It’s my birthday tomorrow which means I’ve been 50 for a whole year. Like most people I still reel slightly when I have to write my age on a form but other than that, I feel great about it. I’ve just had one of the best years of my life, not because anything particularly remarkable happened but because everything finally started to make sense. I noticed this new feeling of ‘rightness’ when I was chatting to my auntie on her 80th birthday. She jokingly said she wished it was her 16th and asked me what age I’d go back to. I immediately knew the answer. I said that I’d love to drop in on certain times in my past for a day or two but I wouldn’t want to stay there. There’s no other age I’d rather be right now than this one.
I had a happy childhood…
… and absolutely loved my teens…
… in my 20s I enjoyed my glamorous career but I took life very seriously (you can see that from my very serious editor’s face). It was a decade of ups and downs and I made quite a few mistakes.
My 30s were great. I absolutely loved the baby years but can’t deny that they were exhausting especially because we also moved to the other end of the country to start a new life. This was my 37th birthday and it looks as though I was struggling to keep my eyes open – the younger two didn’t sleep very much and we were working flat out to build our business too!
My 40s were filled with the rumbustious fun of bringing up my boys but I was looking after my parents during their cancer journeys too. By the end of the decade I felt slightly out of gear – I could sense that a big change was afoot but I couldn’t quite pin down how I was feeling or where I should go next.
And so last May I hit 50 and felt surprisingly quiet about it. As a family we were in the middle of GCSE season and so we just went out for a relaxing dinner.
But since then I have not felt quiet and I sense that at 50 I’ve got my spark back. It’s strange because it isn’t the way that society tells us we should feel. You see I find myself in a strange new world where woman over 50 are often sequestered in dark, musty corners. I did a soundbite interview last week with a very young journalist who clearly saw 50 as a time to rue and regret the choices you’ve made along the way… as if somehow you’ve reached the end of the game and you should look back to see how well you played before shuffling off into the twilight.
I explained to him (more forcefully than I would have done in my 40s) that I have no regrets. Because every single decision I have made along the way – both good and bad – has led me here. “Here” is a happy place and it feels like a new beginning. I’ve worked out what matters to me which makes my path much clearer so I thought I’d share my thoughts with you in case you’re busy working out your own direction. I’ve made relationships and meaning my core focus.
The hardest thing about this year has been letting go of the youngest. I’ve been a hands on mum for 21 years so it isn’t easy to step back and be hands off but it’s something I have to do. I know from my own experience that it’s difficult being the youngest, your parents cling to you which means you have to fight for your independence so I’m trying to remember how it felt. Of course it’s also given me a new insight into my own parents and I realise a little guiltily that all of those times when I thought they were patronising me, they were just trying to hold me close.
I think the changing relationship with offspring is the biggest adjustment that a lot of women face at this stage. Although I’ve always worked, my primary focus over the last 21 years has been my boys. I’ve concentrated on helping them to grow into decent human beings and I wanted them to understand that the best definition of success is living a life that is filled with meaning, making a contribution to the lives of others whenever you can. I’ve also tried to make sure that they value people regardless of age, race, gender or social circumstance. So having armed them with that, whatever they go on to do I will be proud of them. I know that they’ll always need me but these days my role is increasingly to be their backstop.
Mr MC and friends
Of course the upside is that I have pockets of time opening up for other people. Mr MC and I have been out and done more together than we have for years. And of course a lot of old friends who had children at the same time as us are finding themselves in the same situation. I’ve made a big effort over the last year to get back in touch with people I care about and I’ve rekindled so many friendships that were always there, they were just lying dormant. You don’t always have to see people on a regular basis to care deeply about them.
If you’re a long-term reader, you’ll remember that we had a huge dialogue on here about the increasing importance of friendships at this stage of our lives. We discussed how difficult they can be to build and manage – it’s something that almost becomes a project in itself. This year I’ve met new people who I’ve clicked with instinctively. One of the benefits of experience is that you can sense within minutes if you’re going to value someone as more than an acquaintance and it’s important to tune into this and be guided by it.
I like the fact that I have a few close friends and then lots of looser friends who, like me, understand that life is busy and are happy to link up as and when we can. Easy, breezy, undemanding friendships are just as precious as close ones in their own way. However you can also find yourself in friendships that you’ve fallen into over the years perhaps through work, committees or parents’ associations that are no longer working. They often take time that you’d really rather be giving to someone else and I think 50 is a good juncture for reassessing them. Time is a precious resource and you need to allocate it in the way that’s best for you and free time in particular needs to be spent on things and people that make you happy.
Relationships that have run their course can be hard to detach from but it doesn’t need to be personal. People change or it may be that you didn’t really have a strong chemistry with them in the first place but were thrown together by circumstance. If that’s the case, it’s better for everyone involved to accept that you’re really just acquaintances.
I was fortunate in a way this year when a message was posted in a group that I was part of that clearly wasn’t meant for my eyes. It spoke volumes and it wasn’t the first time so although it hurt, it gave me the push I needed to unplug myself. I don’t like causing upset and so in my 40s it was something I’d put up with. However at 50, I find that I’m less afraid. And the thing is that when you take action, you free up time and space for new, positive relationships to flourish.
