In her crackling, honest memoir There Are No Grown-Ups, Pamela Druckerman (Bringing Up Bebé) navigates life, friendship, marriage and parenthood in her 40s while living in Paris and trying to remain (somewhat) sane. We asked Druckerman a few questions about the French approach to aging and coming to terms with the unsettling realization that when it comes down to it, no one really knows what they’re doing.
What’s the most impressively adult thing you’ve done lately (besides, of course, writing a book!)—something a younger you would never imagine yourself being capable of?
Earlier this month I gave a speech to American college students who were studying abroad in Paris. I explained how studying abroad changed my life, and I offered some advice. The “adultness” of this was partly structural, since I was more than twice their age. But it also came from the fact that I was extracting lessons—and even a few morsels of actual wisdom—from my own experiences. These were insights that I didn’t have when I was younger. It had taken years for them to crystallize.
Maybe it’s true what the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said: “The first 40 years provide the text, the next 30 provide the commentary.” By your 40s, you have a critical mass of experience, and the distance to look at the same things you’ve seen many times before, but see them differently.
Looking back, what advice do you wish you’d heeded in your 20s? Do you even think it would have been possible, or, as they say, is youth wasted on the young?
I wish I’d been more ruthless in my assessments of other people. I should have spent less time fretting about what others thought of me, and more time deciding what I thought of them. One of the joys of the 40s is that your neuroticism—your obsession with yourself and your own issues—declines. You can look at other people more clearly, and spot narcissists before they ruin your life. And if you don’t want to talk to someone, you don’t talk to them. I also wish I’d realized that practically no one in my peer group would partner up or start having kids before their 30s. I panicked when I wasn't married by 27—the age when my mother got married. I thought I was way behind schedule, and that I wouldn’t catch up. I didn’t realize that the schedule had changed. I really should have Googled it.
What’s the most surprising thing about being your 40s?
I’m surprised that I actually look like I’m in my 40s. Looking young had always been my superpower. Into my 30s, bartenders asked me for ID. I thought my body wouldn’t know how to look middle-aged, or that I’d have to give it explicit permission. But then people started calling me “madame” instead of “mademoiselle.” And elderly men started to flirt with me. Even more surprising was realizing that I’d changed on the inside, too. I had actually managed to learn and grow a bit.
How do you think French and American women view aging differently?
The American ideal is to look as young as you can for as long as you can (I had definitely striven for this). Nobody minds looking young in France, either. But the more realistic ideal is to look like the best version of the age that you’re in. (“Trying to look young is the quickest way to look old,” an older French model says.)
There’s a different sexual narrative for women, too. In America, the 40s can seem like a woman’s last viable years before she plunges into the sexual abyss, never to be heard from again. When I turned 45, a friend asked me, “Do you feel like you have five years left before no one wants to sleep with you anymore?”
The American statistics are pretty grim. A third of American women in their 50s haven’t had sex in the past year, and nearly half of women in their 60s haven’t. The 70s are practically celibate. (Men fare much better at all ages.)
I thought this decline was sad but inevitable. But then I saw that the French have a different story. Most people here also believe that younger women are sexier, and French women do have less sex as they get older. But it’s a gentle slope, not an abyss. I see couples in their 60s perusing lingerie racks together, and there are plum movie roles for older women. I interviewed older Frenchwomen for the book and heard some amazing stories. It turns out that what I thought was biologically inevitable was actually culturally determined. Knowing this feels liberating.
You write about the idea of being an expert, and that perhaps men are more easily viewed as such—you say you once had “mistaken being a grown-up for being a man.” How do you think men’s experience of aging and adulthood differs from women’s?
I’ve always been comforted by the idea that there are people—real grown-ups—running things. They know more than me, and they make life seem orderly, empirical and safe. If I’m an expert, it means that I'm one of those people. It’s existentially a bit scary, since even though I stand behind my work, I know my own limitations.
I’m not sure this feeling qualifies as “imposter syndrome.” But I’ve been surprised by how many accomplished women have some version of this. They say they’re not really qualified for the jobs they have, and they're afraid of being found out. One Ivy League-trained professor told me she’d absolutely understand if she doesn’t get tenure at her university, because she doesn’t really deserve it, and her colleagues are much smarter than she is. Whereas a male professor roughly the same age described the moment in graduate school when he realized that he could perform the same intellectual feats as his own professors. He felt ready to join their ranks. I’ve seen studies in which men overestimate their expertise, and women underestimate theirs. The two genders should probably meet somewhere in the middle.
You write about being considered a parenting expert after the success of Bringing Up Bebé, but feeling uncomfortable being labeled as such. What do you consider yourself an expert in?
By your 40s, if you’ve been honing one skill for several decades, you really do get better at it. I still find writing excruciatingly hard, but these days, after many rewrites, I can usually get to something decent.
You write, “When I meet a pretty mother from my son’s school, I no longer think, in a pointless loop, ‘She’s so pretty, she’s so pretty, she’s prettier than me.’” Instead, age has allowed you to hone your ability to decode and perceive people for who they really are. You’ve come to the realization that “that’s what the forties are: they’re a journey from ‘everyone hates me’ to ‘they don’t really care.’” How did you make the switch?
Another advantage of becoming less neurotic is that it’s easier to understand what’s going on. It’s amazing how much you can learn by just paying careful attention to other people and noting patterns. In my 40s, I notice what others care about, what their strengths and weaknesses are and—crucially—whether they have a sense of humor. I also realize that they usually aren’t thinking much about me.
It’s a relief to suddenly see more clearly. The world has become less perplexing and more pleasurable. I haven’t suddenly become the Buddha, but I’m in less of a fog.
In this state it’s easier to make friends. Instead of feeling isolated and different, you realize how much you have in common with other people, and you can trust that you’re having shared experiences.
Aging gracefully seems to be a trick mastered by French women, who are “not in permanent mourning for a previous version of themselves.” Do you have any tips on how to adopt this attitude?
I think this involves accentuating and enjoying the qualities that are specific to you, rather than striving for cookie-cutter perfection. As women get older, they look like they have a story. The French adjustment is to treat that story not as unwelcome baggage, but as part of a woman’s specificity and allure. “The beauty is to see the humanity of someone,” a Parisian beautician told me. “We don’t want to look like we come out of a box. We’re not frozen, we’re alive.”
What’s next for you? Do you have any thoughts, fears or big plans for 50?
I spent much of my 40s trying to chronicle what the 40s are like. It’s a very meta way to age. I’m looking forward to experiencing life in a slightly less examined way. Though of course I’d also like to write another book. I can’t help taking a few notes.
You’re a collector of rules and pithy phrases like, “Only friends can disappoint” and “Dress British, think Yiddish.” Your litmus test for their worthiness is if you can imagine uttering them as your last words. Do you any last words for us?
I’ll leave you with a French expression: “Old pots make the best soup.” Though for the record, I don’t qualify as an old pot yet.
Photo credit Dmitry Kostyukov