FIFTY, SCHMIFTY: AN HONEST LOOK AT BIG BIRTHDAYS & TURNING 50

Category: Kim's Corner
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I have a big birthday coming up. This one gives me pause—not only because I’ll be turning 50, but because if all goes according to plan that week, I will also become a grandmother for the first time. That’s two major age-confirming life events showing up to the party at once—and I’m smiling about it. Really.

If you’ve been around for more than a few decades, you know how those 10-year benchmark birthdays can feel. Some manage to come and go without so much as an emotional ripple, and others are more like an earthquake sandwich with hurricane bread. Some people, for example, may suffer an existential crisis when they turn 30, and then just shrug and keep going at 40. You never know which big birthday will deliver a mighty sting.

Or do you?

For some reason, benchmark birthdays seem like a good time to get philosophical. We take stock of our lives. Ask the big, eye-popping questions. And it’s usually at night.

Oh my God, who am I? Am I who I want to be? Am I where I want to be? What have I done with my life so far, really? Am I a good [insert profession]? Do I try hard enough? Am I as [insert adjective] as [insert name of celebrity who is my age and not only has suspiciously youthful skin but is also a generous humanitarian]? AM I ENOUGH?

In smaller, kinder doses, these are great questions for practicing self-awareness. But they can lead down a dangerous path on a big birthday. It’s like all the years between numbers ending in zero are your chance to reach perfection once you cross that invisible line into the next decade. And like anyone who attempts perfection, these questions can make you feel depressed when they arrive in big batches.

For me, turning 40 was a rather unpleasant shock. I wasn’t in a good place. Work was extremely stressful. My husband and I were in a little funk. I took this birthday as a cue to evaluate myself and where I was in my life, and so of course, in my mind I came up short. My age felt like a big, miserable deal. But my woes had nothing to do with how old I was. They had everything to do with what was going on around me.

Conversely, if things are going smoothly and you’re feeling successful and fulfilled (hello, 50), there is no sting. Because here is the truth: Being 50 is no different than being 49 or 51. Decade drama, if any, is caused by real stuff and not by an arbitrary number. Isn’t that great news? It means you have control.

So here I am. Turning 50. And I couldn’t be happier. What defines me is not my age, but the connections I have made with the people who surround me. To have a friend, to have a beautiful, growing family, to have people who we love and who love us back—those are the things that make us well throughout the decades. If we have control over how we feel at a benchmark year, a major shift in perspective takes place. Life becomes more about growing than ageing, and I don’t know about you, but I just like the sound of that a whole lot.

Maybe right now you’re in a bothersome place for one reason or another. Maybe you’re unhappy with things as they stand. When you believe there’s no way out, you slide into distress and become ruled by helplessness (a truly terrible ruler). But it is not time’s fault. It’s more likely a sign for you to consider some changes in your surroundings to make things better.

Remember this: Relationships and human connections are the answers to happiness. Audrey Hepburn understood this, because one time she said, “People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed…never throw out anyone.” As someone who has been revived and redeemed by my relationships, I believe that.

If you’re still in that bad place, how do you begin your exit? Start by reflecting on what your relationships looked like at each benchmark year, and then ask yourself what they will look like at your next one. Then pursue what you want. Don’t become numb to the intolerable. Go after it. You have to go after it.

Life is abundant with crises and challenges. And thank goodness it is, because when you are touched by crises, as we all eventually are, you learn something. You learn how great the great things are. Through challenges—or big birthdays, such as turning 50—you understand how beautiful life is.