10 lessons I’ve learnt from the women I’ve interviewed
(plus one for luck)
Clockwise from top left: Lisa Taddeo, Barbara Blake Hannah, Abi Morgan, Bobbi Brown, Isabel Allende and Kit de Waal
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1. Sometimes you get what you think you’ve always wanted and you’re just too bloody knackered to enjoy it TBH I knew this before I spoke to Lisa Taddeo (author of the smash hit Three Women) back in June, but an hour on zoom to her fully clarified it for me. I know she won’t mind me saying, she was knackered. The book that had made everything possible (not least of which was a new house) and fulfilled her wildest dreams had also taken over her life. We are quick to yell about over-tight diamond shoes and tiny violins when people we perceive to “have it all” dare to mumble about how they might like to sleep for a week (how dare they?) but Lisa was spot on when she talked about the way success is a stitch-up, designed to exclude families, women and particularly women over 40.
2. If you can’t wear it three different ways don’t buy it Kat Farmer (the stylist and 'influencer' better known as @doesmybumlook40 on instagram) is full of wardrobe wisdom, but the one that really stuck with me is her Rule of Three. If you can’t make three entirely different outfits by pairing it with things already in your wardrobe, don’t buy it, she said (and quite sternly). That’s fine, I thought, scruffy jeans, smart jeans, skinny jeans, done! And as if she could read my mind, she added: And I don’t mean three different pairs of jeans!
3. A sofa-bed could save your relationship Perimenopausal night sweats and insomnia wreaking havoc on your relationship? Duvet on/duvet off. Window open/window shut. Trying to read on your phone without waking your other half and waking them anyway. And DGMS on the thrice nightly loo breaks (or is that just me? Ugh). Make like novelist Nina Stibbe and install a sofabed. She put one in her study and, even though she rarely uses it, just knowing it’s an option has restored relationship equilibrium.
4. The vast majority of women have a second/third/fourth wind by 55 (and the vast majority of men don’t*) *not all men Contrary to what society would have you believe, that whole silver fox thing? Total myth. (And that’s the polite way of putting it.) I’ve interviewed countless women for both the podcast and the book who said variations on the same thing as Kit de Waal in this week’s episode: “men in their 50s and 60s are starting to wind down, while women are having a second wind”. One woman I interviewed for the book put it even more bluntly: “he might be happy with golf, a pint and takeaway Kung Pao Chicken, but that’s not how I want to spend the rest of my life." The proof is in the fact that many forty/fifty/sixtysomething women are more engaged and more successful than ever. Thanks to their Fortunately podcast, Fi Glover and Jane Garvey (at 53 and 58 respectively) say they’re busier than ever. Makeup artist and entrepreneur Bobbi Brown launched her new business, the brilliant Jones Road Beauty, at 60. (Yes, I've mentioned it before, you could say I'm a fan!) Karen Arthur launched Menopause Whilst Black in her late 50s. Writer Nana Ama-Danquah has just been shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing at 54. Lucy Kellaway abandoned her cushy job as a columnist at the FT and retrained as a teacher. And how old do you think Kit de Waal was when My Name is Leon was published?
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5. Sometimes talking about the thing that scares you will set you free Now, I’m not claiming Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was actually scared of talking about menopause, but there's no denying it’s a big deal for a woman in a position of power, particularly in a male-dominated sphere like politics – and especially one who grew up professionally in the 90s when it was made pretty clear to us that the best (if not only) way to get on was to draw as little attention as possible to the fact you were female – to stand up and say “My name’s Nicola and I’m perimenopausal”. So maybe not scary, but definitely daunting. But that’s exactly what she did when I interviewed her for the podcast back in January. It was a watershed moment: for her and for The Shift, but also for the menopause movement.
6. It’s OK to be confrontational Crime writer Denise Mina tried to teach me to do confrontation – and failed, but that had far more to do with me than it did with her. But her point stuck: what are you afraid is going to happen if you talk back? (Other lessons I need to do some homework on include: “It’s OK to say no,” Annie MacManus; “You don’t have to give people what they want, just because they ask,” Jami Attenberg; and “Being user-friendly is overrated,” Abi Morgan. )
7. Society can shove its eyeliner requirements Hear hear, Torrey Peters.
8. Time is longer than rope It’s no secret that my favourite thing is bathing in the wisdom of much older women and this particular piece came courtesy of Barbara Blake Hannah. Barbara was the first Black on-camera TV journalist in the UK and what she describes as being "reborn at 80" makes her living proof of the veracity of this Jamaican saying. (My other all-time fave is novelist Isabel Allende, also 80, who I would happily interview every week until one of us is no longer compus mentis. Much more likely to be me before her. Every word that comes out of her mouth is gold.)
9. Find your voice – and then don’t be afraid to use it Also known as, don’t try to emulate other people just because you assume the way they do it is more “proper” so you must be doing it wrong. Be yourself and then be yourself but louder is the message that comes across again and again. I think it’s fair to say I was a pretty average interviewer until it dawned on me that if I stopped trying to be like other people and just did it my way, it might work out fine. (It also stopped being vomit-inducingly stressful!). Jojo Moyes was a moderately successful author until, out of contract, she wrote the book she really wanted to write: a little novel called Me Before You… And Guardian columnist Marina Hyde, well, when I interviewed her earlier in the week for an upcoming episode, she told me that it wasn’t until she stopped trying to write the way she thought a "serious political reporter" (quote unquote) should, that she finally found her groove.
10. The jeans don’t fit you, not the other way around Well said, Natalie Lee (Instagrammer @stylemesunday). Now, if I could just get a head start on believing it!
And one for luck: Almost every single woman I've interviewed wishes she’d worn a bikini the entire year she was 26 – but not a one of them wishes they could be 26 again...
• What are the most important life lessons you've learnt from older women? I'd love to know.
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