Women, Ageing and ‘the shelf’

What does the shelf mean to you?

For us it is the thing that has us in its grip from an early age as women. There is an unspoken contract that says that by a certain age we need to be partnered up and having babies.

It is so embedded in our societies that when we choose not to abide by these rules we are required to explain ourselves.

So who made the shelf and what keeps it on the wall?

There have been times in our history when survival has been the forerunner and therefore breeding has been a priority in order to keep the line alive; ‘the heir and a spare’. This is no longer the case. We could actually say that the opposite is true. And yet we still collude in and feed this belief that there is a certain point in a woman’s life when if she has not found her partner and had children it is too late and she has missed the boat, missed her purpose for being a woman…

We don’t have to be at the mercy of these social dictates; we can walk with our choices as it were and disassemble the belief systems that do not serve us anymore.

We have many friends who have actively chosen to be single and not have children and it is with great inspiration that we observe them engaging fully and joyfully in life. There is no whiff of something missed or their being any less for not having abided by the ‘rules’ that women have been expected to follow. So the deconstruction is happening, paving the way for others to make true choices for themselves, unhampered by imposition and belief, free to embrace life’s opportunities true to themselves.

(Credit: Clayton Lloyd)

Inspired we are by what this will look like in the future. The more we break away from, and therefore have a chance to review the belief systems that seep into our lives from our social environments, the freer we are to stay in relationship with ourselves, our true purpose and our path alongside others.

So… the shelf has been around for a while and it has maintained its place in the eyes and expectations of society. However, with fresh eyes we can see that it does not make any sense (holding ourselves to ransom in any way never has) and armed with a screwdriver we are up for taking it down ☺

By Judy Joy and Matilda Bathurst 

For further inspiration..

Are we on the shelf or embracing life? Judy and Matilda discuss..

Is there more to us as women than the roles we think we need to play?

Do we retire, or.. what if we enjoyed work differently?




138 thoughts on “Women, Ageing and ‘the shelf’

  1. The more of us as women who set the example by living life with grace and love, the more it gives other women permission and offers them inspiration to do likewise. Being a woman is not about making offspring. Yes that can be done, but there is so much more to a woman than just that. Hence living the fullness of who we are, gracefully so and lovingly so sets an example that confirms all women in the beauty of who we are rather than what we do, and then from there the decision to have children or not to have children will be felt.

  2. This is GOLD, and wonderful to read and be inspired by: “We have many friends who have actively chosen to be single and not have children and it is with great inspiration that we observe them engaging fully and joyfully in life. There is no whiff of something missed or their being any less for not having abided by the ‘rules’ that women have been expected to follow. So the deconstruction is happening, paving the way for others to make true choices for themselves, unhampered by imposition and belief, free to embrace life’s opportunities true to themselves.”

  3. Thank you Judy and Matilda for a beautiful article that really does highlight the fact that as women we do not have to be dictated by what society still holds as old and obsolete rules or expectations…we are women, and as women there is a beauty that we offer to society no matter what.

  4. “So… the shelf has been around for a while and it has maintained its place in the eyes and expectations of society.” I’m with you in being “armed with a screwdriver we are up for taking it down”

  5. I forget that this is a very common understanding for people to hold. That we have to get married & with children by a certain age otherwise we’ve missed the boat. This is a very capping belief – a constraint and stigma which if we comply with, will determine our self-worth for the rest of our lives.

  6. Looking back to how my own Grannies were – and behaved – at my age. Then I look at me – as a granny at 69. There is no comparison. I feel I’m getting younger each year that passes – not older!

  7. I have never heard this term before ‘the heir and a spare’ shocking really in how someone could be labelled a spare even if jokingly. But then again that just exposes the insidiousness of labels that we currently have.

  8. There are so many aspects of life in which we have constructed beliefs or ‘rules’ that we seem to adopt without question and it is fun and important to be prepared to explore and dismantle these… simply get honest about where we constrict ourselves with adopted ideas.

    1. We are riddled with ideals and beliefs which we absorb generation after generation without ever seemingly stopping to question or as you say Matilda explore them to see if they are really necessary they are like tendril that keep us capped from growing and expanding in our awareness.

  9. Today I took a life insurance sale call. There were many references to me having children and a partner which I said wasn’t the case. This obviously deflated the sales pitch so next on the list was that I, an over 40 year old was living with my parents. I feel very at ease with my situation so, unlike in the past, had no reaction to this call, though I would say there’s an insecurity I have with regard to being single and finances. Something to look into there for sure.

