3 Older Women on the Most Important Lessons They Learned Later in Life

As a woman in her mid-twenties, I’m hesitant to offer up any big reflective statements about my time on this planet. But the end of the decade is making me feel uncharacteristically earnest, so you’ll have to refrain from rolling your eyes. It’s the rules, as dictated by Spotify.

My 2010s were shaped by rhythmic peaks and valleys, like an existential sine wave. I had my heart broken for the very first time and met the person I consider to be the love of my life. I began a flirtation with diet products that led to a life-threatening eating disorder, then testified in favor of a bill that would ban the sale of those same diet products to minors. I played the first show that would begin my music career and the last show that would end it. I even fell in love with a small fashion blog started by a fellow Persian New Yorker and am now emptying the contents of my brain for that very site. It’s been formative, to say the least.

While we expect these kinds of ups and downs from a 20-something, I think we tend to assume that, later in life, things slow down, turn over less, all the big life lessons in the rearview. But in talking with Sylvia, 70, Susie, 62, and Furaha, 70, I realized the twists and turns of growing up never really stop. In fact, their last decades were just as filled with surprises as mine. Below, they reflect on the biggest lessons they learned along the way.

Sylvia, 70, lives in Larchmont and found her inner strength in the last decade.

I was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut. It was always very quiet at my house. No one expressed feelings. I don’t remember my mother cuddling me, but my father very much wanted me. I can remember him reading to me at night. He was my guy.

I was a social worker with a private pediatric practice for 25 years—a job I wanted ever since I was a little girl. I worked with a team of people whom I loved then and I still love. Three of them are sleeping over next week! We worked with children who had diabetes and their families, and it was hard, so they were our family, too. We were very close. There was no limit on our time, you know? The job was not 9-5; it was 24 hours of devotion. I left at 65. I felt I needed to live my life, or at least know what the weather was.

On the lessons from her first marriage

I was 30 years old when I got married, and in those days, you really needed to get married by 30. I wasn’t much interested in marriage, although I was very much interested in having children. But my husband was someone I valued very much: smart, interesting, funny. He adored me. And I thought he really recognized and loved me for the right reasons. It turned out that those reasons became why he grew to resent me terribly. I was always very strong, had a lot of women friends and a very active social life. I didn’t really need anybody else. I think that those things seem very admirable when you meet a person, but living with it is different. In some ways, I was insensitive to his needs, and that didn’t feel good. It wasn’t all his fault—it takes two.

But I stayed, mostly for my children, to protect my son.

He didn’t give me what I needed, and I knew that. He was a man of moods, very angry. And he ended up being emotionally abusive to me, and somewhat physically abusive to my younger son. But I stayed, mostly for my children, to protect my son. I had some fantasies that maybe once my son left home I could make it better. But I couldn’t—he was really mean to me. Anyway, I divorced him and then he died. It was really hard, but I will say, my stepson is the kindest person. He said to me, “You know, Sylvia? There’s only one person who benefited from Dad dying. And that’s you.” That showed me that the kids understood.

On falling back in love

I lived by myself for eight years. I could not have been happier. I had a very full and wonderful life with my friends, with my work. And then I met Harry. We met online and married in 2013. A lot has changed for me in the past decade. He is just the nicest person, but also smart, funny, kind, and a grown-up. It seems somewhat like a dream. It has not all been easy, but I have a degree of maturity and insight into relationships. I love him and I want it to work. We have a huge family! I have my son and stepson, and Harry has four children from his marriage to his ex-wife and three children that he and his ex-wife brought up because the kids’ parents died. In between his marriage to his ex and his marriage to me, Harry dated a woman for five years. She died, but she has a daughter, who is fabulous. Everyone is full of love: accepting, open, and welcoming.

On accepting help from others

A few years ago, my mother had some symptoms of concern, so her doctor decided to keep her in the hospital overnight, to monitor her heart. That night, she had a stroke, and never spoke again. But because she didn’t have words anymore, she would touch me, rub my face, kiss me. I saw her every day for the rest of her life. And I got everything I’d wanted when I was a kid.

Never think you can do it alone. I could not have made it without my girlfriends.

I don’t think of myself as having regrets. I could say to you, “I regret marrying a man who ended up being really destructive in my life.” But I did it, so I had to learn from it. I always thought I was a strong person, but I discovered a strength that I couldn’t have known otherwise. It was a surprise that I ever needed to summon it, but it’s extraordinary to discover aspects of yourself that you never knew existed. And my women friends were there for me. They took care of me.

Never think you can do it alone. I could not have made it without my girlfriends. Sometimes I say to my dear Harry, “I know you’ll never be my girlfriend, but I want to strive for that.” Because there’s an openness, transparency, vulnerability there that’s so essential. And as much as I think I understand myself, I’ve found that there are times when you really need professional help.

