Today I have the great fortune of sharing another birthday post with you – my tenth one in fact. And when I say good fortune I really mean it. I’ve never been complacent about the sheer blessing of being alive but I’m more aware of it than ever because over the last twelve months we’ve lost or are worried about losing too many friends and acquaintances of our age to cancer and sudden heart attacks. And of course I also mean it when I say that I’m lucky to be sharing the day with you. Some of you have been with me for all of the birthdays I’ve celebrated since I started blogging and we’ve been sharing this midlife journey together, I like to think we’ve helped each other to make sense of it along the way. For those who haven’t, before I go on to my birthday thoughts – how it feels to be 56, let’s go back through time shall we and each of the birthdays since I started blogging? Let me give you the context to the way that I see things ebbing and flowing in midlife because the thing is that ageing isn’t the downward trajectory that we’re led to expect… it isn’t a straight line of any kind. So let’s recap on ten years of midlife, I wonder if your path mirrors mine.
2014 – my 47th birthday
I’d been blogging for three months at this point. Life was good and we felt very much a part of the village because we were still in our primary school days. I had strong local friendships with other mums at school and we felt as if we knew everyone in our community well – we belonged. This was a great birthday with a school barbecue evening… a rounders match… little boys with sticky hands and ice cream faces running around while their parents drank wine and chatted. Life was steady and happy, I loved those days and at this point I had no idea that I was about to move into a new stage and that the transition would be disruptive for me.
2015 – 48th birthday
A time of change. You look back and realise that there was a year when your family life shifted. On my 48th birthday the eldest was out working at his part time job and the middle one was away in Spain on a school trip so only the youngest was still burrowing in. I was treasuring the last few months of boyhood with him before he turned into a teen.
2016 – 49th birthday
And a year later you can see there had already been a jump, he looks older and more self-possessed. It had been hard adjusting to my firstborn flying the nest, he was deep in his first year exams at uni here and the middle one was very absorbed in being a major figure in the BBC documentary that some of you watched. When I look back at 2016 I can see now that it wasn’t the happiest of years for me, I felt as if I was losing my footing in all kinds of different ways.
On a personal level I now realise that I was perimenopausal. Perhaps that triggered the moment of midlife crisis that made me feel as if I needed to do something with my career and I decided to go back into full time employment as a head of marketing at a fragrance company. It was an extremely difficult work environment, I’ve never come across one quite like it either before or since. I did it for a year and I was so miserable that I ended up handing my notice in when I was just three weeks away from qualifying for a hefty annual bonus. I’m a strong person so it seems ridiculous now that I couldn’t keep going for three more weeks but it shows just how bad it was. Thank goodness for Mal understanding that I came to a point where I just couldn’t plough on any longer, I was on the verge of breaking down.
This isn’t a birthday photo, it’s an extra one I’ve thrown in from 2016 because you know my face well and I think you can see how lost I was still feeling by the autumn. It takes a while to build yourself back up again after a difficult time and to make things worse at exactly this point I became the focus of some online trolling. That, and the ongoing perimenopause symptoms, pretty much swept away the very fragile confidence that I’d rebuilt. Fortunately I talked about it on here and a few of you not only stepped into the fray and helped put a stop to it but you also rallied around and kept me blogging at a time when I just didn’t want to have my photo taken ever again. You know who you are and I will always be grateful.
I don’t know whether it helped or not when a few years later I realised that the key person behind all of the trolling that continued in various forums until a year or so ago was another blogger who purported to be a friend and a member of a collective that I was part of. It isn’t in my nature to talk about this kind of thing, I’m not good at admitting vulnerability but I think we learn by midlife that we’re all vulnerable and that sadly sometimes the women who claim to be your supporters well and truly aren’t. Anyway, that’s exactly seven years ago now and I want you to hold this picture and the number seven in your mind for something I’m going to discuss a bit further on.
2017 – 50th birthday
Moving on – my 50th birthday and I was still feeling a bit quiet inside so we had low key family celebrations, the boys were all in the middle of important exams anyway so it felt right. However, 50 was the year when things started to turn for me. I felt as if I’d been in a crusty chrysalis but now I was starting to emerge as a new, more self-assured version of myself. I’d started taking HRT and over the course of the year I could feel myself getting back on track. I decided who I did and didn’t want in my life, I felt more sure about what I wanted to do and I took more care of myself.
2018 – 51st birthday
I think you can see that by 51 I was feeling happy, confident and strong again. I’d adjusted to being the mum of older, increasingly independent boys, our relationship had transitioned, I was relaxed and having fun again.
