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Becoming even more yourself
Women and mid-life tattoos: Divorce, grief, reclamation, and the mark of a changed life
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I remember very few details about getting my first tattoo. I was 19. I was living in Los Angeles. I don’t remember who did it or where the shop was. I remember it hurt. I remember there was a large man on a table near me, biting a t-shirt that was balled up in his fists, as Old English letters were inked down his spine. I remember it took less time than I needed to smoke a cigarette. But what I remember most of all — as thoroughly amusing as this is to me now — is that I wanted to mark myself as someone who would never have a corporate job because back then people with tattoos couldn’t get corporate jobs. I mean, this is the tattoo:
Needless to say, it prevented me from doing exactly nothing. And although it was tiny and adorable, it meant (and means) something to me. Everyone knew it was a fox up until this past year when I’ve heard “is it a 7?” or “Why an L?” for the first time but maybe that’s because new men have seen my wrist at different angles and so have five tattoo artists. But it was a way of marking myself, of saying this is a line I have decided to draw (or, technically, let someone else draw for me).
Since then, I’ve gone through intense bouts of wanting to get another tattoo. One. Singular. It’s been a longing, like love or lust, then the fever would break and I would feel relieved I hadn’t gone through with it. Years would pass. I guess in some ways it mirrored the cycle of my failing marriage: get keyed up, talk myself down, “come to my senses” etc. and so on.
Six or seven years ago I suddenly wanted my entire left arm sleeved and I couldn’t let the idea go. I started pinning tattoo ideas to Pinterest (very edgy lol) and blazed through a bunch of packages of Tattlys (I’m basically a biker) to test it out. Along with considering dying my hair blue or bleaching it entirely out to white, it felt like some sort of last gasp or grasp, for what I don’t know. After deciding to do none of those things, I told my friends that what had finally held me back is that I didn’t want anyone to look at me and think oh look at her trying.
Look at her trying so desperately to be young again.
Look at her trying to be a cool mom, not a regular mom.
Look at her trying. Sad, really.
All that desperation.
It all felt very midlife crisis-y, which I’d been trained to equate with being pathetic. But if you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while then you know I’ve been attempting to step back and examine the words we use without thinking about them all that much, words that truly impact how we process our world and our relationships with each other but most of all with ourselves.
Would we feel differently if instead of the word “crisis” we used “reevaluation”? Or “reset” or “experiment” or “exploration”? Is the clichéd middle-aged balding man in his red sports car with a hot piece of ass in the passenger seat not attempting a reset, embarking on an exploration? We disparage what we don’t approve of, we disparage people stepping out of their lives most of all, especially if it seems unseemly and just so obvious to the rest of us. Look at him! Look at her! Not sticking to the plan!!!
But now I know it was never about feeling young again. It was (and is) about simply feeling again. Parents are familiar with being confronted with the pure, unprotected emotions of young children — how little kids feel and express everything fully, surprise us with their insights and reactions, bomb us with love, make us cry with their trust and belief in us and all people, in the inherent magic of the universe. They are soft and open to the world. They don’t know yet that people will mock them or break their hearts or not even care about them at all. And we mourn in advance how the world will have their way with them one day, just as it did with us.
By midlife most of us are plenty hard or, I’ll speak for myself here, deeply numb. Both losing track of a marriage that should’ve meant something, anything, while also having no physical memory of what it felt like to be fully engulfed by that newness of life — that’s what being young is, for better and for worse.
Over the past year I felt I had changed on every level I could possibly change — physically, emotionally, sexually. I felt like I had changed on a molecular level. I once again felt fully engulfed by the newness of life, for better and for worse. And I didn’t want to just write or talk about it. I wanted to telegraph it to anyone who might cross my path. I wanted everyone who saw me to know that I was a changed person, permanently.
Don’t get me wrong, after getting my first tattoo in 34 years my immediate reaction the following morning was oh no ohnoohnoohno what did I just do. I had spent my entire adult life with just that tiny little fox on the inside of my wrist. In contrast, my new tattoo felt like a billboard for death and bad choices.
But within days I experienced what has become truer to my ongoing experience of getting tattooed — I felt more like myself than I had in a very, very, very long time. And I wanted to do it again. As it turned out I wasn’t actually trying to be young or a cool mom and I wasn’t having a crisis, midlife or otherwise. I used to believe I was a person, a woman, who had been made good by marriage. A woman who finally calmed down and behaved, even though those who know me best might be surprised to hear that. But getting tattooed made me realize that wasn’t the New, Better Me. In fact, that wasn’t really me at all.
Going through this experience again and again has made me realize that I had both been changed permanently and returned to my former, more recognizable self. These seem in opposition, distant past and future somehow joined — 27 years excised from the middle and the ragged edges sewn back together to heal.
