Psychologist Mary Pipher’s 1994 book, Reviving Ophelia, was a revolutionary exploration of the psychology of teenage girls, and in her inspiring new book, Women Rowing North, she considers the psychological effects of aging on women. Women face many challenges as they age: misogyny, ageism, loss and physical changes. Yet Pipher shows that most older women are more content than their younger selves. Pipher offers warm, empathetic guidelines for navigating aging and for recognizing its unexpected gifts. Here, Pipher answers a few questions about her new book.
Can you tell me about why you decided to write this book?
I always write about something that I need to understand. For example, I wrote about teenage girls when I had an unhappy, teenage daughter and many troubled and angry adolescent clients. I wrote about refugees after Lincoln became an official refugee resettlement community with 54 languages in our schools.
I am particularly attracted to topics in which the cultural messaging is very different from my own experience. I want to explore that disconnection. To me, writing is the deepest form of thinking.
What’s one message you would like to convey to women with this book?
That happiness is both a choice and a set of skills and that with the right attitudes, we can make everything workable. Yes, everything.
I feel like many women today look toward aging with dread and anxiety. What’s something you wish you could have told your younger self about aging?
We now have research that shows that older women are the happiest people of all demographic groups. I wish I had known that earlier. I thought I was peaking in happiness in my 20s, a time that, in retrospect, wasn’t all that happy for me. Many women have expressed how surprised they were by the richness and joy of this life stage.
What’s an example of something you find joy in now that you didn’t when you were younger?
I actually like almost the exact same things I did when I was 10 years old. I love reading, swimming, being outdoors, and my friends and family. During the years I was a working mother, I didn’t have much time for these pleasures, but now I can once again spend much of my time doing these things.
Your groundbreaking 1994 book, Reviving Ophelia, examines the reasons—from unrealistic beauty standards to media’s portrayal of sexuality—behind the growing number of teenage girls developing depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem. Do you think this trend among adolescent girls shares any similarities with the struggles aging women face?
Both age groups on the cusp of great changes. Because of the tidal wave of experiences coming our way, both adolescent girls and older women need to expand our coping capacities and grow our moral imaginations. We also face a culture that sees us in stereotypes that don’t match with our own experiences. We are searching for new ways to understand ourselves and the complicated situations we are experiencing. Both stages are catalytic for great growth.
What do you think are some of the biggest societal challenges women face as they age?
Many women face financial issues, especially around health care. We also are likely to experience the loss of our friends, parents, siblings and partners. By the time we are 70, most of us have experienced some health problems and some collisions with a culture that doesn’t value us because we are old.
When I told my women friends I was writing a book about older women, they would say, “I’m not old.” What they meant was their view of themselves did not fit the cultural stereotypes for older women. They weren’t grumpy, depressed or decrepit. Instead they felt vibrant and deeply engaged with life.
One of the takeaways from your book is that a sense of community is an important part of wellbeing. Where do you find community in your own life?
I have lived in the same small midwestern college town almost continually since 1972. I have friends who I knew in my 20s and friends from various communities—neighbors, activists, writers, therapists and musicians. Many of my friends know each other and we have watched our children grow up together. I am deeply grateful for this. My community has helped hold my family’s lives in place. However, knowing so many people for so long also means that I go to lots of funerals and make many hospital visits.
What did you learn while writing this book that surprised you, either about yourself or in research?
I realized that a great deal of my thought came from white men. I had read Rousseau, Tolstoy, Lincoln, Camus, Thoreau and Whitman. I challenged myself to find women’s quotations for this book. I was happily surprised by how many new authors I met as I researched the book. I also realized I had pretty much downloaded Eleanor Roosevelt into my head. Her quotes kept showing up in every chapter!
Where are you rowing to next?
I want to become more engaged in saving our democracy from money and greed. I want to work to stop climate change so that the grandchildren of humans and all other species have a clean, green planet to inhabit.
Author photo by Sarah Greder