When I think about the end of the decade, I think about time marching on. I mean, I really can’t complain about my life. Shit happens, but I’ve never not gotten up. I’m going to make every moment as worthwhile as possible.

Susie, 62, lives in Midtown and came of age in the last decade.

I was born in South Australia on a farm. I spent the first 10 years of my life there, but then my parents divorced, my father got custody, and I was sent to boarding school. It was challenging and I experienced a lot of homesickness. But I enjoyed being away from the disruption of my family life. I was independent before my dependent ties were severed. I learned to grow up very quickly and find my way. I didn’t have parental guidance in my teenage years, so I was a bit of a rebel.

When I was 10, my father came home with a camera for his five children. None of my brothers were interested in it, so I took it. I generated a lot of beautiful images from the age of 14 or so. It was attached to my hip, always with me.

You know, I have no biological children of my own. Just a lot of honorary children.

After high school, I became a registered sick children’s nurse. I felt much more confident working with children as opposed to adults. I’ve always felt empathetic to children since my childhood was not so joyous. The course was three years, but as soon as I graduated, I never practiced nursing again. I moved to the northern territory and was put in charge of a childcare center—32 children under the age of 5. But around this time, I had a bad marriage. After that failed, I put on my backpack and went over to London. A friend of mine said I should go there because it’s wonderful. Well, maybe for her, but I really struggled to find my way there. Except I did meet my husband there, and we’ve been married for over 30 years. I was working as a maternity nurse and looking after a brand new baby when I met him through the family. You know, I have no biological children of my own. Just a lot of honorary children.

On combining her two passions

My husband’s children lived in New York, so in 2004, we moved to be close to them. I’ve been here ever since. In 2007, I decided to apply to NYU and get a degree in clinical psychology. I was accepted there and did a two-year course and a mountain of postgrad hours. In 2012, I was qualified as a private therapist. My new career has changed my life, though it came late. I do that part-time and photography part-time. I always wanted to combine the two, but I didn’t know quite how to do it. It had to feel right for me.

I turned 60 in 2017, and one day, I was doing a water aerobics class and there was a political discussion in the pool. It was about women’s issues and presidential candidates, and I thought, Oh my gosh. This is where I have to go. I was yearning to understand myself better. I didn’t want to be invisible, but I felt like women over the age of 60 were often undervalued and under-recognized. I didn’t want that for myself. I was scared. So I started photographing women over the age of 60, in hopes that they would feel more visible, but also that I would become visible to myself. And it’s been remarkable, watching the women I photograph learn more about themselves. I want to keep learning until the day I die.

I’m getting to know who I am. I’m no longer invisible to myself. I notice myself.

The impact this project has had on me is indescribable. I’ve really learned a lot about myself in the past decade. I’ve connected to many women and no longer walk down the street and feel insecure about being over 60. I’m getting to know who I am. I’m no longer invisible to myself. I notice myself.

On feeling good enough

You know, what I really wanted to be in my life was a singer. That’s always what I dreamed about when I was little. As a teenager, I taught myself guitar and escaped into it. I wrote a few songs and then my mother said, “Singing is not a career for you.” She suggested I go into the nursing channel, which is interesting because I only stuck it out for the training period. But I was recently in the south, and I was out with a group of people, and they invited me up to sing. And I just felt so at home. I regret not having pursued it. I wish I had the courage, back when I was in my teens, to say, “No, this is what I want to do.” Because it’s a gift to sit around with a guitar and draw people to you. I feel very passionate about that.

Trust your gut. We all have an innate ability to know what is right for us. I feel like I’m coming of age very late in life. My anxiety always asks: Will it be enough? Will I be enough? I never really believed that people liked me or could see me. But I’m beginning to feel seen. I feel as though, for the first time, I might be enough.

Furaha, 70, lives in West Harlem and let go of negativity in the last decade.

I was born in Harlem, around the corner from here. It was just me, my mom, and my brother. When I was 4, my mother moved me up to Rochester. I had a very charmed life because my mother bent over backward and gave me every possible opportunity. I went to private school from kindergarten through 12th grade. I went to sleepover camp twice, which isn’t cheap. I had ballet and piano lessons. I was in the angel choir and the Brownies. She exposed me to everything. We went on outings to museums, the salt mines in Syracuse, the world fair here in New York City. She made sure I was a member of the library and exposed me to classical music, even though I didn’t want to hear it. It was full and rich.