2019 – 52nd birthday
A year later Mal and I were starting to enjoy a relationship on our own beyond the parenting roles that had consumed us since we met. The emerging years of freedom when even though you still have teens at home, you no longer have babysitters or curfews to worry about are magical. People think that the sparkle of high romance lies only with the young or the newly attached but I’d argue that rekindling the fire with somebody you’ve loved for a long time through both thick and thin crackles with far more intensity than the thin candle flame of new beginnings.
2020 – 53rd birthday
And then came 2020 which none of us saw heading towards us! My birthday fell in the first week that people were allowed to go to parks again as long as they stayed in their bubble so here we were away from the boundaries of our own home for the first time, enjoying a picnic. We were very lucky, our lockdown was an incredibly happy one and I wish it was the same for everyone – I will always feel grateful to have had those months with the boys, living life closely again as a family. I think it came at the best time it possibly could have done for the five of us and I will always feel blessed to have had those days.
2021 – 54th birthday
And it’s incredible to think that a whole year later my birthday fell at the end of another period of lockdown – the pubs had just opened again that week and we were the only ones there for a meal. People were still afraid of going out.
2022 – 55th birthday
Twelve months on and life was more or less back to normal but somehow being able to go out without restriction still felt exciting. Mal and the boys surprised me with a weekend together in our beloved Newcastle (we were waiting for the middle one to finish his shift here). We were two thirds of the way through our first year of empty nesting but with a family holiday ahead and the boys due back for summer, it still felt like a part-time arrangement. Even so, Mal and I were enjoying the courtship that we’d never really had at the beginning of our relationship with a little two year old treasure in the mix. After the hiatus of lockdown, we were having particularly fantastic times together again.
I think there should be a recognised ’emptynestmoon’ period for all couples – just like a honeymoon, something you plan for and save for. You spend around 25 years in the full throes of family life so empty nesting is a huge adjustment and looking at the people we know, it can go one of three ways. One is that you wave the children off and realise your relationship is spent, it’s very sad but it’s better to recognise this openly because there is still time for a fresh start in midlife – but not enough time to waste. The middle way is that you both settle into separate lives alongside each other, it works for some people we know, I guess it’s a companionship option, recognising that you have an ‘other’ in your life rather than a ‘significant other’. The last is the heady romance of recaptured freedom where you embrace every moment of the opportunity to enjoy life together as wildly and spontaneously as you want to. At this point in life your relationship is so very important, it will have a huge impact on your future happiness and it’s worth investing as much time and attention into it as you can.
I know a lot of you are a bit younger than me so this empty nest time is approaching. As with so many midlife issues I don’t think it’s talked about openly enough, you’re just expected to get on with it. However I’d say it’s every bit as big as getting married because whether you’re aware of it or not, you make the decision to recommit to each other. If you’re staying together then just like newlyweds you set out on a new path and you have to decide what it is that you each want to do, where you’re heading and how you’re going to keep on making sure that you’re fulfilled as individuals as well as in a couple. If you give your relationship the opportunity to flourish, it can be utterly magical.
Birthday thoughts – how it feels to be 56
So, I don’t have a birthday photo for this year yet. As you know we’re in France and we’ll be seeing the youngest tomorrow but for today it’s just the two of us. We have more changes approaching – the middle one graduates this summer and is hoping to work in Newcastle for a year while he saves up enough money to travel. If that goes to plan he won’t be coming home for extended breaks any more, we’ll just see him in short bursts as we do with the eldest. And this is the first birthday I’ve spent without my boys since my 29th when I was newly pregnant and filled with expectant joy for the family future that lay ahead. Midlife is filled with these sudden acknowledgements of change that lie in wait like little electric shocks along the way.
56 feels like a good number though. The first thing it makes me think of is my schoolteacher mum who used to test every new boyfriend I brought home with the question ‘what are seven eights?’ And if they couldn’t answer instantly they weren’t approved – I hated it at the time but it makes me smile now. 56 does, however, also remind me that I’m at the end of one of life’s circles of seven. Seven is a meaningful number in philosophy, art, literature, music, religion, astrology, geography and even biology… the 7 ages of man, 7 circles of hell, 7 deadly sins, 7 chakras, 7 continents, 7 seas, 7 days of the week, 7 notes on a musical scale, 7th heaven, the belief that our body renews biologically every 7 years and so on.
Like Shakespeare, the philosopher Rudolf Steiner had a theory about seven year cycles of life. He posited that in midlife you enter a new phase when you’re 49 and then again when you’re 56. The reason I wanted you to hold that image of me at 49 when my life was in a state of flux is because it makes me wonder if Steiner has a point – it would seem that 49 was the very beginning of my transition to a new phase. I’ll just use this interpretation of his 49-56 outline so you can see what I mean:
AGES 49 TO 56. An Ever Growing Vision and Understanding of Life
The gift of the 50s is inspiration, mastery, and growing power. We are blessed with a wealth of experience, which has given us a certain wisdom. If we have integrated the gifts and ideals of the previous cycles, and developed our souls, we naturally emerge as important guides and leaders in our communities and society at large. It is the start of a new period of mastery and personal power.
