"What's your hair history?" It's one of my favorite icebreakers to get a group to open up and laugh at themselves. It's a part of our own history, and yet also reflects a shared cultural past of trends during our lifetime. Vicki Larson and I share an epoch in our hair histories of unfortunate perms. While for me it represented trying to fit in to my southern California public high school, for Vicki it represented taking on the role of suburban, minivan-driving mom. Her story tells of her abrupt transition to a 40-something divorcee after discovering her husband's affair. It's a story as old as marriage itself and yet for Vicki it's a tale of survival. You can read more of Vicki's writing at The Huffington Post.
"Who's that?" my 17-year-old son asks me. He and his younger brother peer over my shoulder as I flip through the pages of a family photo album.
"Who do you think?"
"I have no idea. Aunt Liz?"
"No silly, it's me."
"Eww! What did you do to your hair?"
It’s tough explaining the questionable hair choices of one's youth. Well, I know full well what I did to it; why is another matter.
"It's a perm. I used to like those. Why?"
"Ugh. Your hair looks messy," the 17-year-old says.
"Yeah," the 14-year-old chimes in. "It looks like it's fried or something."
They were right. More than just my hair was messy and fried back then. I was in my 30s in the photo, a former career woman adjusting to the world of full-time suburban motherhood for which nothing quite prepared me. I looked like a grown up, despite the juvenile decisions I had made about my hair; I had a beautiful husband, I had two beautiful kids, I lived in a beautiful house, I drove a ... well, a shiny new minivan.
Looking back on that woman more than a decade later, I realize I don't really know who she was. And that's because she didn't know who she was. It took a Big-0 birthday and the transformation into a cliché — a 40-something divorced mother — for me to understand. I was horrified with this new label; as middle-aged clichés go, it is perhaps the biggest of them all. The only way I could have made it worse was if I had studied for a Realtor license, become a family therapist or run off to either Provence to buy a villa or to India to find myself.
A few years earlier I had turned 40. I didn't dread turning 40. I always hated the “9” years more: 29, 39. They signaled the end of something, whereas the “0”s could be seen as the start of something new. Maybe it was just my mind playing tricks on me, convincing me all was going to be okay (like it does when it validates my belief that eating that second slice of chocolate mousse cake is boosting my antioxidant intake rather than padding my hips).
So I thought I’d be able to accept it as easily as I marked my 40th birthday — no party, no fanfare, no ostentation — surrounded by my husband, relieved that he didn't have to plan for a big blow-out party, a 2-year-old still in Pampers and a 5-year-old who wanted to be a Power Ranger. True, it was in Hawaii, but that's where we spent every summer because my husband taught a six-week class at the university there. To celebrate, I slurped down a Mai Tai, threw on a lei, slathered on suntan lotion and packed an extra diaper as we headed to the beach.
Back home, a few soon-to-be-40 girlfriends swept me away for a spa day. As one of the oldest, I was the guinea pig and they watched me carefully — what is 40 like? I may not have been the best of role models, as I still acted pretty much like the giddy teenager I felt like inside. But as we sat in the huge hot tub, feeling fresh and firm from massages and facials, we acknowledged the reality of what we would be dealing with in the years ahead: our Cosmo mags would be replaced by More; PMS by perimenopause; baby sonograms by mammograms; plunging necklines by turtlenecks; natural hair color by a dye (isn't that what they mean when they ask, "Is that your natural color?" Yes, in fact it was my natural color — when I was 9); and our husbands, we feared, would replace some of us with younger, sexier, blonder versions of ourselves.
The only bright spot in getting older, we figured, was the rumored sexual peak that happens to women around 40, and we held onto that hope. True, we were married — we could have sex whenever we wanted! But we weren't really getting much sex and sometimes we didn't even care. We were tired. Sometimes, we were resentful. We didn't even feel all that sexy. Often, we were confused — we were told we could do all and be all, and we sort of believed it. At least, we wanted to. We just didn't fully grasp what that might mean.
Like many women who've gone the distance in a marriage — 14 years — and motherhood, I had given up parts of myself. It happened in such a slow, seemingly innocuous way, that I almost couldn't tell. But I was a willing volunteer; I was a mother, a wife, a homeowner. All of these required sacrifices. The young woman who'd been out hiking, biking, kayaking, camping, painting, dancing, going to the theater, reading books other than by Dr. Seuss and Dr. Spock, was missing. I'd slowly let go of the things I loved to do because I was too busy doing other things (like making 25 red construction paper roses for a third-grade Valentine's Day party or driving the PTA meeting/grocery store/dry cleaner/Little League-Boy Scout-soccer-practice route). I didn’t regret it — I realized it’s just what moms do.
I wasn't necessarily unhappy, or even all that restless; or if I was, I was too busy to notice. Plus, my husband and I appeared to be a happily married couple, and it often felt that way, too. I didn't mind being married and a stay-at-home mommy, even though I had morphed into something unrecognizable from the girl I once was. Even though I never quite felt comfortable saying I was "just" a housewife and mother of two rambunctious boys when asked, "So, what do you do?"
