Liz Byrski: At 73, I'm still learning what it means to be an old woman

Much loved and admired author Liz Byrski

Women of a Certain Age is a collection of women’s memoirs – stories of identity and survival, a celebration of getting older and wiser, and becoming more certain of who you are and where you want to be.

Edited by Jodie Moffat, Maria Scoda, and Susan Laura Sullivan, we are privileged to bring you Everyday Sadness, one of the essays from the collection written by much-loved and admired author Liz Byrski.


I was in my mid-fifties when I began to think seriously about ageing – about becoming an old woman and what that might mean. I did so with a kind of relish, for I had never feared growing old. Confident, intelligent and energetic old people were part of my childhood; I envied their independence and freedom and wanted to be like them. Childhood was all about doing what one was told; old people did what they wanted when they wanted, even if someone had already cautioned them against it. It was the late 1950s, I was just into my teens, and the older women I knew had just enough money to eat in restaurants, take the ferry for holidays in France or Spain, and go regularly to the best hairdresser in the nearest small town – some even drove their own cars. As an only child, inclined to introversion and protective of my own space as well as my dreams, old age shone like a beacon in the distant future.

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But even as I grew older it simply never occurred to me to think about how it might actually feel to be an old woman; how emotionally textured, how sometimes ragged with grief and stitched through with loss or regret, how physically and mentally challenging, it could be. I was going to have a happy old age, and as the years passed I remained convinced of this.

When was it that the current inane cult of happiness began? Whose idea was it that we should expect to be happy all the time, and that to be sad was some sort of failure of will or personality? Sadness is so much more interesting, rich and lasting than this infernal happiness. Indeed, it is sadness or nostalgia rather than happiness that that moves us when we respond to the world’s greatest works of literature, art and music – and sadness that has been their progenitor. We have come to despise sadness, to regard it as burdensome, negative, even as a sign of failure, and so we deprive ourselves of its value.

Now, in my seventies, I am living the good old age in which I so long believed, but in many ways it is not quite as I imagined it. Alongside all the benefits that I yearned for in youth, come the realities hidden for so long in my blind spot. In the course of an adult life we all experience grief, disappointment and loss. And I have kicked many own goals on the scoreboard of regret: broken relationships and friendships, roads not taken, opportunities missed, selfishness, cowardice, greed and neglect. But it was the reality of my parents’ ageing that helped me to understand the importance and the value of both grief and regret.

My father was in his early eighties, becoming very forgetful and sometimes confused, when a minor stroke catapulted him further along the road to dementia and a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. My mother, who had always depended on him for everything, was confused and frightened by this, and resentful that he was no longer able to look after her. The familial triangle rocked in chaos. The old structure, at times suffocating and restrictive, at others liberating and supportive, shifted on what felt like a daily basis, as we grasped for the past and found it slipping from our hands.

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I became my parents’ carer shortly after my sons had left home. I had a demanding job, a busy social life, and was free of other responsibilities, so I bitterly resented this new one. My parents had always tried to do their best for me, so resenting having to take responsibility for them is not something I’m proud of; it reveals a dark and selfish aspect of my nature which I’d prefer to hide. But I know I’m not alone in this experience and perhaps if we can speak more freely about our reactions, which feel so shameful, it might be easier to manage them. Alongside the resentment, I struggled with the long slow grief of watching Mum and Dad become people I barely knew. And as they disappeared before my eyes I hated myself for my selfishness. I always knew that my parents loved me, but in my twenties I had begun to understand that they only tolerated each other. Our apparently perfect middle-class family life, serene on the surface, was laced with unspoken resentment and tension. Like so many only children I believed that it was up to me to fix this, that if I was exceptionally good and did well at school, the centre would hold, things would not fall apart.

Things didn’t fall apart, but reflecting on it now I realise I never really knew or understood either of my parents. So much went unspoken, so much was hidden, that in the final years of both their lives I felt that not only had I never really got to know them, but as an adult I had not allowed them to know me. At some point in my adult life, probably in my thirties, I stopped talking to them. It wasn’t that we weren’t speaking, just that I started editing the version of myself that they saw. We had profound political differences by then, and there were aspects of my life that I knew they would disapprove of, or might hurt them. And so I turned the flame of intimacy down to a flicker, stopped disclosing my plans, my failures, my hopes or aspirations. I didn’t tell them of the times I fell in love and rapidly out of it again, or when I walked the boundaries of financial disaster. I didn’t confide concerns about my children in case that reflected badly on me. Somehow I still felt I could only hold the triangle together by living up to their expectations and, although I saw them often and loved them deeply, I never revealed my failures, shortcomings, weaknesses or fears. From being at the centre of their lives I moved myself out to the emotional margins.

