I turn 50 today. There, I’ve said it, which is more than some friends of mine can manage. One just calls it %) — shift 50 on the keyboard. Another describes her age entirely in fear emojis.
I should probably worry about the coronavirus instead of turning 50, but it turns out that I can worry about both. It doesn’t help that, in French the word “quarantaine” can mean both being in your 40s and isolating sick patients (because boats from plague-stricken countries used to wait 40 days before unloading their goods).
What’s it like to be in your 50s? My 40s taught me that it’s easier to cope with new developments when you can name them. So to brace myself (and my anxious cohort) for the coming decade, here are some of the changes in store for us:
Your body becomes an accidental autobiography. There’s the scar from when I had a lymph node removed, and another from when a surgeon took off my borderline back mole. Loose skin on my stomach reminds me that I went full term with twins.
You won’t accomplish everything. Or in my case, almost anything. This year, I’d planned to write a musical, start a podcast and try stand-up comedy. I haven’t done any of those. In the weeks before my birthday I went on a no-carb starvation diet, so at least I’d turn 50 as a size 4. (“I’ll be so skinny you’ll forget I’m old,” I texted to a 30-something man, who didn’t reply.)
You’re more settled. The 40s bring an explosion of new insights and the feeling that it’s now-or-never to change your life. You’re becoming who you really are. “In the 40s you’re still in chaos,” a friend in her 60s explained. In the 50s, you have revelation fatigue and just want to enjoy what you’ve learned.
You know yourself better, but that knowledge is disappointing. I grew up in Miami reading obsessively about the Holocaust and imagining how I’d have behaved in 1940s Europe. Now that we live with the coronavirus, a gangster president and impending planetary disaster, I know exactly what I’ll do when faced with catastrophe: practically nothing. I’ll refuse plastic bags, retweet scary articles and continue to write about my own life.
Still, your self-esteem doesn’t flatline as easily. You feel like less of an imposter, in part because you’ve lived long enough to accumulate small accomplishments. In moments of near despair, I remind myself that a student devoted a section of her master’s thesis to the use of italics in the French translation of my book.
You can’t hide from time. I wasn’t bothered when my doctor prescribed hormonal gel or when a hairdresser offered to dye my eyebrows. But I can sum up the physical trauma of the 50s in two words: wrist wrinkles. I’ve also been grappling with an existential question: Since I’ve spent decades investing in expensive skin care “rituals”, why don’t I look any better than my 50-year-old husband, who has never spent a dime on any of it?
You’re better at spotting trends, because you’ve witnessed so many of them. I can see that bilingual is the new gifted, listening is the new talking, and — for environmental reasons — thrifting is the new shopping. But age also brings fresh doubts: Am I rejecting a new idea because it’s wrong or because I’m old?
No one cares how old you feel. Age is only “just a number” in the way that money is just printed paper or that 1600 is just a score on the SATs. Humans invent stuff and give it meaning.
Some of the shock of ageing dulls. Forty felt new-old. By 50 you’re used to being middle-aged, though you suspect the next decade will speed by even more quickly than the last one did. When I met a tour group of retirees recently, I suddenly realised that some weren’t much older than me. The real problem with 50 isn’t 50, it’s that 60 comes next.
Old problems are replaced by new ones. For my 40th birthday I threw an aspirational party and invited people I thought should be my friends but who barely knew me. They wondered why they were there. For my 50th, I vowed not to make the same mistake. I phoned a few actual friends to invite them over but refused to disclose how old I’d be. “Alexa, how old is Pamela Druckerman?” one shouted into his house. He had the answer in seconds.
I needn’t have said anything; I ended up canceling the party because of the pandemic. To be honest, I’m relieved. Maybe I don’t have to turn 50 after all.