how to be 50

by haywardhelen


The teasing started weeks before my birthday. ‘Mummy’s turning 50! Mummy’s turning 50!’ in a sing song voice from my teenagers, united in their derision of their over-the-hill mother. ‘This must mean I’m about to be really old’, I said to myself, spying new wrinkles in the bathroom mirror.


Nothing big happened. I got a few lovely presents. My family was nicer than usual. I had friends round for dinner. Then the day passed, the gate shut behind me, and like so many other things it was up to me to work out what I was to make of it.


Did I confront my mortality? Well no, not really. Did I write a bucket list of all the things I must do before I die? Actually, I didn’t. But I did do a lot of thinking. At the end of which I realised that deep inside I would never really make friends with turning 50. It would always be bigger than me, other than me. 50 had happened to me, like bumping into a tree on a cloudless night, but I made not a dent on it.


But I did make some changes. First off I stopped expecting my husband to make me happy. I just accepted that because his work came before me – he is a writer and a good one, which means he can never really relax – that it was unwise to place my happiness in his hands. This small yet enormous change gave me a freedom and sense of humour that I didn’t have before. We now have what I think of as a Tolstoyan marriage. While ultimately we are there for each other, day to day we often drive each other nuts. This, I accept, is fine with me.


I started letting my children, now teenagers, go. Simply knowing that they would one day leave me meant giving them permission to start on their journey. And this became more important than hanging on and seeking meaning through them. Of course I can’t always do this. Some days I hang on to them for dear life. But mostly I accept the inevitability and even beauty of their going.


I have let my look change – staying fit, embracing my greying hair, and losing the clothes in my wardrobe that don’t work with this.


I now accept that I’m not going to get to do everything in my life, in the ‘100 things you must do before you die’ sort of way. Instead I’m keen to do the things I do do well.


Accepting that I’ve moved on, and feeling a certain impatience, I’ve stopped reading dutifully – piling up books by my desk and reading them cover to cover. Instead I buy more books than I should on-line and plunder them for what I want before passing them on to the library. And I’ve let the small wall of books in my study, gathered during my London days, simply keep me company, rather than pointing the finger at me to read them.


I now treat my body much like a car. I go for walks every day with my dog, who anyway needs them. I do more yoga, taking my place on my mat among students and young mothers, who remind me of where I’ve come from.


I picked up a phrase from a book review that has navigated me ever since. ‘We cannot perceive objects in themselves’, writes Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, ‘but only in relation to a fixed point’. 50, I understood straight away, is a fixed point. ‘Mummy’s turning 50! Mummy’s turning 50!’ For my teenagers 50 is an age so far off that they can only taunt me with it. The fact that their mother arrived at this fixed point sooner than their friends’ mothers is for them cause for embarrassment not pride. Equally for me what was once a point on the horizon is now something I’ve shaken hands with. Yet it remains an acquaintance not a friend. It’s not an age I’ll ever embrace and identify with.


I’d like to say that on turning 50 I stopped wishing I’d achieved more. But although my CV seems increasingly irrelevant, and the likelihood of my becoming CEO of anything hopelessly remote, I still mind not having more to show for my time on the earth. But even I know that this is curmudgeonly. A higher degree, two books and two children is quite a lot on anyone’s estimation.


I like to think that facing my own mortality, following two deaths in my family, has removed my blinkers about what matters. But my ego is too wily for wisdom. I’ll never be more grown up than I am now, and yet I still have to shake myself now and then to stop caring about things that I know don’t matter.


How I wish all this would have a ripple on effect of getting my affairs in order – a birthday calendar I actually looked at, an annual financial budget, and the confidence to forward-plan holidays. Instead I lurch from one thing to the next, with a nod to double-entry book-keeping and the odd donation to charity prompted more by guilt than wide-eyed conscience.


I try not to get embarrassed by physical changes to my body, accepting the things I can’t change and doing something about the ones I can. But then one morning my dentist told me I was clenching my jaw at night and so damaging my teeth. At first I refused to believe him – as if someone else was in the chair, not me. Eventually I took myself off to my kids’ orthodontist who moulded me a clear retainer to wear at night. I should have been grown up about this. But I wasn’t. I felt embarrassed and flawed. So much so that when I left my clear retainer in the bathroom of a hotel it took two months before I returned to the orthodontist to have another moulded.


Turning 50 was such a big deal, the closing of that gate clanged shut so loudly behind me, that I decided to be 50 for a long time. So many unspoken judgments go with the admission of your age that I’ve decided to stand back from them. Not living in Adelaide where I grew up, nor the London which largely formed me, means that even close friends where I now live know little about whole chunks of my life that make sense of my age, which is why it feels more honest not to make it a big part of my identity.


Doubtless this is defensive, however as far as defences go it doesn’t seem such a bad one. It’s a way of looking after myself at a deep level where, so taken up with being me, I’ll never be 50 anyway.