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My regrets about my parents are many, and foremost among them is my failure to heed the advice of others about the futility of trying to make a person with dementia understand and accept what is ‘real’ and ‘correct’. I argued too long, too forcefully and too often with my father. When he told me something outrageous or simply incorrect I insisted on putting him right. It was a useless and frustrating exercise and, worse still, once he was gone I realised that it undermined him at a time when he was most vulnerable. In earlier days I had frequently resented his authority and, even as an adult, I rarely summoned the courage to argue with him. But when he was old and sick I argued with him constantly. Now I wonder if this was some sort of unconscious revenge in which I sought the triumph of being the one who, supposedly, knew best. Once he was gone, I saw how easy it would have been to change the dynamics of that relationship earlier, at a time when we could have enjoyed each other’s differences. How much kinder it would have been to let him live with his harmless delusions, instead of trying to control his sense of himself and his reality. Regrets … I have more than a few.

Regret is not fashionable; it is often regarded as useless or self-indulgent, but in recent years I’ve come to understand its value. I have learnt so much from both grief and regret – learnt my strengths and my weaknesses, my faults and mean-spiritedness, the things that cause me shame, and my readiness to compromise my beliefs and values when confronted by the difficulties they can create for me. To cast regret aside is to cast aside the chance to learn and change, and to try to live more authentically.

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I still grieve for my parents, for the dear friends I’ve lost, and for the things I can no longer do: dance the night away, move freely without pain, stand in high heels, pull things out of my memory with ease, juggle several trains of thought at the same time, remember where I put my glasses, expect to fall in love. But other blessings come in their place, the greatest of which is what I have come to call ‘everyday sadness’, and what I can learn from it. I relish my solitude, my independence and the company of dear friends. And while I still care about how I look, I am no longer haunted by my failure to measure up to the sort of standards my mother would have approved of. I have learnt to live with my weight, my endlessly disappointing hair and my own fashion disasters. Varying degrees of pain, discomfort and days of exhaustion are just part of life. I am learning to accommodate rather than fight them.

To be old – to be present in one’s oldness – is both the great challenge and the great gift of time. Grief, regret and sadness are part of this. What seems at first to rob and weaken us moves us towards a stronger and more nuanced sense of self; one which enables us to inhabit old age rather than fight it; to embrace it rather than to grasp at youth. I am not a sad person; I am not unhappy, gloomy or depressed. But everyday sadness is simply a part of me now and I feel it as a gift, something that keeps me company, and guides me in the direction that may perhaps lead me along the road to some wisdom.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with everyday sadness, trying it out on people to see how they respond to it. People of my own age, and older, frequently understand what I mean. But many younger people seem shocked or horrified. ‘But you should be happy!’ they respond. ‘You’re not old; well, you don’t look it.’ ‘It’s terrible to be sad – and you can’t be sad every day!’ Well, actually I can, because this sadness does not make me miserable, it makes me strong, and it has become a precious part of being old. My everyday sadness lives within; hopefully it makes me more tolerant, more focused and compassionate. It alerts me to dishonesty and sophistry. It is a long time now since I recognised the damaging impact of the cult of happiness. The way it sets us up for disappointment, and the shame that comes with the failure to appear happy about everything all or most of the time.

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I am feeling my age, I am learning what it means to be an old woman and I still have a considerable way to go. I wish people would stop telling me that I’m not old. I know they mean it kindly, and I know that sometimes it comes from their fear of their own ageing. But I am seventy-three and I’m proud of it. I don’t want to be young again, I don’t need to be told that I look younger than my age. I want to explore, discover and celebrate this time of my life, to live my age in my own bloody-minded way, to reflect and learn. I need this sadness to keep me strong and to enrich my appreciation of the everyday joy of living. I wonder now if this was what I saw in those old people of my childhood – what made me want what they had. I relish this time and reject the cult of happiness. I love being an old woman and I wonder if they had also found what I have found: that a little everyday sadness suits me very well.

Note: A section of this essay has previously been published in Getting On (Momentum Books, 2012).


Sincere thanks to publisher Fremantle Press and author Liz Byrski for allowing Starts at 60 to publish this essay from Women of a Certain Age, edited by Jodie Moffat, Maria Scoda, and Susan Laura Sullivan, available in print and ebook editions (RRP AU$27.99).