I attempted to explain this to a friend and that’s when she shared the story of her grandmother getting a couple tattoos in her seventies (an ocelot on her upper arm and a feather on the skin between her thumb and forefinger), more than 20 years ago. “She was always authentically herself, amazing and generous by nature. And every decision she made in her life was because it was something she wanted to do. She never did anything out of obligation or social niceties. She didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. But it’s almost like getting those tattoos made her even more herself. They were symbolic of who she was as a person — totally liberated, a single woman for many, many years, doing whatever she wanted, including getting tattoos and not telling anyone then rolling into a family wedding in a sleeveless sundress.”
That idea of becoming even more yourself is something I’ve returned to often. Months ago I asked readers about their divorce-inspired tattoos. Tattoos are of course incredibly common now, no longer the sign of an outcast or criminal (if anything they’re the opposite, the ultimate sign of a fitter-inner, of someone who wants to “stand out in the exact same way as everyone else” in the words of a long ago client strategy focused on teenage girls). But they’re also markers of grief, as I heard from several women who had lost children or marked the loss of other family members with tattoos.
In these stories I found a mix of meaning and reclamation, long-delayed gratification and a feeling of freedom. Of remembrance and persistence. I wish I could’ve included them all. I hope what you’ll find here, whether you’re inked or not, is that there is no timeline to reevaluating or reclaiming your life or how you choose to live it. And there is no “right way” to process grief.
“I got my fourth tattoo after leaving a ten-year relationship. It originally had been his name. I suffered through domestic abuse at his hands and when I finally left I refused to ever go back. I tattooed over his name with roses and other flowers, open and in full bloom as a representation of myself and the rest of my life. I am now in full bloom and facing the light always.” — Zoe
“My husband and I decided to separate shortly before I traveled to New Orleans for a work trip. And lo and behold, my Airbnb was a block from a tattoo shop. I was feeling so many emotions, but mostly focused on the fact that my family was going to be just me and my daughter now. So, I decided to get a tattoo to represent our bond. The tattoo was the phrase ‘sweet love’ which is my nickname for her.
A month later, I got another tattoo to represent the new phase of life I'm in, one of seeking pleasure and joy. The tattoo idea came to me after a friend gave me a post-separation tarot reading and she pulled the nine of cups. I got that tattoo on my upper left thigh. My tattoos mean the world to me, because they’re both truly choices of my heart — something I hadn't listened to in a long time.” — Lee
“I got my first tattoo by Danielle Madore at Black Hen Studio Maine less than a year after I got divorced. I wanted abstract waves, which was connected to reclaiming my body for myself. Fifteen years of marriage had deadened the pleasure I once took in sex, while the experience of motherhood had made it clear that my body wasn’t solely my own. Divorce for me was a liberating, exciting process that had been a long time coming. Getting that first tattoo commemorated all of that.” — Michaela
“I got my tattoo when I was 41. I was married, had just had a baby, and knew we were going to separate. I got my tattoo with my Dad when he turned 80, matching constellation tattoos of Cassiopeia. He was in the Navy and learned how to navigate by constellations. He used to bring me and my two sisters outside in the Virginia summers as little kids to crook our necks upward and look at the stars. I loved Cassiopeia because she was an upside down queen and a W, which is the first letter of my last name. To me it represents my family, my place in the world, and all the nighttime dewy feet of my childhood.” — Kelly
“I got my first tattoo shortly before I turned 42, a year after my divorce. My ex-wife was very judgy about tattoos and yet I had always wanted one. We had been together since college and a lot of her beliefs became mine, so it felt like an expression of reclaiming something for myself and being decisive about who I am. My tattoo is two geese flying in opposite directions and while it was a flash from the artist, I see it as representing my two small kiddos and them being forever part of me. I didn't give birth to them so claiming space for myself as a mother and equal parent has been a long process and this is part of it.” — Joy
“I got my first tattoo about a year after my divorce. It’s on my left forearm, a bundle of two types of flowers associated with my birth month and my daughter’s birth month. As I described [it] to my therapist, the words slipped out that it was a representation of us planting new seeds and seeing something beautiful come out of it. I had never consciously thought of that sentence before that moment, but that purpose was under the surface the whole time.” — Ashley
“I have eight tattoos, all but one of which I got post-divorce. For the first, I was 39, and it was almost exactly a year before I left the marriage. It was a horseshoe, and referred indirectly to a poem he had written about me. It was on my left shoulder blade so I never had to look at it, but I knew it was there, forever, and was bothered by this reminder of the marriage I knew was dying when I got it. So after the divorce I went back to the tattoo parlor and had it turned into a coiled snake [from the Play It As It Lays cover]. At the time, I felt there was something exhilarating and subversive about it. Something that said, I'm not yours anymore, I'm mine.” — Kim
