Next week I’m turning 52 and I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that I’m “a woman in her early 50s.” I don’t have much gray hair, my menses hasn’t paused and I still sunbathe like a teenager. I could probably pass for 42. But I’m not 42. I’m a fiftysomething. A quinguagenarian. Une femme d’un certain âge.
I thought turning 50 would be the catalyst for a full-blown midlife meltdown. But I was so busy planning a birthday trip to Brazil and starting a new job that I didn’t have time for much self-reflection. Or self-pity. Also, our nest was still full and, except for my doctor telling me I had to get a colonoscopy, 50 just felt like another number.
But now I have one daughter in college and another applying this fall. They’re getting ready to fly. I’m lowering my landing gear. They’re on the runway preparing for takeoff while I’m beginning my descent. Instead of asking myself, What do I want to be when I grow up? I’ve started wondering, What do I want to do before I die? I used to have a wish list – run the NY Marathon, drive a convertible Mini Cooper, visit all seven continents, etc. Now I refer to it as my bucket list. It’s subtle. But it’s a definite shift.
Does this qualify as a midlife crisis? Maybe. But I prefer to think of it as middle-age clarity – the realization that this is not a dress rehearsal, that this is, as poet Mary Oliver writes, my “one wild and precious life.” How am I going to spend my time left? What am I going to do with all the gifts I’ve been given? If I can keep the gratitude in my attitude, it’s not terrifying or depressing at all; it’s actually liberating and exhilarating. Instead of navigating the class 5 rapids of marriage, career and kids; of date nights and business trips and soccer schedules and appointments; of pre-school, after-school, middle school and high school; of part-time, flex-time, full-time and overtime; of summer camp and specialists and babysitters and nannies; of brown bag lunches, healthy snacks, and home-cooked dinners; of not only trying to have it all but do it all, like it all, and be good at it all; instead of holding my breath, I can exhale and float on calm waters knowing I made it through the big waves – not perfectly, not always gracefully, but at least upright.
My birthday wish is to slow those feelings of anxiety about the future and regrets about the past and stay rooted in the present, fully accepting that every choice, every job, every decision, every mistake got me to this place.
And it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.