When I was 17, and my parents were 40, I would look at older folks and think: People in their 60s – seniors. People in their 50s – boring, like watching paint dry. I knew that folks in their 40s were still raising their teenagers, and if you were 65, you were getting your old age pension. I probably thought that 50-somethings were just waiting to retire.
Now here I am, over 50 (52 actually), and the time of reckoning is here! I need to confront my stereotypes head-on.
My youthful thoughts about 50-year-olds included:
- Their children have left home and they are lonely
- They spend their time waiting for their kids to visit or to “give them” grandchildren
- They dote on and spoil their grandchildren
- They are winding down their careers
- They don’t have the energy of younger adults so they come home from work and watch TV
I have come to realize that my ideas about “maturity,” as the AARP would call it, are deeply ingrained. Maturity and old age merge in my mind. When I was a teenager, I didn’t see much difference between 50 and 60, or 60 and 70. It was all just a blur of oldness. More recently, though, the definitions of middle age and old age have shifted: 40 is the new 30, and all that. People live longer and have more active years.
There are (at least) two huge problems with my old way of thinking:
- I associated sedate activities with old age, mental frailty and decline; and
- Ageing is a continuum, and not a lump of decades!
Let’s look at Sedate Activities. Some of the things I picture 50-somethings doing are gardening, bird watching, walking, reading, arts and crafts, spending time with pets, and signing up for activities and classes. What is wrong with this picture? I have been doing all of these things continually since I was 5 years old! I did them when I was 15, 25, 35 and 45. They are clearly not the province of The Old Crones! I must have always had an inner 50-year-old. This could be more optimistically rebranded as Nerd Girl culture.
Upon reflection, though, I see a difference. I imagined 50+ year olds limiting their activities to that list, being unable to do more, or losing interest in other activities. The 15, 25, 35 or 45 year old may do those things, but may also party all night, rock climb, ski, operate a business or raise a 2-year-old. I didn’t picture 55-year-olds being able to maintain that level of energy.
As to lumping all the years of maturity into one, it is easy to generalize. Biologically, we are told that we have childhood, adolescence, the child-bearing years, and the decline into old age. We grow up, reproduce, and then we are no longer useful. As a child, I bought into this view of people blossoming, flowering and fading.
When I was young, there were more women in traditional roles, but also more intergenerational families. Even now I find that women spend not just two decades looking after their own children, but they look after/look out for their adult children, provide childcare (often full-time) for their grandchildren, look after their parents, and look after their ailing or ageing spouses. Of course, it has always been that way, but now, a career is a given too. Yes, our lives are longer now. But with all of our commitments, and so little free time, they feel shorter!
Meanwhile, I have somehow landed in a pause. My work life is going on as usual. My “childcare” responsibilities (for a young adult who lives away from home) are indirect and mostly involve providing emotional support. My parents are both 75, and while I talk things over with them and I’m mindful of their needs, I don’t provide care for them. For the time being, I feel freed from having a full-time caregiver role.
Here’s what I didn’t know about being 50-something: perhaps for the first time, I can be myself, and take time to do things for myself, to an unprecedented degree. As I mentioned in a recent post, I am probably in my best earning years as well. Now is the time, while health and energy are strong, to travel and go to concerts and plays and partake in fine dining and perhaps even use my voice for social change and be involved in the wider world.
I like having decades of life experience. While I know it’s foolish to tell others how to think or what to do, I enjoy those moments when someone respectfully asks me about my experience, or seeks my opinion, and gives it some weight, because I have lived.
I didn’t expect to have clout. In fact, as a rather clear-eyed professional woman of a Certain Age, I find people are often intimidated by me. Everyone thinks I know what I’m doing. They assume I am educated and moneyed and well-connected. If I have a complaint, I am referred to a manager. And while I know fully well I am benefiting from white privilege, some part of me feels that I have “arrived,” and maybe this is what successful white men have always experienced. I wish that for everyone.
Despite the aggravations of menopause, I am healthy in all other respects. Last week, Rom started a conversation with me with, “You know when you get up in the morning and you are all achy?” I looked at him, puzzled, and replied, “No, I don’t,” actually, because that has never happened to me. I don’t have medical conditions or take prescriptions, and I don’t think I have any bad habits that have caught up with me (except cavities in my teeth maybe?)
I feel “of sound mind” as well. I am past caring about what others think of me, at least on a personal level, and I don’t suffer from the awful self-consciousness I felt in my teens and 20s. I don’t expect I will ever again try to re-invent myself to please a man (or anyone). I don’t buy in to what the media say about how youthful I should act or appear.
In fact, when others complain about their lives, I am hard-pressed to commiserate. Sometimes I don’t even tell people how happy I am. If I say so, will they think I didn’t like raising a child, or will they think I dread having to look after my parents in the years ahead? Neither of those things are true in the slightest. But now is pretty awesome.
If I fall asleep watching TV in the evening, or stay home both Friday and Saturday night, or feel nostalgic about the emergence of punk rock, so be it. I own this territory! It’s time for my secret oldster side to show itself 🙂
You may only watch this beautiful video if you have five uninterrupted minutes to immerse yourself in it!