Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age Mary Pipher (2019)
Mary Pipher is the perceptive psychologist who burst through cultural expectations in 1994 to bring us Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, which examined the effects of societal pressures on young women in America. For this book, Pipher drew on case studies and on her own experiences as a therapist and as the mother of a teenage girl.
Twenty-five years later, Pipher, now aged 71, explores what it is to be an aging woman—specifically, a woman in her sixties or seventies. Women Rowing North is a warm-hearted and encouraging guidebook. Using the overarching image of a boat trip on a river, she divides her narrative into four sections:
Challenges of the Journey—addressing the loss of confidence that can come with illness, loneliness, or changes in physical appearance.
Travel Skills—with specific advice on “building a good day” and “creating community.”
The People on the Boat—expanding the view to the friends, relatives, life partners, and grandchildren of older women.
The Northern Lights—focusing on how older women can find their authentic selves as they approach the end of their lives.
Throughout, Pipher illustrates her points with vignettes about actual women whom she interviewed: businesswomen and homemakers, the long-married and the single, the straight and the gay, women of color and white women, middle-class women and women living on the edge of poverty. I found these miniature stories illuminating and reassuring, and I gravitated to them when Pipher occasionally strung together a few too many aphorisms in the rest of the text.
I was also drawn to passages in which Pipher discusses the “sense for deep time and inter-connectedness“ (232) that we often cannot fully experience until we are far advanced in age. Here’s a sample of her reflections: “When we look back, we can see generations of mothers and fathers who managed to take care of their children. We can see our ancestors working in peat fields, drumming around fires, fishing in faraway seas, or traveling by sled through fierce northern winters. We can see the Indian encampments of the Great Plains, the immigration or slave ships, and the grandparents walking west from the big East Coast cities. . . We are adrift on a little boat rocked in the river of time, part of a long line of women who have lived in caves, swum in rivers, and foraged for food.” (205)
I don’t read many self-help books, and I’ve never reviewed one on this blog before, but for Mary Pipher I’ve made an exception. She rows toward the north with peacefulness and power.