Am I Middle-Aged?

A few weeks ago, after being dismayed at finding my rain gauge broken after a particularly bad snowstorm, my teenaged daughter asked me when I became interested in stuff like rainfall amounts. The question was not snarky; it was a genuine interest in what happens to certain adults who do not grow their own food that they begin to have conversations about the amount of moisture falling from the sky.  And I get it.  I can remember as a teen hearing adults talk about absolutely boring things (Insurance! Advanced dentistry!  Mortgages!  Their joints!) and wondering why everyone seemed so intrigued.  Was adulthood, after all, merely an extended stage of pain, weather-watching, and paper-shuffling? (I’ll leave it to you to answer that).

Her question came at an interesting time, as this was also when I was compiling my Christmas wish list.  The list included, among other things: socks; a cat carrier; orthotic shoe inserts; some new knitting needles (having worn out my others); and some new sneakers that would accommodate the aforementioned inserts.  I reflected on this list with a mix of horror and intrigue, as I noticed that I was quickly fitting the stereotype of a middle-aged cat lady.  My concern was not at all helped by the recognition that I had adopted a stray cat a little over a year ago, bringing our total family cat population up to four.

So on that day when my daughter asked about my interest in the rain, my first impulse was to talk about my age (“Well, when you get to be a particular age, there are some things that start to matter to you that didn’t when you were younger…..”), and I proceeded to explain that my interest in the rain corresponded to my interest in gardening (which, like knitting, I chalked up to my development of more “mature” tastes).

But upon reflection, I wasn’t so sure that I told that story very well, for as I considered it more, I was reminded of the phrase developed by sociologist Cynthia Fuchs Epstein — “deceptive distinctions” — to describe how people tend to explain phenomena according to popular stereotypes rather than paying attention to actual causality. In the case of sex and gender, Fuchs notes, we account for a very wide variety of things based on their supposed power because we have bought into a very widespread, even if erroneous, social narrative: your biological sex is your gendered/behavioral destiny.

To use a rather mundane example of deceptive distinctions, when we see little boys run around rambunctiously, we are more likely as a culture to explain that behavior as a positive manifestation of that child’s sex (“boys will be boys!”).  But when little girls do the same (and they do….), we are more likely to see that as a form of gendered misbehavior (for we do not have a “girls will be girls” saying that justifies such physicality), or to completely disregard it having any gendered or sexed significance at all.  Put differently, we are accustomed to providing explanations of events that fit social narratives, rather than asking whether those narratives are grounded in demonstrable events.

As I took this concept to heart, I began to wonder if age could work as a “deceptive distinction,” and thus I started to think of the story of my rain gauge and my Christmas list in a different way.  Since knitting has been a hot thing for young people for several years now, it seems less tenable to explain that in terms of age, particularly since I picked it up over ten years ago when I fit many of the demographics of the younger knitter. This is not to say that nothing is connected to age, however, for it does seem likely that my desire for new exercise gear is, in fact, connected to the fact that my knees don’t feel the same as they did in my 20’s (nor, for that matter, my 30’s). But the rain?

It seems more likely that we can trace my interest in the rain not so much to my age, but to my economic stability.  I was not, for instance, very interested in gardening before I owned a house with a yard that was sufficiently large, nor was I actively visiting garden centers before I could afford to buy the plants that make the gardening possible.  And come to think of it, we could also explain my interest in the rain in terms of family norms and other phenomena linked to socioeconomic ideals.  Part of my intrigue with gardening came when I was a stay at home mom of three very small children, and getting outside helped break up the monotony of the day.  But I was only able to afford to do that (that is, to stay at home and to garden) because I was married to someone who has a stable income.

And if we are to take this social trajectory even further, why my spouse and I got together — and ultimately pursued the career paths we did and the economic conditions that our jobs and relationship created — is likely traceable to certain norms within our own families about “suitable” relationships and a series of other economic, gender, and labor norms.  Moreover, my interest in the rain — and, really, gardening — was almost certainly prompted by the fact that we live in a neighborhood where certain class standards indicate that well-manicured lawns figure prominently in how one is perceived to take care of one’s home.

In short, whether my age is a factor in my dismay over a broken rain gauge is not a simple tale; it is probably more about identifying with a certain economic and social status that, yes, may be more likely to come with age, but that is not caused by age per se.  I will freely admit that the number of felines in my house may still qualify me for some sort of “cat lady” label (or, at least, further spark my interest in the world of pet hair removal products, and thus cause me to continue to produce the rather lackluster wish lists like the one I mentioned above).  But at least for now, it’s fair to say that the popular stories we tell may often have underlying currents that often go unnoticed, even (and especially!) by the very people whose lives such stories supposedly describe.

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