Tuesday 15 March 2016

More Than Just Fertility - Talking Ageism With Jo Cruse

Truly nothing excites me more in life, than observing another human being - perhaps across the room,  perhaps on a stage, perhaps half-obscured and wrapped up in conversations with other people - but someone who is simply dazzles.

Not long ago, I wrote about 'The Quarter Club',  a female-empowering event I attended with Emma recently,  and there was one person in particular there who shone like a beacon for me. Not only from the speech she made, but the unapologetic fearlessness with which she confessed to having screwed up her whole life... but bounced back from it. I knew I simply had to hear more from her, so as the evening drew to a close, I propelled myself across the room toward her to insist we meet for coffee. Because there was one thing in particular that I felt compelled to discuss with her, and felt sure there was no-one on earth who could ease my worries like she could.

Why is it, that a woman feels so much pressure to have all her shit together by 30? Why do we feel that once we hit 20, we're on a ticking clock to make it - whatever that means to us - or we've failed forever? Why are we told to be afraid of the big 3-0, as if after that, we women have no use, value, or purpose?

A couple of weeks back, I got my wish. The incredible Jo Cruse and I met in a bustling little coffee shop in Soho, and we just unleashed for hours, excitedly chatting, theorising, and trying to work out why the world is the way it is for women. 

I recorded the whole thing. At the end, all I could think was HOLY SHIT THIS WOULD'VE MADE SUCH A GREAT PODCAST EPISODE as our conversation was miraculously seamless and fascinatingly complex, but the recording was busy and loud. So instead, I've decided to just transcribe the whole thing, and so here it is, in all it's glory:

Jo Cruse and Katie Oldham; An Exploration of Female Ageism

KO: For me, it begins with the fact that I’ve had a couple of really tough times in my life. It was a big thing for me to admit that I needed help. I didn’t realise how long I’d been in this funk, but I got out of it and that’s what gave me the courage to realise university wasn’t for me. So I quit, left everything behind and moved to New York, but when I actually got there it was a rude awakening, again, that I now had nothing and knew no-one. 

And when you meet people for the first time you become really aware of the person that you put across to them that you are, and it was a massive learning curve for me, and I really began to analyse who I was and what I cared about. Whereas before – you know when someone says ‘what’s your favourite album' and you’re like ermmmmm, there’s just so much going on that you don’t always pay attention to who you are.

So I think from then - the start of June last year - until now, I’m definitely a different person. It was the end of a chapter and a new beginning, and I know it sounds wanky, but really a new epoch of time for me. Since then I’ve become really invested in educating myself because I do miss learning - hated uni but always loved learning - so I bought all these books and began to educate myself, and now, I just feel so sure about who I am and the true path I wanna follow in life.

But I can't help but think that sort of awakening is one I wish I’d had when I was 18, because at 23 I feel like I’ve wasted so much valuable time. With writing, it’s different, but with music I feel so frustrated that I wasted so much time to have that awakening when I could have been getting better at guitar, making connections and doing gigs and putting stuff out there you know?

I just feel like the window of opportunity is slowly closing now, it was wide open and now it’s on the close and I’m freaking out that I’m not gonna be able to align my shit quick enough to do something that will keep that open and stop it closing.

JC: And the irony is, that kind of energy is not constructive.

KO: That’s just it, it’s a block! It’s like I’m procrastinating over an assignment or something and I get in this self-destructive spiral, yet this is something I want, something I do want to do, but the stress about it is debilitating me even further from achievement.

JC: Yeah it’s completely consuming. I used to wake up every morning and feel like I’m so far behind. I’d just lie in bed, the first thing I do is open Facebook or Instagram and see all my mates living these amazing lives and I just felt like there was this massive gap between my life and everyone else's and I was like ‘why can’t you get your shit together? Everyone else has sorted this out, how are you here living with your parents as you turn 30? This is not the plan’

KO: Do you think there is an extra societal pressure for women? Because even at 23 I’m like, 'Most bands take at least 5 years to break into the industry, I do not have the luxury to wait that long!' and then even crazier ‘well if I do get my music career sorted then when do I fit kids in?' and I’m like oh my god!

JC: There is a huge pressure – I actually wrote about this yesterday. I think on the one hand our generation is really blessed because we can be and do anything, but its also the biggest pressure because what it does is it makes us feel like we have to be everything.

KO: Social Media and the hyper-connectivity of the world has opened so many more doors I feel like we get FOMO if we can't have all of those doors open at once. But that’s just not possible.

JC: Absolutely. That is actually one of the secrets – it is not possible to do it all at once. 