“[In my marriage] I felt claustrophobic, and whenever we talked about how I felt anxious and depressed, his response to my feelings was, verbatim, ‘let me know when you feel better.’ [After we divorced], my tattoos made me feel instantly more comfortable with the idea of changing. I had a pretty rigid idea of who I was pre-divorce, and it felt really freeing to make a dramatic-to-me change to that identity. Admittedly, a lot of my friends were really surprised — I didn't love feeling like I had to justify it, but it ultimately led me to the realization that the friends who embraced the changing version of me were the best types of friends, and the others were ... not. Some days I look down at my wrist and see my brave mermaid and know I can bet on myself. They're a constant reminder of my fundamental independence.” — Rae
“I already had tattoos before getting divorced, but the first one I got in the wake of it was pretty special, because it was during me and my new partner’s first solo trip together. We went to Milwaukee and visited a friend of ours (@gillysmash // Shock Treatment Tattoo) and spent hours pouring over books of flash. Finally I settled on a chubby girl riding a seahorse. She was so fun and pink-cheeked and just floating. I don’t think I necessarily found any significance in it at the time, but I certainly do now. Since getting divorced I’ve found so much joy in getting tattooed. It’s a ritualistic activity that, unlike my marriage, is truly ‘til death’”. — Theresa
Thank you, again, to everyone who sent me their stories. I wish I could’ve included twice as many! But I did want to make space for one more specifically about grief, because it’s the starkest example of being forced to navigate from The Before into The After.
Tilly Boulanger was just 9 years old when she died as the result of a tragic accident. When I returned to working on this newsletter I didn’t know (until her mom, Stacey, told me) that the 4th anniversary of her death was coming up in a little over a week. I didn’t know Tilly and I don’t know her family, but Vermont is one big small town, and the news of her accident and the grief over her death spread far and wide. Her family set up a foundation in her name to support projects in their community like a Little Free Library, a Read-A-Thon (Tilly was a big reader!), and dedicating a walking trail. If you’re so inclined, you can make a donation here.
“During one of the first meetings with my new therapist after Tilly died, I asked about a book, a how-the-fuck-am-I-supposed-to-do-this guide. Of course it doesn’t exist, because what gets one person through is likely very different than what helps the next person. I had no perspective to hear that. My wise therapist mentioned the book Paula, by Isabel Allende, about her daughter who died after a lengthy illness. A year or two before she died, her daughter wrote a letter to her mother to be opened upon her death. I bought, but couldn’t read, the whole book [when I first got it]. But I did find the reference to the letter and that’s when I read this passage for the first time: “Please don't be sad, I am still with you, except I am closer than I was before. In another time, we will be reunited in spirit. ... Remember that we spirits can best help, accompany, and protect, those who are happy ...” I was mesmerized by the last sentence and held onto it for a long while.
Several months after reading the quote from Paula I found myself in the office of an energy worker, something I surely would have scoffed at previously. This gem of a woman shared that it was hard to reach Tilly as we were in different realms or planes. She indulged my barrage of questions as to what this meant and I made sense of it by pulling the Paula quote back out and realizing that I needed to find a way to be happy to be closer to Tilly, for myself, for my boys, and because Tilly would be out there somewhere with her hand on her little hip demanding it of the universe.
I started digging around for a tattoo artist and landed on Hector Daniels at Bang Bang in NYC. In a consultation with Hector, he explained that the full quote ‘Remember that we spirits can best help, accompany, and protect, those who are happy’ was too long for the inside of my forearm. After being a bit thrown by this long settled idea, I shortened it to ‘Spirits best help those who are happy’. I love it, every day. A reminder of Tils and a nudge to find the good, the gift and happiness even, especially, when it’s hard.” — Stacey
• “I came across a photo of a very ‘younger’ Nick Cave, a Nick Cave as you would say ‘not in perfect showroom condition’ but one sporting quite a menacing skull and dagger tattoo. And I wondered are you still, after all these years, comfortable with this tattoo?” answered by Nick Cave in The Red Hand Files.
• “Tattoos Do Odd Things to the Immune System” by Katherine J. Wu in The Atlantic. “When you stick ink-filled needles into your skin, your body’s defenders respond accordingly. Scientists aren’t sure if that’s good or bad for you.”
• Personal Ink is “a program of Fuck Cancer and is dedicated to empowering women to reclaim their bodies after mastectomies.” Read more here: “Five Women On The Healing Power Of Mastectomy Tattoos”
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