But with all this goodness she was trying to anoint me with, I was pushing back and being this seriously rebellious soul. Even though she was spending her hard-earned money to send me to a good school, I wasn’t doing the hard work. I actually failed the fifth grade, which should not have been the case. Unfortunately, when you serve a child a negative and continue to reinforce it, then they’re going to act out by becoming that negative thing. I can remember being told I was stupid by teachers because I was the only black student in my classes, so I bought into that. There was that expectation that we weren’t that bright anyway, and they were in charge, so I thought it must be so.

I moved to D.C. and became a picture framer in my early twenties. My skillset was the level of a secretary or a receptionist. And I had ensured that I wasn’t going to college: When I graduated high school, I was such a poor student that they gave me a D+ rather than fail me because they didn’t want me to come back.

I began to find myself through picture-framing in the early 70s. By the time I learned enough about framing, I was running an entire retail store. There were things that people brought in that I had no clue how to frame, so I designed it myself and figured it out. I became an engineer. When I was in school, my worst subject was math. But through framing, I realized that I wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. The skills I had learned served me very well. I also understood filing systems and details. I became more confident in my abilities.

On deciding to pursue acting

I went to Atlanta and opened my own shop in ’87, on my birthday. I was trying to put distance between my mother and me. She was strict, to say the least. She really kept her foot on my neck and I wanted some breathing room. But as fate would have it, as we both began to age, I realized that not only did I want to change careers, but I needed to be close to my mom. So I decided to move back to New York in ’96 and pursue a career in acting. I think acting has always been it for me, but I was just never able to wrap my mind around it. Whenever I saw other people perform, I felt like God had come and left without me. It should have been me up there, not sitting in the audience.

Because once you leave New York, you better be damn certain that you don’t want to come back—it’s too tough.

When I got back to New York City, I applied for a scholarship and auditioned for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. But, you know, scholarships don’t give you money for housing and food. So I was only able to stay for the first term. But it was okay because the whole purpose of that exercise was getting me back in the city. Because once you leave New York, you better be damn certain that you don’t want to come back—it’s too tough. If you’re solid in New York, never let it go! Luckily, I was shopping in some store and a woman heard me talking and liked my voice. She cast me in a BMW commercial right there and then.

At 70, I consider myself to be extremely fortunate. Twenty-five years ago, when my mother was 70, there were not options for women the way that there are now. That ageism ceiling? I’m actually watching it begin to break apart. When I go on Instagram now, I see women of a certain age who are out there kicking ass and taking names. I have earned every single one of these years.

On making peace with her mother

I’m a strong believer in things happening for a simple and finite reason, and they happen in the time that they’re meant to happen. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. My mom died at 95. She was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and dementia in 2014. I knew that the arc of her life was on the decline. I had begun to pray for my mother’s demise because she was suffering. She had two knees replaced, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had a hip replaced, she had cataracts in both eyes. But the event that really impacted me the most over the last decade was my mother’s death.

When she was diagnosed, the first thing I had to accept was: This is not about me, this is about her. A history of contention between us was no longer important. I forgave her for everything so that I could be there for her the same way she would have been there for me. To get that message was huge. You see, a lot of the times I didn’t like my mother. She got on my last nerve. But now I was advocating for her 100%. I came to realize that we loved each other dearly. The entire reason we had all this angst between us was that we were so much alike. Two strong independent women who were not willing to give an inch.

If you’re willing to learn and grow, you can peel apart every negative and find out where that stream of light is that brings the positive.

In the past 10 years, I’ve gotten to a place where I don’t accept negatives. I don’t want to hear them. If you’re willing to learn and grow, you can peel apart every negative and find out where that stream of light is that brings the positive. Because it’s there, somewhere. Ever since she died, I’ve been blown away by the things that have happened that I’m sure my mother had something to do with. I have been busier in the last year than I’ve been in the last 19. Last month, I had three auditions in one day. That’s never happened to me before!

On her hopes and dreams for the next decade

In 2020, I’m hoping to get that first invitation to the Oscars so I can go ahead and wear that red dress. And I hope the decade will represent clear vision in the world. I think we, as patriots, have to find a way to push back against these good old boys who are running the country. The playing field has to be leveled. The truth is, I’m well below the poverty line, but the system is designed to tell people no and push them back. I worry that we live in a time that lacks such morality and ethical behavior that we’re willing to destroy the country for selfish greed. I’m praying that we begin to prioritize the legacy that we’re responsible for. The baton doesn’t get handed forward—it gets handed back.

Pursue your passions. Whatever you put out into the universe is exactly what the universe hands back to you. It’s constantly conspiring on our behalf. It wants us to be happy, whole, and fulfilled. Whatever your truth is, hold onto it. Name it and claim it.

Photos by Makeda Sandford.

Iman Hariri-Kia

Iman Hariri-Kia is a New York-based writer, musician, activist, and Bustle's Sex & Relationships Editor. You can often find her performing songs about those who wronged her in Middle School.

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