KO: But then it feels like closing some of those doors now means they're locked for good, and they're never opening up again. I mean, I think part of this does come from dating a man so much older than me on and off for the past 3 years. He never held me back from doing what I want to do or anything, but I can’t help but have this anxious paranoia that he was some kind of anchor, because I feel I’m on such a strict fucking time schedule that I don’t have time for this right now! Which is stupid because I’ve got so much spare time because all I do is procrastinate!

I know it’s fucked up but it’s the pre-25 thing. I have to set these foundations, now or never. With writing I feel really comfortable that I’ve done that, I’ve done this blog for 3 years and I feel I’m in a good place with that, but there’s this other flailing intangible thing that I’m like trying to reign in… like a fucking squid on a harpoon right now, I’m like COME ON and it’s like battling, and I’m like shit, if I don’t get this in the fuckin boat by sundown I’m fucked, I’m absolutely fucked. 

So I’m like what do I do? But then I’m like uhhhh it’s so annoying. These books that I’ve been reading, they’re memoirs from 1970’s musicians, so pre-internet obviously, and now I’m like ‘It’s the internet’s fault! It’s not my fault!’ I look back on timehop and stuff like that as if looking back on a girl who died. I look at that person it’s hilarious but also really sad that it’s just not me at all, it’s like… when I was 20, that girl died and this soul got put into that body and I just carried on. Like, it’s still the same memories but just not me. 

At Uni I had no time for art or literature and that’s the stuff which is the most important to me now, I was just like 'social life, getting drunk, kissing cute boys,' I sort of had this prolonged teenhood. And I just look back now and think, fuck, if I’d have been like this then I could have started earlier and could be in a really great position with everything now. And then I sort of end up blaming the internet like ‘well if I didn’t care so much about updating my status or taking selfies with my friends, then I would have spent more time working on my goals' and I’m like ‘ugh it's the internets fault we’re never going to raise a good generation of thinkers’ but then I’m like ‘hold on a fucking minute, the internet has made everything I’ve built, what it is now!' So I’m like oh my god losing my mind about about this. This is pretty much the basis of all my blog posts – I fucking hate the internet but the internet is so great, hahaha.

And it doesn't help in these books that I’m reading, these authors found all these amazing artists and musicians and writers from when they were super young and it really shaped who they are – they were like 12 years old going through their dads record collections and listening to Ella Fitzgerald on a gramophone and shit like that and I’m like… I was listening to S Club 7. 

And sometimes it's upsetting the relief I feel at reading like one of the writers moved to new York when she was 24 and I had this horrible moment of like YES! I did it when I was 22. Then I read another one where this musician didn’t start learning guitar til she was 23 and I was like FUCK YEAH! I didn’t start til 23 as well I’ve still got a chance! I get horribly weirdly competitive, like being a talented woman only matters when you're young and hot, and I can just about still win. It's fucked.

But all of these people who have gone on to be successful way later in their careers like Blondie and Patti Smith because of the foundations they made when they were younger. I feel like there's no chance of becoming successful when you start as an… I was going to say ‘older women’ when I mean over 30, how sad is that? It's just like, no-one’s listening to a new band with a frontwoman who’s 30 shouting ‘kids, do your homework!’ off the side of the stage but… I’m inventing that, as a woman!

JC: It’s really distressing isn’t it? One of the things I was really struck with in my 20’s and still am now, is it I felt like I’d wasted time. I felt exactly like you did, a load of false starts and wasting time having fun, I didn’t know what I was doing, I chopped and changed jobs, relationships I moved countries, and I was quite recently on the phone to my mum and was like ‘I don’t even own a fucking sofa.’

She was like ‘why for you is that a measure of success?’ I was like ‘I don’t even know.’ And I think that whilst it was funny, was also really true, it’s like in a part of my head, I wasn’t an adult until I owned a sofa. Like, where the fuck did I get that from? No-one told me that. We are our own worst enemies a lot of the time, and I think the other thing which is really difficult is that women do not talk about these things. We’re really open when it comes to all kinds of stuff but not this.

KO: That’s why me and Emma were so struck by your talk, we were in the front row just nudging each other without taking our eyes off you because this was the first time someone was saying ‘you know what, you don’t have to fucking worry about that’… and I actually believed it. People say all the time ‘oh but you’re still so young!’ and it’s like ‘fuck off! You’re younger than me and you’ve done better shit!’

But yeah, that was like the first time I’d ever actually believed that you actually can stop one life and start another one, and it doesn’t matter how old you are to do that. It’s not like, you’re that person as a child, that person in your teens and then from 20 onwards you have to stick to one life, and then if you haven’t sorted that by 30 then you might as well just die. Hahaha. 

