I pee my pants a little when I sneeze too hard. I get drunk — and then later get a hangover — from a single glass of wine. In June of last year, I sprained my ankle…and I don’t even know how. I wrapped it in a brace for four months. Even now, seven months later, I still feel a twinge of pain sometimes when I walk around the house. When I told my husband about it, he said, “We’re old now. Things just don’t heal anymore.”
But as I move into my 40s, it’s not just my earnest consideration of leak-proof panties and under-eye cream that makes me think about the fact that I’m getting older. It’s my new relationship with ambition (can I stop reaching for the stars now and just embroider things all day?). It’s my new relationship with marriage and intimacy (can I stop shaving my legs and scheduling date nights and just read books in bed all night?). It’s my new relationship with my parents (hellooo sandwich generation). It’s the way my guilt over certain things has simply fallen away, finally making it easier for me to set firm boundaries and say no to all the things.
With these deeper shifts, I’ve found myself connecting less and less with books about early career shenanigans and coming of age and finally finding oneself (though don’t get me wrong…I’m still not convinced I ever really found myself and I would love for someone to tell me where to look). Thank god for memoirs by older authors who really get me, and with whom I might be able to talk openly about the fact that I keep a travel urinal in the trunk of my car just in case.
If you’re looking for that same level of understanding, check out these eight memoirs about getting older.
Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer
I read this memoir five years ago when I was firmly in my 30s, but I still found a lot to connect to in this book that bills itself, in the subtitle, as “a midlife reckoning.” Love and Trouble is about Dederer reconciling the young woman she used to be with the woman she has become in midlife. I was most struck by how Dederer casually revealed the worst parts of herself to readers, displaying that zero-fucks-left-to-give energy I’m coming to know so well. I also connected with her musings on sexuality and power, and with her deep wanting to be wanted. When you’re 15+ years into a marriage and your fashion sense can best be described as mom-at-school-pickup, you start missing that feeling of being desired by others (though, at other times, that sense of invisibility can be a blessing).
Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby (May 16)
What is this? Irby’s…eleventy billionth essay collection? A noted blogger and comedian, she is in top form in her latest (which, sorry not sorry, is not out until May). I think what I enjoy most about Irby’s work, beyond the wacky humor, is how it feels like she just…gets me. Whether writing about incontinence or masturbation or having the palate of a 7-year-old, I am right there with her. It helps that we’re the same age. The frustrating minutiae of what things are like as one grows older permeate every page. Bladder issues. Bad knees. They’re all just a fact of life.
Calypso by David Sedaris
There was a time (back in college) when one of my favorite genres was White Dudes who Write Humorous Essays. And David Sedaris was one of those dudes. I don’t know. I guess I wanted to be them? Anyway, years passed and then, in 2018, I read Calypso. Sedaris’s voice…his sense of humor was the same as it had always been. But things had taken a darker turn. I appreciated how Sedaris tackled some tough topics in this book, including the death of one of his sisters, and the shift in the relationship he had with his aging father, without losing any of the laughs. Dark humor for the win.
The Madwoman in the Volvo by Sandra Tsing Loh
Another humorous essay collection, this one tackles a very specific part of growing older (for those with ovaries, anyway): the journey through perimenopause and menopause. As she grapples with “the changes,” Loh also struggles to raise her preteen daughters, deal with her imploding marriage, care for her aging father, weather the ups and downs of her career, and more. In the end, she happily concludes that things do get better.
Old in Art School by Nell Painter
Once upon a time, I was an early career freelance writer and editor doing quite well for myself. Then there was a recession. I scrabbled about for new sources of income and ended up earning my career coaching certification (lol). I referred to this as my “encore career,” even though I was only 28 (double lol). Historian Nell Painter, meanwhile, was in her 60s when she went to art school, earning a BFA and then an MFA after already having had a full-ass career. In her memoir (triple threat!), she tackles ageism, sexism, racism, and identity in the course of telling the tale of how, post-retirement, she decided to start over.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
I read this graphic memoir right before my dad received a diagnosis of MCI (mild cognitive impairment), and I felt as if I were looking into my future. There is the anxious, aging father who eventually slips into dementia. There is the willful, stubborn, aging mother who refuses to ask for help when she needs it. And then there is the daughter — Roz Chast herself — who doesn’t know quite how to handle this sudden shift without completely upending her own life. See the aforementioned reference to the sandwich generation. Beyond the parallels to my own life, I appreciated how this book showed a woman pushing back against what is expected of daughters, making decisions that took into account not only the care of her parents but also of herself.
Gray is the New Black by Dorothy Rice
Okay. Full disclosure. I know Dorothy. She was one of my readers at Hippocampus Magazine (and always left the most insightful feedback!) and she edited my work at under the gum tree (only making it stronger!), so I was unsurprised by the fact that she’s a gorgeous writer, too. Her memoir is ostensibly about her decision to let her hair go gray, but it’s also about all the other insecurities she carries as she finds herself growing older…insecurities around her body, her eating habits, her marriage, and more. These are sources of misplaced shame I think many of us can relate to.
I See You Made an Effort by Annabelle Gurwitch
Finally (and because I’m obviously a sucker for a comedic essay collection), we have this one by Gurwitch, a woman on the edge of 50. Falling in lust…the anti-aging industry…losing those she loves…this book goes through the whole rollercoaster of later-in-life experiences. Because when you’re falling apart (and, as my husband points out, nothing heals), all you can really do is laugh.
For more like this (but fictional), check out this list of exciting books about women over 50. And if it’s the practicalities of aging that have you terrified, this list of the best books for seniors has you covered.