A few days before my 30th birthday, I was irritable. No idea why, now – I didn’t have (or yet want) kids, I was happily married for about a minute and a half at that point, I had the job I wanted, but I was cranky about something. A friend supposed it was due to my upcoming “big jump” birthday. I didn’t think so, but allowed for the possibility that she was right. My groom and I had moved to our first home in a county outside Philadelphia, and I was working around 95 hours a week as an intern at Abington Memorial Hospital. That number isn’t even a secret, because the Resident Duty Hours Regulations didn’t even come into existence for another two and half years. We were trying to figure out how to celebrate my birthday in a new place with new acquaintance-friends and I might have been feeling the strain of “shouldn’t I have this all figured out by now?”
A few weeks before my 40th birthday, I was too tired and busy to be irritable… until my friends started asking about my birthday celebration. What did I want to do? Well, my kids were 8, 6, 4 and just-turned-two. My husband was studying for his Emergency Medicine Boards, and I was working at the still-pretty-new Federally Qualified Health Center I’d helped get started in my neighborhood. But apparently “nap” was not an acceptable party theme. I wasn’t sad at all about this “big jump” birthday, but I had no idea of what being in my forties was supposed to feel like and I didn’t know if I was rocking my thirties exactly. Added to that, birthdays are a lot of pressure, right?
Don’t get me wrong, I love birthdays. My kids’ birthdays, my friends’ birthdays, my own birthday – every one is this “I’m so glad you were born!” holiday and I make the most of them. Which is maybe why I end up with a little ambivalence. What’s the right mix of doing fun stuff, taking time for myself, and meeting other peoples’ expectations? And who in this world has time to figure out their own expectations for one day that is the holy grail of childhood but isn’t supposed to be a big deal, or is to ignored and avoided at all costs, once you’re an adult?
Which brings me to my 50th birthday next week. I’ve heard a lot of feedback about this particular milestone. Including a friend who sent a cheeky message about my transition from MILF to GILF!?! But mostly, the consensus seems to be that this is “old.” The consensus from my friends who have not turned fifty, that is. That’s not what my gut is telling me, though.
The truth is I…
Just. Can’t. Wait! I’m about to celebrate half a century of living. It sounds weird that this is the birthday I’m the most excited for, I know. Especially because pandemic. Which has totally ruined my fantasy of saving enough money to take my closest friends on a four-day, five-night cruise someplace warm with interesting destinations, and then party with alltheeveryone when I get back.
So what’s changed? Two things, really.
The first is that I lost my mom in my forties. And though she was 72 when she died, it’s caused me to reflect on what I know of her life. My mom had profound and debilitating arthritis. Such that, by the time she was in her forties, she literally counted her steps each day, conserving wherever she could so that she’d be able to get up the stairs from the garage when she got home from work. Just before she passed away, when she refused a life-prolonging surgery, she told me that she’d been in pain every single day for the past 30 years and she was ready to not feel that pain anymore.
I take after my mom in a lot of ways, but I don’t (yet) have arthritis. I don’t have pain most days. My body will do almost anything I ask of it, and if I pay for it a bit later, it’s still forgiving. I don’t have to count my steps, I get to challenge myself to take more of them. Some of that is luck, some is genetics (thanks Dad!) and some is effort. Whatever the mix, my body doesn’t feel old, yet. My mind is starting to feel wise, though. I’m stronger and smarter than I realized, and ready to make the most of however many days I have to go.
The second reason I’m genuinely thrilled to turn fifty is about hindsight, and also foresight. I’ve got enough decades in now, to tell you that – so far – every single one of them has been better than the last. My forties were more fun, more rewarding, more challenging, more exciting than my thirties. My thirties were definitely more fulfilling than my twenties. My twenties were a big improvement over my teens (hello, autonomy!) and my teens were way more fun than being a little kid, for a whole variety of reasons.
Two of my dear friends, one in her sixties and one in her seventies, independently told me that, in their experience as women, every decade IS better, if you can hold on to your health.
So I’m taking my hindsight, and their foresight, and I’m saying turning fifty is looking pretty packed with potential. Nothing is promised, everything (looking at you, 2020) is uncertain. But I made it to fifty and I’ve got a lot of ideas for this decade. I’ve learned a ton about who I am, what matters to me and what doesn’t. About what I can handle and what I don’t have to. About what I want and what I’m willing to do to get it.
Whatever birthday is coming at you, I hope you can break the stereotypes and approach it with a true sense of accomplishment. You’ve been through some stuff. You’ve learned from it. And you’re more resilient than you’ve ever been before. So… congratulations!