It was so nice to hear about it from someone’s whose done it. Like parents god love them, it’s all well and good them saying ‘you don’t have to worry about this yet’ but it’s like ‘…well I am so can someone tell me what to do about it?!’

JC:Yeah I had to have a really hard conversation with myself and be like, you have got to let this go. You can not spend the rest of your 30’s regretting everything you did in your previous life. So I had to really ask how much more time am I prepared to give to that, and I had to just say ‘whats done is done’ And it’s weird, once I made the decision to be like ‘fuck it, it’s done.’ All this amazing shit happened. Like totally amazing stuff. 

KO: Yeah like I don’t regret any of the people I was or the mistakes I’ve made because, like you said, I know that if that hadn’t happened then I wouldn’t who I am today. And to be able to look back and cringe at yourself is such a beautiful thing because it shows how much you’ve grown, and to embarrassed about shit that you said is amazing because isn’t that magical how you’re the same cells and the same identity and the same name but a completely different soul?Isnt that such a cool thing that people overlook? 

That’s why I hate when people on twitter go back to like 4 years ago on celebrities feeds and try and find something problematic that they said and be like ‘erm can you explain why in 2009 you made this off hand comment?’

I think its such a big thing to let go of, having regret because you feel like you wasted time when you could have been doing stuff that would have benefitted the who you are now. But most of the time what we’re doing in that time we said we wasted, was having fun. Maybe that’s what it is - We need to stop blaming themselves for having fun and counting it as time wasting, when in the present tense of it happening it was not wasting time. And I think the reason women do that so much is because we’re so anchored by the stigma of ageism. 

JC: I think there is a biological basis too. Wether you want to have children or not, your body is on a timeline and mens aren’t. That’s why I’m doing this fucking crazy adventure for 9 months, I want to have experiences which aren’t conventionally defined as being valuable. Because we feel like we owe that time. 

KO: It’s like, all humans are born with a mortal countdown… but women are born with two. And one of ours comes half way through. Like we gotta tick that one off first then get on with the other one. And because we feel we owe that time and as the older we get the more we owe it, like the more intense that debt becomes, that we don’t have the liberty to like do our own stuff we wanna do. 

JC: It leads to bad choices too. You get into bad relationships, you rush into marriage, people take jobs they don’t like because they think shit I’m 30. Why do we talk about settling down? I hate the word settle. Like, why would you settle? I would never ‘settle’ for anything. Why at 34 do you feel like your life bit is finished and you’re now like locked into this drudgery until you’re 75? How depressing is that?!

Our lives are constant waves of change and transformation and multiple careers and multiple versions of who we are and I don’t think we are accepting enough of that. Hillary Clinton is running for President at 70. At 70 she’s going to start a new career. That suddenly made me feel a lot less stressed about the fact that at 30 I don’t know what I want to do. I’ve got 40 years to become president! 

KO: I read in this memoir recently about a conversation the author was having with a woman at this cocktail party. This woman was like 92 or something and she has a new lease on life, and she said like ‘wow I can’t have seen you in like 10 years but you seem so young and vibrant. And it turns out, this woman just decided at 80 years old that she wanted to learn about ancient Mesopotamia which is like the middle east, or I don’t know really like Atlantis or some shit like that, but anyway, this woman and she went back to university, learnt all about it, wrote a doctoral thesis and now works for the university as an expert on that niche field of study because at 80 she was like ‘actually that’s what I wanna be now’. Fucking incredible. 

JC:That is incredible, and that’s the thing, we think everything that our lives are valued by, what will we’ll be remembered for, are the things we do whilst we’re still young.

KO: Yeah! Maybe part of this pressure is – I even said it myself – that pre-30 we have to put these foundations down and then when we hit 30 its take a deep breath, planning permission is in, now we have to start building. That structure you build on those foundations is what you’re gonna be for the rest of your life… But you can knock that building down. You can move to a new site… wow I never even really thought about that and it’s so true… 

JC: And the thing is, those foundations are what they are and you can’t change them, but you can build anything you want on top of them. Who you are at 23 is who you are, but you can do whatever the fuck you want on top of what you built before. 

KO: Yeah and you say the different waves of people you are and the people you have been in your past… they are all foundations but they can have different functions, like one could be a… a load-bearing wall – I love metaphors haha. We’ve had building sites, a squid you’ve gotta capture before sundown, and now your childhood self is a load-bearing wall in your present moment infrastructure haaaaa – anyway but yeah like, you can choose what is an important wall, what’s a tiny brick, and what’s a ceramic tile in the fucking toilet you know. 