    1. There are so many assumptions made – and not just by cold callers. I attended a memorial service for a friend a while ago and knew I felt – and looked – amazing . A few friends who I hadn’t seen for a while asked if I had a man in my life! Assuming we cant look glorious if we are single?!

  10. The more a women knows herself the more beautiful she, therefore age is never a true reflection on beauty. Full Stop.

  11. Ageing is being turned on its head. When I consider what 65 year olds were behaving like when I was a child and the 65 year old I am today, the two are worlds apart, and thank God that is so. I have more fun at 65 than I have ever had in my life.

    1. Ariana you always being the biggest smile to my face, thank you for your comments! 🙂

      1. I agree Matilda. I’m loving and honouring myself now more than I have ever done – and am more open and connect more with others too. ‘ A very gorgeous formula’, as you say..

  12. This shelf is of our own making with our past thoughts or expression that fuelled it, and we can very easily move off the shelf by understanding how it capped and controlled us with those thoughts, and moving the body with a loving connection of all we are… no shelf needed to define us anymore.

  13. I sometimes think I have let go of some beliefs which I know are lies but I haven’t; unless they are cleared from the body I still hold the belief. It can be quite revealing when a belief which I know is not true is exposed from within my body; there is no denying that it is there.

    1. Beautifully said Ariana – the shelf is simply a construct from the little self to delay the return to our Soul.

  14. As we move from one decade to another, there can be a fear with ageing or still being ‘on the shelf’ at whatever age. Each decade does bring a different feel about it for sure, but that is for us to embrace how we build from one to the next in this lifetime. We have the same essence within, whatever our chronological age.

  15. As elder women we have such an impact on the world when we walk with ourselves, we can break consciousnesses. by the score.

  16. I am 48 years old, have never married or had kids and feel far ‘off’ the shelf as it is possible to feel. Full of purpose and having a joy of life (and getting more so each day) I can say that, as a single woman my life is full and rich.

  17. Having started coming to the Women in livingness womens groups I feel more healthier, more vibrant, more loving then ever. I love myself unconditionally and it all started with inspiration from women who also dared to love themselves.

  18. Why should our worth as a woman be dependant on whether we are married and have children?
    This is so ridiculous to reduce ourselves to this. It is the qualities of who we are that is important and how we express them in the world.

  19. Being on the shelf generally refers to something that is not being utilised, just waiting til it’s needed… not a loving way to view human beings! Such beliefs are archaic and have never been loving or true.

  20. I love how we’re naming the ‘shelf’! Growing up I heard women say they only married the men they did because they didn’t want to be left on ‘the shelf’. In some ways it is quite comical because of its ridiculousness. But actually the question I really asked them was, why did they choose relationships where they knew they would not be treated in a way that fully honoured them; and choose partners they didn’t respect.

    I’ve grown up believing we depreciate with age which has been a horrible weight in my life – a constant invitation for regret and anxiety around not making the most of things. When actually I’m letting go of so much that I realise no longer belongs to my life, life is lighter and more playful. I’m finally really enjoying my company and my sense of humour is hilarious! 🙂

    1. WHOA! Reading the phrase, ‘I’ve grown up believing we depreciate with age,’ really pulled me up as I realised this is actually what society in general believes. With that belief running so deeply, it’s no wonder people are put to the side and overlooked as they continue to age, instead of being valued for the wisdom they hold – both the innate wisdom everyone comes through with at birth and the extra wisdom that life experiences add.

  21. In many cultures, women without partners or children are valued less or vilified. What matters is how women value and feel about themselves as they age with or without children or partners. Our true worth, loving, unchanging and universal, is available to all women equally. There is no shelf. just a myriad of possibilities to express and share the beauty we already are.

  22. We are always walking with our choices. One example can be head down, shoulders hunched, arms folded, thumping feet like battling against a storm, or another example can be head up, shoulders back, arms swinging, walking in a rhythm and connection to the feet. Which shall we choose?

  23. “We don’t have to be at the mercy of these social dictates; we can walk with our choices as it were and disassemble the belief systems that do not serve us anymore.” Of which there of thousands the world over to let go of, so women everywhere can appreciate just how amazing we are for being women, regardless of all the things we can do, there is nothing we need do to prove the magnitude of our inherent love.

