I turned 50 this past December, and guess what? My life isn’t over. I didn’t slide down that slippery slope of aging I kept hearing about. If anything, the most amazing thing happened. I woke up. I have morphed into my authentic self like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. I was as surprised as anyone to experience this awakening, since I believed much of the rhetoric that abounds about decline, depression, and despair being hallmarks of aging. I felt that angst in my 30s, but throughout my 40s and marching into a new decade I began to feel a different mantra struggling to the surface. This mantra said “You are not who you were, only older.” It wasn’t until I turned the corner on 50, however, that I let that mantra break free with all the strength of a gale force wind.
I began to seek out other women in midlife to find out if I was the lone wolf experiencing aging as a rebirth. I didn’t know what to expect, but what I found in talking with women in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond is a collective commonality. I found that, like me, they are happy being where they are, and have no desire to go back to any of the earlier stages or decades of their lives. Suzanne Braun Levine talks about this very thing in her book “Fifty is the New Fifty.” She writes: “The assumption is that youth - or at least younger - is the ideal state and that given a chance, no woman in her right mind would relinquish it. I have found the opposite to be true. Many of us are delighting in rejecting that backward-looking mindset and focusing on (to paraphrase the song from The King and I) ‘the beautiful and new things I am learning about me day by day.’ The range of things to learn about ourselves is now as wide as it hasn’t been since we were adolescents. So much about our bodies, our thinking, our relationships, and our approach to the world is under review - by us for a change.”
When you look at the reality, midlife and beyond is longer than any other stage of life. My mother is 92 and still kicking, despite two broken hips that have relegated her to a wheelchair. If I share my mother’s longevity genes, I have another 42+ years of life to live - way longer than childhood, adolescence or early adulthood stages. That’s a tremendous amount of time to simply endure, to simply exist. Newsflash: I have no intention of simply existing, and neither do my midlife soul sisters, most of whom, like me, can expect to live another 25-30 years or more. Our mothers and grandmothers may have felt “the change of life” meant their lives stopped changing, but for today’s midlife and beyond women, that meaning is no longer a fate acompli thanks to the women’s movement and our willingness to rewrite the book on aging.
The real challenge to this stage of life, as I see it, is to get to know ourselves in this new context. Who is this person who declares, “I no longer care what others think of me,” and means it? Who is questioning the meaning of her work, and the nature of her relationships to see if they support who she is now? Who is waking up to the wealth of possibilities, and is willing to tackle a new and totally out-of-character experience just for the fun of it? Who, despite understanding that life and death are not just words any longer, keeps moving forward?
The struggle is to learn which parts of ourselves are true and authentic, and which parts are conditioned responses based on “faulty” messages we may have received when we were younger. For me, these “faulty” messages said that what I had to offer was my physical appearance - not my intelligence, not my compassionate nature, not my curiosity, and quirky sense of humor - and even that offering wasn’t “good enough.” That baggage has dogged me year after year, but the more I challenge it, the more I realize that it has nothing to do with reality - it has nothing to do with who I really am or what I have to offer. I wasn’t capable of knowing that, of owning that in my 20s or 30s, and just began to grasp it in my 40s. That’s why I can say with complete candor and honesty that given a pill that would transform me back to age 25, I would not take it. Yeah, right, you say. Skeptics abound, I’m sure. Who wouldn’t want to be younger given the chance, but for me, going back to who I was at 25 means living the life of a people-pleaser, a caretaker lacking enough self-worth to recognize my gifts and maintain boundaries. The truth is, there is no magic pill that will transform us back in time, and we don’t need one. What we need is to live the stage we’re in, and to be willing to keep growing. Nothing makes us older faster than standing still, than stagnating.
That knowledge has empowered me enough to become an entrepreneur at age 50, and I work with other professional women 50 and over to create a midlife and beyond that’s as unique as their fingerprint. All the roads I’ve traveled have led me to where I am today. The lines on my face are reminders of these roads (though hopefully a little less weathered). I know that my path is not anyone else’s path, despite that collective commonality I mentioned earlier. Each of us cuts our own unique trail through life. I also know that who I am today is not who I will be in 10 years, in 20 years. I will not be the same person, only older, but will continue to embrace the evolutionary process that is a fundamental part of aging. And although the path I cut is uniquely my own, I’m sure my midlife soul sisters will keep me company along the way.