It’s like building a spirit house or something, you can attribute certain amounts of weight and purpose to these things as to how important they are to you. That gross Uni me where I was like 'don’t care about learning let’s get drunk', I’ve removed a lot of weight away from that because it’s just not what I associate with anymore or care about. And I’ve shifted that energy back into stuff I do cared about. Doesn’t mean that stuff didn’t happen, but it doesn’t have to be an integral part of who I am.

And this carries forward – this would make a great podcast I just realised! Haha – yeah so like that doesn’t have to stop once you reach a certain age, you don’t have to get your affairs in order, practically and like spiritually, you don’t have to figure out what weight goes where, which pieces make you up and then at like 30 that gets cast into iron. All of it is like sponge. Like jenga SOUL JENGA. Let’s roll with this… you can pull out the pieces you want to continue with and build it on top! Let’s not think about it falling over hahaha. 

JC: Wait but in the end it does… and then you start again!

KO: Shit yeah.

JC:You know, the best parts of my past year or so, having had a complete lapse, is being able to re-curate my life and select only the pieces I wanted to carry forward and leave the parts I don’t need. And you know you were saying you feel like you can’t have all the doors open at once? They can be open, but you can choose to walk through some at certain points. Some might close, but they’re not locked, and you can re-open them and it be at a much better time for you to do so. Life is so much more fluid that we think it is.

KO: I think a lot of it does come down to the fact that as a woman, I feel like we subconsciously owe something, like you have a debt and a responsibility because of your biology. Our gender has the responsibility to bare life, and although obviously we can’t do it without men, they can fuck off when they’ve done their bit, we have to fulfil our duty and invest so much time and resources in creating life. And I know that’s actually the root of decades of misogyny and sexism because in evolution, the female of the species has that major responsibility that the male is free of. That’s why there’s a lot of hate on women who, quite fairly, don’t want to have children, too. 

And I do think there’s this massive knock-on effect from that first deadline, from having kids or being fertile, that has rippling undercurrents through all of that ageism stress. I think that’s genuinely where it comes from. Like 30-35 is considered ‘last chance saloon’ to get baby-making for a woman, so that has ricocheting effects on all other aspects. 

JC: What's so frightening, is our understanding of female value is directly linked to our fertile value.

KO: Oh my god that is so true! 

JC: So suddenly at 50 we don’t exist anymore as humans because our job is over.

KO: Did you see that thing that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler did? They had a party to celebrate the last day of ‘being fuckable’ to celebrate them now forever playing mums in movies. Amazing. 

JC: I did! Amazing. And you know, weirdly without realising it, our generations still internalise that message, that we are at our most valuable before 30 because that’s when we are at our most fertile. And then from 50, we might as well just be dead. 

KO: That’s so true and such an amazingly real parallel to draw between fertility and female worth. Because that’s been true from like… Neanderthal times. And even now when we’re such a sophisticated, intellectual and more aware civilisation, even now it’s like we’re born with that knowledge in our minds. Can we escape it? I feel like we need to tell everyone this, this is so important. 

And I feel the easy option here is to blame men but I don’t think it is entirely their fault. I do think a lot of women put pressure on other women as well, even our mother’s and our grandmother’s who grew up ‘knowing their place’. And although that’s not the way we’re raised now, a lot of that early maternal care does have impacts. 

Look at religion. The majority of western children grow up gently persuaded into believing in God, because its easier to teach about not being a little shit if you say God is always watching you so you better be good. And then look at the 'creation story' we're bought up on from day one, Adam was made from stardust, Eve was a reanimated fucking spare rib he didn't need. 

And the birth of Jesus! Mary is just chilling there, gets knocked up without her will, just like congratulations now you’re pregnant, and then she’s like 'well, thanks', gets put on a fucking donkey and then what happens after that? It’s aaaaaalllll about Jesus isn’t it! Mary doesn't get a look in, she's done her bit. There should be an E! True Hollywood Story, Virgin Mary: Where is she now?

JC: Hahaha that's SO true, oh my god.

KO: We just grow up with subtle things like that, there’s messages everywhere. Even I’ve found myself thinking about those girls at school right, the ones who get pregnant at like 16/17 and your parents were always like ‘stupid little girls have ruined their lives so young’ like they have a duty to be a mother now, and nothing else, forever. 

But then recently I was looking at these girls on Facebook who are now like 22/23, they’ve got this 5 year old kid who’s just gone off to primary school, and I’m like holy shit, they can do what they want! They’ve had three kids, got it out the way early, now they’re cracking on with life again, and now I’m like shit actually, they might have been on to something! 