You’ve suffered failures and experienced success. Life has softened you and given you perspective. You are no longer thrown about by the vicissitudes of daily events. If you have taken care of your health, and have retained your vitality, you can now start to become the person you have always longed to be. You are blessed with a second wind that can take you the rest of the way in your life. The dream of being your true self starts to take shape. It is within your grasp.
Those who have neglected their spiritual life feel increasingly confused by the ageing process. They are also terrified for their own mortality. They cling to an illusory and faded youth, which becomes ever more fleeting as the years pass. (Tom Monte on Steiner’s 7 year cycles)
The reason I’ve been looking into all of this is that since Christmas I haven’t been feeling quite myself again. Apart from during our trip to Kenya I’ve felt a bit quiet and introspective. I’ve avoided having my photograph taken because I haven’t felt like ‘me’, I’ve been avoiding seeing friends and family because I haven’t been able to articulate it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with my life so it feels a bit daft but I wonder if it’s the seven year thing and I’m just back in my chrysalis, gearing up for another transition. Let’s look at what Steiner has in mind for the next cycle of life (and this interpretation is a bit woo woo but bear with it):
AGES 56 TO 63. The Crossroads: Mastery or Reevaluation.
Steiner maintained that 56 is a major turning point in life. At this point, new intuitive and spiritual powers emerge into consciousness, especially if you have been guided through life by your heart and soul. Your intuition is now the single most important sense, guiding you to your answers and giving you direction in life. It is the basis for your sense of connection with the Source. And as that connection grows, you experience greater relaxation and comfort with life. All of this occurs as your true dream for living emerges into consciousness with greater clarity and power. You feel called to a mission and you begin to devote all your talents, understanding, and wisdom to a cause greater than your own personal needs and ambitions.
For those who have neglected their spiritual life, Steiner said that the age of 56 marks a turning point in which life forces a reassessment. This time is often accompanied by some form of crisis that makes us self-reflect and return to a more heart-centred and spiritually based life. (Tom Monte on Steiner’s 7 year cycles)
I don’t know enough about Steiner to say what he means by the Source but I guess it can be whatever you want it to be. Last weekend Mal asked me what I’m looking forward to over my next year and I couldn’t answer – not in any depressed kind of way but just because I don’t know yet, it feels as if there’s a blank page… a new start ahead. The thing that interests me is ageing as a subject… or more importantly how to age well. I’ve been reading a lot of different studies for some work I’ve been doing and it’s fascinating. Maybe when I feel well enough informed it will become a core topic on Midlifechic or maybe I’ll take it further than that and study it more academically. One of the angles that really interests me is the theory that towards the end of their 50s people seem to pivot, with one group settling into a steady, quiet second half of their lives while the others go less ‘gently into that good night’. I can already see it happening to my local friends, almost all of whom are taking the first path while we’re very much on the second. Neither way is right or wrong but with our extended lifespans, HRT and other gifts unique to our generation we have a chance to live this stage very differently to our parents.
So I think my conclusion at the end of what has been a stream of consciousness (or a bit of a long ramble) is that hopefully there are some very good and interesting times ahead. Looking back at the last 7 year cycle I can say that it’s definitely been the best of my life so far and that gives me great hope. By midlife most of us have reached the stage where we can be who we want to be and do what we want to do but a lot of it depends on the way we choose to feel about ageing. Because it is a choice. We can choose to live life more quietly as our parents did or we can see this as the opportunity to ramp things up, to burn brightly while we still can. We can tell ourselves we’re past it or we can choose to see this as the beginning of the best bit – the pudding of our lives (in northern terms!).
If you’re like me and feeling that you’re in a bit of a chrysalis phase then at least we can perhaps now understand it a bit better and know that something powerful lies ahead. I wish somebody had told me that back in 2014 but I’m glad I know it now. And if you’re through the other side and this makes sense to you then do let us know in the comments. If there’s one thing that writing Midlifechic has taught me it’s that there’s no stronger beacon than the collective wisdom of a group of older women.
For now though I want to thank you for keeping on reading this blog of mine and for your friendship. Mal and I are all dressed up and ready to step out into the streets of Beaune in search of a cosy bistro for a birthday dinner and a glass or two of burgundy so all that’s left for me to say is…
… à bientôt mes amies et gros bisous XXX
Disclosure: ‘Birthday thoughts – how it feels to be 56’ is not a sponsored post
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