You can probably tell that writing this down is helping me to think it through and exorcise a bit of recent unpleasantness. Nurturing relationships and friendships will continue to be a big focus for me over the year ahead and whilst we’re on the subject, lots of you have become online friends too and I thank you for that. You’re an important part of my friendship group.
In terms of what’s next, the feeling I have now is the same as the one I had just before I graduated. I have a lot of hard work under my belt and a blank page ahead… and as someone who loves to write there is nothing more exciting than a fresh piece of paper. So, having taught my boys that it’s their duty to make a difference, I’m now going to follow my own doctrine. I want to help change society’s perception of women at midlife and beyond.
My starting point for this is always with style. We live in a visually led environment so the outward face that we present matters perhaps more than it should. Regardless of whether you agree with that as a principle, if you look current and relevant at midlife, people take you more seriously. I was interested to see a piece in Grazia recently, acknowledging the rise of bloggers aged 50 plus – they call us the F-Worders(!) and they said
“nestled in the, er, grey area between the mummy bloggers and the grandes dames, the F-worders have a keen eye for style, a light touch with trends and an effortless knack for pulling them off. They dress like you want to dress, not just when you grow up but right now. .. [they] have a strong sense of self and a natural sophistication that comes with experience. Their style is rooted in classicism as opposed to novelty. They have an unspoken confidence that commands attention without having to scream ‘notice me’ through their outfits”
I like to think that this applies to everyone in our Midlifechic tribe. True style doesn’t need to try too hard.
Moving on, as you know I’m busy penetrating the retail sector at a behind-the-scenes level, working to help brands understand what our demographic wants. Beyond this, I want to be part of the drive towards an age-agnostic society and I’m finding that it is often our own generation that holds us back here. Most of the teens and 20 year-olds that I meet are already more interested in opinions than age. Thanks to the immediate access that the internet gives them, they have a multi-generational attitude, moving fluidly through eras of fashion, film and music, generally appreciating them all. So the young aren’t necessarily the ones who write us off – the barriers tend not to be beneath us but around us and above us. It’s often our own generation and our elders who devalue women when they hit 50.
However we are the women who made splinters in the glass ceiling in our 30s as we approached the boardroom. We know how to effect change, we just need to regroup and crack on. If you follow me on social media you’ll know that on Wednesday I was particularly incensed by the deputy governor of the Bank of England’s use of the word menopausal to describe economies that are “past their peak and no longer so potent”. He backtracked rapidly with an apology, hiding behind the financial sector’s appropriation of the word menopause as an economic term, however I do not accept that. When you look at the root of the word, its application is clear. However I did have a brief fifteen minutes of fame when I hit the BBC News website:
I know from the survey that some of you don’t like me talking about the menopause. And I agree that changing society’s perception of women at midlife is about much more than just gaining acknowledgement of the biological changes that we go through. In my view, menopause is a fact of life that every female on the planet has to deal with at some point and it should be quite simply understood and accepted by everyone. What I don’t like is the idea that we are in some way diminished. Women at midlife are wiser and more powerful than at any other stage in their life. However part of the process of getting that message across involves challenging the sneering, smirking, pejorative attitude towards menopause and the underlying implication that a woman’s sole purpose is to reproduce.
It was an interesting day. As well as a lot of support, I also attracted a fair amount of abuse. I had men contacting me and telling me to “get back in my middle-aged box” and other even less intelligent variations along that theme. However we should remember that not all men feel this way and in fact Jonathan Riley who is the husband of Sue (one of our regular commenters here) and works in the financial sector showed his support and was quoted in The Times:
Wow – this has turned into a much more intense post than I intended but the misappropriation of the word menopause by somebody who is so influential really rattled me!
Getting back to the original point about how it feels to be 50, in the end I think it’s what we make it. There has never been a better time to be this age. There are lots of brilliant women out there leading the way, showing that nothing important has been lost and there is still so much to gain. So let’s get out there and join them. We need to show people that midlife is something to aspire to… and when we hit ‘late life’ we’ll do it all over again.
So, let’s move on to the fun bit. I think all of my birthday wishes are going to come true. Once again I’ve found myself specifying time not presents and so tomorrow my cup should run over. My fabulous firstborn is coming back up from London again and I feel very touched because it was his own idea and the best present he could have given me. It’s the festival weekend that I told you about so we have tickets for the boys during the day and we’re going to relax and (hopefully) enjoy the music.
Then in an unusual reversal of circumstances, they’re going home whilst we stay out and party (Mr MC believes that the boys are acknowledging that they’re no match for his dancing and so are making a noble retreat – I’m sure he’s right!) And then on Sunday we’re going back to do it all again after a night of rest in our own bed. I can’t be tired next week because I’m working in London so I’m just going to have to give my 51 year-old self a kick up the behind and get on with it.
Have a brilliant weekend, enjoy the royal wedding… or the FA Cup… or whatever else you’re doing. Let’s all set fire to our middle-aged boxes and may the sun shine down on us as we do it!