As the footlooseness of my 20s has given way to the start of an era my ob-gyn labels "advanced maternal age," I am evermore conscious—fearful—of how life as a single woman might feel at 35. Forty-eight. Fifty-three. Sixty-nine. What if I turn out to be a penniless spinster, too senile to care for myself? How will I handle the ache, the space between episodes of intimacy? What if I haven't squirreled away enough cash to buoy me through retirement? What if I never have a partner, children, or grandchildren to share my days with? What if I end up utterly alone?
Intellectually, I know that life is ultimately uncertain. So why do my insides long for a policy—a backup plan? Because I know this is a society that prefers the taut glutei of a 20-year-old to the sagging chin line of an AARP member. And I'm afraid, because a world that worships youth and dismisses the elderly will ultimately throw me away, too.
Turns out I have company. When we asked on oprah.com, "What scares you about aging?" the dozens of women who responded—from ages 13 to 77—revealed similar anxieties. "I can handle anything but Alzheimer's!" wrote one. "How will I survive alone if my husband has a stroke?" e-mailed another. Time and again, the same fears popped up. Dementia. Caring for sick parents. Zip-o money at retirement. Menopause. Loneliness. Declining sexual interest and attractiveness. Wrinkles, wrinkles, and more wrinkles.
I invited some of the wisest women I know to get real about aging—to talk honestly about how they've dealt with their own fears and what they've learned by living through them. This is how they reassured me.
"What if I never marry or have children?"
Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, 67, clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather's Blessings: "I have encountered two of women's greatest fears: I've been single all my life, and I've had Crohn's disease [a chronic inflammatory bowel disease] for the past 51 years. I always wanted to be a mother. I was one of the girls who played with dolls until I was 12 or 13 years old. I had the names of all my children picked out. Having a family was a major life dream. When I was diagnosed at age 15, it became clear that dream might not play out. Then as the clock ticked down toward 40, it was even more clear I probably wasn't going to be a mother. Because of my illness, it was very difficult for me to maintain a relationship. Men of my generation were looking for someone to take care of them, and I needed someone to take care of me.
"I hear women say, 'If it doesn't turn out the way I planned, what then?' Life is basically full of broken eggs. The whole art of this thing is finding your own recipe for making sponge cake. My mother's final words were 'I am satisfied.' How do we live so that at the end of our lives we can say those words? I have done that. I have learned that I can be a mother in many different ways. The people who are unhappy are the people who get stuck in one way of doing it. You have to have a sense of possibility. Of course it's a remarkable, life-altering experience to have your own biological children. As a former pediatrician, I've seen people transformed by this profound experience. But you can still grow people, even if they don't come from your own body. There are so many who haven't had parenting. You can be a mother to them. For the thousands of medical students I've worked with, I have done that."