For the past several months, I have been saying aloud and writing about my upcoming 50th birthday. It’s a touch out of character as I generally don’t like to draw attention to my birthday. Not so, this year. I’m basically announcing it to anyone and everyone who will listen with the hope that saying it aloud will help me to come to terms with what turning 50 means to me.
Milestone birthdays have always been a time of reflection for me so it makes sense that I am in full-on reflection mode now. Thinking back to when I turned 20, 30, and 40, each new decade has come with mixed emotions; some combination of anticipation, internalized social and cultural expectations, and a sprinkling of new internal realizations about myself. Of course, it was never an equally weighted combination of emotions; more weight was definitely given to external factors rather than to any new realizations about myself.
As I approached 20, I was excited to become an adult and to finally start looking like an adult. FYI, I looked like a teenager for most of my 20’s. At the same time, turning 20 brought with it the pressure to earn a degree, choose a career, and all-around start adulting. As I approached 30, I looked forward to being taken more seriously and joining the professional adult decade. At the same time, I felt the pressure to “settle down” and consider marriage and kids. Oh man, looking back now, I was NOT in the relationship that I was meant to be in, so marriage and kids would have been a big mistake (but that is a whole other story). As I approached 40, I looked forward to settling more into my career and not feeling like I had to push as hard. At the same time, I was genuinely conflicted about the decision whether or not to have kids.
So, what has got me conflicted about turning 50? What are my fears and judgements about this age (and beyond)? What meaning am I attaching to it? How would I like to feel? How can I let go of my unhealthy fears and judgements? How can I reach acceptance? So much to unpack, starting with my fears and judgements.
It sounds old. Intellectually, I know that age is more of a mindset than a defined characteristic. My dad taught me that; he’s 82 and living his best life. That said, when I say, “I’m 50,” out loud, to me, it sounds old. It’s the other side of middle age, it’s traditionally closer to “retirement” age (whatever that means), and it probably also means that I’ve graduated to a new age checkbox range. You know, the 50-55 age range. As I write this, I know how bananas it sounds. I know that there is nothing wrong with getting older and that I need to reframe what 50 means to me.
If you’re 50+, you are probably laughing or eye rolling at my comments about feeling old. I get it. Sometimes when I hear younger people lamenting about getting older and feeling like time is passing them by, I slip into a moment of judgement. Don’t they know how much time they have? But then, I remember that the feeling is real for them. Just like this is real for me.
I don’t want to be left behind. In many ways, I feel the best I’ve ever felt. I feel confident and have a strong sense of self. I’m listening to myself and trusting what I have to say. I have energy and I’m using it in productive ways. And yet, I fear being written off as someone who is past their prime, who doesn’t get it, or who can’t keep up. It’s ironic that I have been announcing my age all over the place. Last year, when I was creating my website, I actually told my website designer that I was going for an age-neutral vibe. I was so scared of being judged about my age that I tried to straddle some made-up middle ground; I wanted to strike the “right” balance between being seen as experienced and being seen as relevant.
In a nutshell, I don’t want my age to limit me in the eyes of others. In the eyes of others. That is my challenge. I can’t control how others choose to see me, so I need to stop putting limiting beliefs on myself.
Time is moving too quickly. The feeling of time flies and the fear of missing out is probably real at every age. It feels especially real to me as I approach 50. When I think about all of the changes that are happening around me, I sometimes feel sad for all of the things I won’t get to be a part of. And, while I finally feel like I am the best version of me (still a work in progress but I like where I’m at), I can’t help berating myself for taking this long to get here. I want to be able to enjoy this version of me for as long as possible and it scares me to think that I potentially have less years to be this version of me than I did getting to this version of me.
Ultimately, I don’t want time to pass me by. That means, I need to find ways to be present, stop taking things for granted, do the things that I want to do, and be around the people who are important to me.
Okay, so clearly, I have some things to work through. But what are the best parts about turning 50?
I am listening to myself. My partner, Fin, and I, use “playbook” to describe the societal, familial, and cultural expectations and pressure to follow a certain path or script in life. Throughout my life, I have definitely felt those pressures and yet, in many ways, I was still able to follow my own path. I don’t mean this in a counter-culture kind of way (I’m not that interesting), but some people are surprised by my non-traditional life choices (e.g., I’m in a long-term, loving, and committed relationship and we are not married or living together; I chose not to have kids; and I decided that quitting a stable job at age 49 was the right move for me). It makes me laugh to consider these life choices as non-traditional, but I know that they must be because I have often felt the need to hide, defend, or mute them.
What this is really about is self-worth and feeling good about who I am and how I’m living. I have been aware of this and working at it for a while now (mostly during my 40’s). I now see the playbook with a critical eye and choose the pieces that work for me. I am comfortable giving more weight to my own voice than to the voice of others. It has been freeing to get here.
I trust my experience to make things happen. I am prone to the occasional imposter syndrome moment. And when the moment strikes, it is comforting to know that I have my experience to lean on to help me quickly (most of the time) push past it.
It might surprise some of my former colleagues to know that I interviewed for a few other jobs during my last two years of employment. In both situations, I was not the successful candidate and while the rejection stung each time, I can honestly say that it worked out for the best. One rejection led to my decision to go back to school and the other rejection led to my decision to start my own business. Both rejections forced me to look hard for the true source of my career malaise and they accelerated me towards my current path. And, now that I am self-employed, I have to trust my experience to figure out a whole myriad of things. Turns out that if I wanted a certain career path, I didn’t need to wait for someone else to make it happen. I could make it happen.
So, where am I at now? On balance, the best parts of turning 50 far outweigh my fears and judgements about it. The truth of it all is that I have, and will always have, fears and judgements, anticipation, and introspective realizations. That is the journey of life. And turning 50 (and any other age milestone, life marker, or day in your life) is a single point in time on that journey. It’s not a lifelong label or blueprint for my upcoming year. I’m grateful that this birthday has given me a reason to reflect and dissect where I’m at, but I don’t need to give it more meaning than that. For me, that is 50.
How do you feel about age milestones and life markers? What meaning have you given to them and how has that meaning impacted you?