I’ve always thought I won’t start having kids til I’m at least 30, but even that comes from the same pressure because I’m only saying that because I wanna make sure I do all of my shit before I effectively die to become my children’s mother. 

JC: That’s another weird female thing too, that as soon as you give birth, your ‘self’ goes with it too, there can be no ‘other’ any more. 

KO: It’s like that quote from Interstellar ‘When you become a parent, you are just the ghost of your children's future’

JC: Exactly, like when you have a child, you cease to exist. You simply now serve as their guardian, just there to fulfil their needs. And once they’ve grown up, you just fade into the dust because its now their turn. But that’s why its so comforting to see women who are mums and have got amazing careers because its made me believe and know that it is possible.

You know, when I started my old job, my boss said to me, 'One thing that I hope for you for the next year, Jo, is that you really fail in a really big way.' And I was like, well fucking hell that’s quite horrible, but he said ‘I have nothing but the best intentions for you, but you’ve never really failed before and you need to know what that’s like, and you need to learn that you can come back from it.' And then very soon after… everything went wrong. And the only way I can really think about it differently now, is I had to go through this process of losing everything to re-write all the rules I’d thought about life and career and age and everything.

KO: I feel a fucking million times better just having this chat because I feel like I’ve understood a lot of the origin about why I feel this way. I think part of the reason we can’t just learn to ‘let things go’ is because you can’t just switch it off, you have to learn why you feel like that in the first place. Maybe it is just a case of trying to work out what and who to blame ha. But now I can see this badass old granny whose a demon on guitar up on that stage... I'm not just going to quit something I adore if I don't make it by 30.

JC: Exactly. And you know what, I’ve achieved none of the goals I thought I would by 30 and I’ve had to get to where I’m okay with that, but what I’ve also realised is how much I was holding back. 

I think I liked to be in a relationship which was very safe because that’s what I thought you do when you’re 30 - you get married. And I had this career which was going to keep me financially stable for the rest of my life, but that wasn’t actually exciting me. 

And then suddenly when I didn’t have those things any more I just thought ‘well, fuck it. I’m just going to do this all over again, whatever my age.’

KO: Incredible. That's what we need to do. Spread the word start the conversation. Re-write the rules. We are more than just our fertility!

JC: That's it. That's your title right there. More than just fertility.


You know, listening back to our conversation as I typed it up, I was struck by the tone of the way we spoke to one another that I hadn't really noticed at the time; Both as equals, as easy a friend... yet the unmistakeable undertone of just a scared little girl, asking a grown up to tell her everything's going to be okay. And a grown-up turning around and saying the perfect response, 'I don't know what's going to happen, because not even I have worked that one out yet, but I promise you. You'll always be okay.'

In the face of adversity, when you don't always have the solutions, never underestimate the power of someone who knows what you're going through. The power of hearing that you're not alone, and your feelings are not alien, not invalid, but real energy felt outside of you, however uniquely also within. 

So we must tell our stories, we must ask questions, we should find ways to facilitate the gathering of passionate people and extraordinary women, because we never know who we might be reassuring when we simply admit our fears, and who out there might be listening who can help soothe them.

This conversation with Jo was restorative, therapeutic, invigorating, inspirational and soul-hydrating - the words I so desperately needed to hear and hear myself say, and believe, too. I only hope that by sharing this, it may have the same effect on you, too.

The world is different for us, in ways that we can not justify and sometimes feel we can do little to control. But even the tiniest drop will make the ocean vibrate, if only for a moment. And if we can change attitudes toward women by opening up these doors of truth and connection and community, then we can make the world a better place for the girls of the future. 

We are so much more than being young, fertile, fuckable and worth eyeballin'. Our value as humans, creators, intellectuals, and game-changers does not weaken as the streaks of silver illuminate from our scalps and our voices become scratchy from the battlecries of decades. As our skin collects scars and our faces tell our stories, call them not imperfections and flaws but trademarks of experience, and education, achievement and purpose. We are the remarkable of the species because we have superpowers - we divide, we multiply, we have the power to create new, sentient versions of ourselves, metaphorically and physically, and it only ever makes us stronger.

We never begin to fade once a man stops believing we can shine. 

We link arms with our sisters in our matching rhinestone-bedazzled leather jackets and rev up our motorbikes, and scoot off into the sunset, laughing as the reflected light blinds the magpies and leaves them spluttering in our dust.

I am a woman, and when I'm 23, 53 or 83, I'll still be a woman, wether I'm fanciable, childbearable, marketable or not. 

And in that expected silence from that demographic of us, there's just so much room to roar.

You can find the amazing Jo Cruse on Twitter here and her blog here!