You never think you’ll turn fifty.
Fifty is what happens to other people. Other, older people. You were ready for the rest—eighteen, of course. Twenty-one, yes please. Thirty, sure. Forty, okay fine? But there is something so … fifty … about turning fifty.
On the upside, fifty means if you live to be a hundred you’re only halfway there. But on the downside it comes with the increasing awareness you could drop dead at any minute. The evidence is all around you, embedded into the digital reminder complex—the ghost accounts on LinkedIn and Facebook, asking you to wish a happy birthday or work anniversary to someone who’s dead.
Fifty means something so different for women compared to men that it should be measured on a different scale entirely, like dog years or light years or the kind of years that haven’t been named yet. Patriarchy years.
Culture drapes an invisibility cloak around our shoulders and then dares us to care about it. Do you want attention or not? Make up your mind. Would you reconsider those catcalls you swatted away when you were twenty-two? Or those drinks sent from across the bar? Well, would you? When you’re raised on a steady diet of Seventeen and Glamour, a diet that told you to mold every decision, every outfit, every turn of phrase based on whether a boy would like it or not, it’s more than a little difficult to unlearn it all right when you need to unlearn it most. You don’t care, you tell yourself, but you do care.
You wish those long ago magazines that infused your teenage brain had had different cover lines, something like “You’re enough, right now, put this magazine down” or “Someone else’s gaze doesn’t prove a damn thing” or “You always had it in you, girl!” But what advertiser would’ve paid for that?
Fifty is an age that felt far off when your kids were little. You remember mentally doing the math, as you held your first baby. You wondered how old you’d be when this sack of flour in the crook of your elbow would be a teenager. Fifty sounded so far away, teenagers sounded so far away. And suddenly, here you are. That sack of flour is almost six feet tall and you have lost a full inch. Your height's a human bar chart of the life cycle. Growing. Slowing.
Fifty means saying “I’m working with someone half my age” and it’s a completely accurate mathematical statement. You remember family friends saying things like that when you were a kid and it made them sound old and dramatic. You are now that person, do you sound old and dramatic? I mean, older and more dramatic than usual? The only thing missing is you shaking your fist to the sky, towards the Gods of Employment who have always enjoyed a good joke. The thing is, twenty-five doesn’t feel all that long ago to you, that’s the killer. It felt like just a few years ago you were the intern, the new girl, the up-and-comer. That you would be in overachiever mode forever. But you can’t be a fifty-year-old overachiever, that’s not how it works.
Fifty somehow feels new, if that’s possible. There is always something to accept. Acceptance is a fresh experience. You get the sense that acceptance will be your main mode from here on out. Accepting that no matter how much effort you put into your body there are just some things that are unchangeable. Accepting that if you are in good health it’s blasphemous to be cross at your body for anything at all. Accepting that caring about good health is as cliché of an age marker as it gets.
I lead with “I’m fifty” a lot. I trip over it more than I ever did with “I’m forty-nine.” Forty-nine felt like this bold exercise in claiming my age without claiming it, really. Who cares about forty-nine? But fifty, well, it demands attention. When you say, “I’m fifty” you wait. Because there is a reaction, there is always a reaction.
Back when I turned forty I felt like I had it all figured out. The world, my life, other people. Adorable. I had a good marriage to a handsome and kind man. I had two young kids, a boy and a girl. I had a job that felt like the culmination of every skill I had acquired since college, perhaps even before then. I thought I had reached the final chapter in my life, the one where every decision, every cross-country move, every opportunity finally came together. From there on out I would simply be following it all through to its neat and natural conclusion.
But as it turns out, it wasn’t the last chapter. It was just one chapter. My life at forty felt stable. I’ve learned that there’s a lot to be said for stability. Because just four months after turning 40 I was laid off from my job. Eight years after that, my first baby turned thirteen. One year after that, my husband and I decided to divorce. This summer my daughter will be a teenager, too.
Now I feel I’m in a storm, cresting incredible waves then plunging down into unsure waters. What I once navigated with confidence and ease—knowing where the shoals and whirlpools lurked—I now feel constantly surprised by, lost within. Every once in a while I’ll look over to another cresting wave or a dark shallow and find a friend waving back to me and screaming, “What in the actual hell is happening?!” I can’t tell whether to feel comforted or freaked out that I’m far from alone, that so many women my age are struggling too. For my own sanity I tick the box marked “comforted.”
I’m surprised by how little I feel I know now—about me, other people, relationships, the world. It’s as though, in this one respect at least, I’m aging backward. I find myself wondering what I ever knew at all?
And yet. In just the past few years I’ve done surprising new things, things I couldn’t have imagined for myself when I was twenty or thirty. My first book was published, my writing appeared in The New York Times and The New Yorker, I made people laugh (and cry) by standing up in front of them and reading words I wrote. These are beginnings amidst the endings. The good surprises placed sneakily amidst the fifty-ness of everything else.
Perhaps it’s time to shift metaphors, away from the sea and toward the air. Because although the runway felt infinite when I was younger, none of us ever knows how much runway we have. There is little point in idling on the tarmac, worrying just to worry. There is little point in glancing over at all the other planes and wishing you were them, that you were sleeker, had a better paint job, were off to fancier destinations. The only point of any of this, really, is making sure you’re in good working order. And ready to take off. Over and over and over again.
Kimberly Harrington is a writer, mother and wife, and the author of “Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words.” She’s also a contributor to McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Cut.