  24. Bearing in mind the gorgeous ladies I know who have not chosen to have a relationship and kids, each of whom are a complete powerhouse, it is interesting to realize how much we have limited women in the past by holding such demeaning views of them when they have not followed the ‘normal’ route.

  25. There are also women who become single in later life, due to separation, divorce, or more often bereavement For this last group, there can be a great sense of loss when partners die, leaving them with space they don’t know what to do with and often exposes the consequences of how they have lived as wives and partners. For example, if they identified themselves primarily as ‘wife and mother’ servicing husbands and children this period more commonly feels like a void, not spacious. For many, it is a time of great sadness, not just for the loss of a loved one, but for the loss of connection with self now fully revealed.. And yet this cycle opens for women in their seventies, eighties and nineties a richly rewarding opportunity to find new purpose dedicated to truly accepting, loving, appreciating their true worth as women.

  26. We boundary our selves by so many beliefs and ideals from the way we cook to how many children we should have to all prove what Nature has bestowed on us for free, the fact that we are all beautiful women who innately know how to love and nurture, no babies or husbands required.

    1. In the outward subscription to ideals we can often miss the most beautiful and gorgeous essence of ourselves. The is so beautifully pointed out Rowena and that essence is so worth cherishing in the sweetness that is the love we are.

  27. When I was growing up in the nineteen forties and fifties the majority of our teachers were women who had had no choice but to be single. They were at the accepted “marriageable” age during and after the First World War, when there were few men left to marry. I remember the attitude towards them was one of sympathy that they had missed their chance and were somehow lesser. But they joined the heritage of those few nineteenth century women who had dared to claim their single status to seek fulfilment, and these women teachers of mine were fine powerful women in their own right with no indication of feeling themselves at all deprived and became respected in their chosen professions.

    1. Thanks for your comment Joan, I wonder if men were ever viewed with this same sympathy or as less because they didn’t partner up and marry, or were those that were single and childless considered the heroes or lucky ones that escaped the yoke?

  28. Female news presenters have often complained about being sidelined for younger women whereas their male counterparts have been acceptable to work longer, so it’s no wonder they feel shelved the way the media portray lots of older women. And women’s magazines are so full of ways to prevent us showing we are ageing, like it’s such negative thing. Any woman, embracing her love for herself, shines a glory from within, whatever her age.

  29. Breaking away from all the beliefs we carry is no easy feat but it is so worth the journey, because it frees us up to be our natural selves without all the encumbrances that keep us stuck in old patterns that have never truly served us other than to hold us back from being the beautiful women we naturally are.

  30. It is great to explore these outdated ideas that can keep us stuck in the past and acting out of fear of being left behind in so many ways including not ticking the boxes of being married or having children when neither of these are necessary to live an unfolding and fulfilling life if we so choose.

  31. Being single and crossing the line of the age of being mother, I’m feeling really well and not missing anything in my life. I feel complete, forever learning and growing with everything that comes to me at every moment. Openness and connection to my innerheart is what brings me the purpose and understanding of every encounter, starting with myself.

  32. Beliefs such as ‘there is something wrong with a women who is still single in her forties’ or ‘a woman is odd if she decides not to have children’ cut into and diminish the natural gloriousness of all women. We are splendid beyond measure and our splendour is not dependant on anything outside of us.

    1. I love this Alexis and the truth of what you are sharing resounds strongly. So many women are caught up in the notion that they really are not worth very much if they are not in a relationship. I used to feel the same and no matter how much I put a brave face on it and pretended otherwise it was a feeling that refused to go. The only thing that supported me to truly let it go was to recognise and then value the essence I naturally bring and to begin to cherish it. Once in a relationship how many women self nurture and place their own relationship with self as equal to that of their partner and how many simply give their power away within it, using the relationship as a marker of their worth rather than their own self love? It is one thing to know that using the marker of a relationship for self worth is false, it is entirely another to let it go.

      1. “It is one thing to know that using the marker of a relationship for self worth is false, it is entirely another to let it go”. There are so many things that we humans can know in our heads but it is what is lived in our bodies that gets registered. We can have goals, good intentions, plans, ideals, we can be determined to do things better and even have incredible realisations about things but only when it is moved by the body will it be known by the body.

      2. Absolutely. When we don’t realise that everything is energy and the energy of every thought, ideal and belief we have taken on resides there no matter how much we tell ourselves the opposite, it is the energy from the body we need to release not the thoughts in our heads.

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