I'd like to say that I had an epiphany, a visit from some sort of spiritual guide, or a visualization that would usher me into my next phase. Or even that I had sought out life coaches or mentors to guide me into the next decade. One in which my growing boys would no longer need me so much, and how that would change my life and my relationship with my husband.
Instead, I was smacked across the face with it by the discovery of my husband's infidelities. Just call me housewife, mother, fool.
There was no way that I could have anticipated how a life I had spent fifteen years building could unravel so quickly. Well, let's just say there's nothing quite like a good old-fashioned crisis to wake you up from the "Groundhog Day" of being a minivan-driving suburban soccer mom.
All my busyness stopped, and I went into survival mode. There were long stretches where all I did was cry, talk to shrinks and read self-help books, months during which I couldn't sleep or eat. Not quite what I thought my 40s would be like as I sat spa-side just a few years before. On the plus side, I'd dropped 15 pounds and everyone told me how great I looked. Looking back, I don't necessarily recommend the Divorce Diet, but it definitely does work. Still, I panicked — who would want a 40-something woman with two young kids?
As fate would have it, a 20-something did. He didn't want me forever — he wanted to eventually get married and have babies with a younger version of me. But he did want me. And against what I would have thought was my better judgment, I wanted him, and not forever either. He was just a little more than a decade older than my oldest son, and I had just gotten out of what I thought would be "forever." My connection with this 20-something was spiritual, intellectual and, yes, sexual, although I'm not sure two romps really count all that much. It was a rebound fling. But what was unspoken was this: someone found me attractive at the exact time that I was feeling most unattractive; someone found me exciting while another saw me as routine; someone thought I had something to say while another saw me as a nag; someone saw me as a sensual woman to explore and delight in while another would rather sleep — or sleep around.
So my new clichéd life as a 40-something divorced mother added yet another clichéd dimension — the younger man. I had to ask myself if I had somehow become a character in a chick-lit book, and a marginally written one at that.
But my fling helped soften the world that had crumbled around me — my marriage exploded right after 9/11, right when my dearest friend moved with her family across the country, right when everyone I wanted to hold close had other ideas. Were my 40s going to be the decade of loss?
Oddly enough, it became the decade of discovery. While the divorce unearthed an inner strength I didn't realize I had, my brief love affair gave me the gift of confidence. I realized I'd been given a chance to get to know who I was in my 40s, irrespective of a partner, now that “housewife” had been stricken from the list — even though, sadly, the minivan remained.
This couldn't have happened at a better time. If I were in my 20s or 30s, I might have been looking for a man to be husband and father, instead of looking for "me." But it happened in my 40s, with just enough of “been there, done that” in me to focus on what I really want. I'm no longer looking for someone with whom to set up house; I have my own house. I'm not looking for someone with whom to make babies; I have my kids. I no longer feel the need to define myself by the love I give — and get — from someone else. Although it's nice to think I may find a life partner, if he never shows up, well, I know I can make it — happily — on my own.
Of all the silly things I bought and did to feel better about being a 40-something divorced mother post-Boy Toy, confidence has been the keeper. I know my body, I know what turns me on, and I know my good side for a photo. I know how to put things in perspective — the house doesn’t have to be spotless before I throw a dinner party, my kids won’t suffer some horrific disease if they don’t eat fruit or vegetables with every meal, and not everyone needs to like me.
That doesn't necessarily mean I haven’t made a few bad choices. And it doesn't mean I don't get frustrated with my changing body, miss the smell and comfort of waking up next to a warm body every morning, fret about that age spot that wasn't there yesterday, or question if I should still be shopping in the junior department. But confidence has helped me get real about myself, the world and my place in it, and that's pretty sexy. Maybe that's the sexual peak 40-something women experience.
I don't know what my 40s would have been like without all the drama. Would I have eventually found myself again? Would something else have triggered that confidence? Would I have continued on as a vaguely happy middle-aged minivan-driving soccer mom? I don't know.
But I do know that as I head into the next few Big-0 decades, when things become a little more serious for a woman, I'm counting on that confidence to keep me grounded and help me embrace all that those decades will offer — whether it’s retiring in a tiny Italian village, bouncing grandkids on my knee, or trading in the lacy thongs for granny panties.
And who knows — it might even mean that I revisit perms. If I do, however, there will be nothing messy or fried about them.
What's a memorable moment in your hair history? What stage in your life does it represent?
Vicki Larson (51) is still the mother of two rambunctious boys, who just happen to be taller than she is, and so now she’s nicer to them. When she’s not fretting over their missed curfews and driving skills, she has worked for almost every newspaper in the Bay Area and has freelanced for numerous publications and Web sites. Now she loves her work at the Marin Independent Journal, where she’s the Lifestyles Editor. Surrounded by the beauty of Marin County, she’s finally back to hiking, biking, kayaking, dancing and reading, and is living out a childhood fantasy by being the lead singer in a chick band, Sounds Like China. Before that, her biggest claim to fame was having one of her jokes published on the same page as Jerry Seinfeld and Rodney Dangerfield.