some women see themselves through their children.
This is natural, I think 99% of women do this to some extent without knowing it.
In our 40s and 50’s, we start to look for ourselves again. Who am I without my roles - if my parents pass on, I split from my partner, and my kids leave the nest?
We feel invisible because we have lost track of our definition. After so many years of seeing ourselves through others, we can’t even feel our edges anymore.
Here is the problem: If you feel invisible, you are looking for validation in an unreliable place - other people.
Can you see yourself in any of the following?
If you feel invisible, try this:
Think of Francesca in the rain - will you turn left into the unknown with a new muse to rediscover yourself, or stay comfortable and rarely seen on the straight and narrow?
Choose to fight for your visibility and brilliance - it is one of the turning points in midlife.
Questions? Beginning February 7 I'm once again offering a free 30 minute Mirror Your Brilliance Sessions, including a Dream Speed Date. Book your session here.
"If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward." Happy Birthday Dr. King.
Thank you for your sacrifice, for taking the actions that so many others could not, and continuing to inspire millions to achieve what they did not believe they could accomplish.
This picture is from a park here in Mexico City, Dr. King faces Abraham Lincoln across the way. Two of my favorite #Americans. We were walking on election day last year, and ended up in this park even though we had not planned it and it was the first time I had seen these statues. Coincidence? Yes. Chance? I doubt it.
Seeing these 2 men, honored in this way here in Mexico, helped my frame of mind very much.
I wish all Americans could see ourselves the way the world wants to see us. The world wants us to be who we have said we are, open, generous, diverse free people living up the standard that Dr. King and President Lincoln insisted that we strive for.
I don't know what the fall-out of the current administration is going to be, but the one thing that ugliness and fear cannot kill is the essence of the American spirit. However, its not "ours". We are way too egocentric, we did not invent what we embody, its a common deep desire of all people.
I don't care who you are, what color you are, your gender, your age, your challenges - if you are a sane American citizen, there are at least 1 billion people on the planet that would trade places with you in a heartbeat, even on your worst day. Maybe 2 billion. Let that sink in. And then go get busy manifesting your brilliance.
We show people everywhere what is possible. Its an incredible honor and responsibility. The "American Experiment" is being played out still, and no one knows what the final outcome will be. It doesn't matter, the ideal has been unleashed. Once tasted, people do not forget it. Its our gift to the world, and it will outlive "us".
I'm spending a quiet long weekend working on my book.
As part of the setting the stage, I make the point that this is not your mama's midlife, or grandma's. Fundamental societal inputs that were unchanged for hundreds, if not thousands, of years were altered for the worse in our lifetime.
I feel a bit like a Thanksgiving grinch, unearthing a bunch of bad news about obesity and the food system in the U.S.
Industrialization of our food system, introduction of plastics and chemicals are having widespread negative effect at the same time climate change is accelerating.
Here are a few key infographics. You may be tempted to get discouraged and that is understandable. Try not to. We've got suggestions as to how to keep from feeling overwhelmed at the end of the post.
This is not a rant post. I prefer to let the numbers and visuals tell their story. When we bring them all together like this, we get a more complete picture.
Lets start with some good news. We saw the adoption of Title IX in 1972.
More women enrolling in college.
Lead levels decreased and some large cities made big improvements in air quality.
And finally, more female representation in Congress.
Challenges: Food Supply
This is arguably the biggest and worst change that happened in the last 50 years. Farmland consolidation, industrialization of farming, GMO crops with greater fertilizer and pesticide use are feeding a food industry that is producing harmful processed foods that have increased obesity and diabetes and possibly autism at alarming rates.
As we export more and more processed food and industrialized farming practices, the rest of the world's rates of obesity and diabetes climb as well. I live in Mexico and see this first hand.
Many of us are gluten intolerant, or if not, we all know someone who is. However, sometimes these same people can eat bread or pasta products in other countries, or made from heritage wheat sources in the U.S.
This graphic comes from an article citing a study done on rats and mapping the incidence of several types of cancer, including thyroid, to the timing of the adoption of GMO corn and soy and the pesticide Glyphosate. I remember noticing a few years ago how many women seemed to be having thyroid issues, including me. (Although in my case its partly genetic; my grandmother, dad and older brother all had or have low thyroid.)
I already blogged about the increase of sugar in processed food during the low fat craze of the 1980s as a major shift that happened right under our noses. This graph shows how obesity rates increased from the time the low fat guidelines were implemented.
Autism. Causing a strain on families and our educational system. Some sources cite vaccines, others cite poor dietary options. Again, don't we all know someone who's life is touched by Autism, especially among our boys? Its infuriating.
This statistic shows prescription drug expenditure in the United States from 1960 to 2017.
Plastics and chemicals
One example: PBDE in Breast Milk.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, are organobromine compounds that are used as flame retardant. Like other brominated flame retardants, PBDEs have been used in a wide array of products, including building materials, electronics, furnishings, motor vehicles, airplanes, plastics, polyurethane foams, and textiles. They were introduced in the 1970s. The below chart is from a study of Swedish women. The source notes that breast tissue sampled in the 1960s from women in the San Francisco Bay Area reveals no PBDEs, today they have some of the highest levels in the country. They are carcinogenic endocrine disruptors and pass from the mother to the fetus and child.
Info like this can make us feel defeated before we even start. We all feel that way sometimes.
The main thing is to remember that you are not alone in perhaps not knowing what to do next, in feeling too busy.
This is what you do next: If you haven't done so recently, you re-assess where want to end up in a few years. Then you work back in 6 month chunks. That may not, on the surface, seem like it has anything to do with the bigger problems of the world. But it does.
I talk about this in Chapter 2 of the book, which I'm working on tomorrow. I really need to think of a name for it, right?
The second essential key is this - find a community of women who will hold you accountable to your biggest self, in a fun, exciting way.
Keep in touch and we'll be talking more about that soon too!