I was not pleased with turning fifty. In fact, leading up to my fiftieth birthday I changed personal trainers because I thought, well, now that I’m 50 I need to train with someone who understands the aging body. I actually googled the phrases geriatric trainers, old people’s work out, and personal trainers for senior citizens. I found Gerry.
Gerry was in his mid-sixties. He really seemed to understand the “aging body.” I know this because I emailed him a serious of questions I thought relevant to my over 50 body. I explained how my fitness goal had gone from fitting into size 27 jeans to wanting strong abs so I’d never meet a chair from which I couldn’t get out of.
Before embracing life as a physical trainer, Gerry had worked at Jewish Vocational Services, as had my dad. I thought match made in heaven. Gerry was hired.
He was a gentle trainer. We used light-weights and did many repetitions. He stressed things like strong posture, avoidance of injuries, the dangers of skiing at my age.
We began working out up through and a little past my 50th. But this strange thing happened after my birthday. I didn’t feel any different than I had the week before, or really the month before, or if I’m being honest, even the year before.
I slowly begin to think that I had misjudged this birthday. My mother was fifty the year I married. I looked back on the pictures of her as if she were my only reference to what it meant to be a woman in her fifties. She looked beautiful in a hand knit dress she had made for the occasion but she looked older than I felt at fifty. My mother’s generation of woman in their fifties hadn’t had the benefit of decades of intense exercise. They missed out on the 24/7 access to the internet and the wealth of information on eating well. They came late to the benefits of yoga. I started to think that I might be going about this aging thing all wrong.
I changed trainers.
Outside of this foreboding sense of physical change, there were other factors the year I turned fifty that instigated this sense of catastrophe. My son left for college and the baby of the family started the slow process in 11th grade of leaving as well. But rather than a nagging feeling of foreboding, there was a slight ground shift beginning to take place. After almost two decades of knowing what was expected of me each day as a mother and a wife, I began to see a light at the end of the proverbial parental tunnel. My children would leave. I would empty nest. And this not knowing what was expected of me began to tingle with possibilities. The voice in the quiet of my heart asked What did I want that to look like?
This fifth decade started to feel like some kind of threshold. As if I was stepping back into my twenties with free time and dreams of what I might accomplish. Only now, I had more money and the question of who I slept with at night was, for me, nicely resolved.
Which is to say, I had a lot more focus.
But what to do with it.
So I recapped.
As a young lawyer, I remember always questioning what I knew. I am embarrassed to admit that I turned down a law school teaching job for fear of being outed as a fraud.
My thirties were all about babies. I was 31 when my son was born. Nursing was a huge problem. There were issues about latching on and I was nervous. After I found my way with the supplemental nursing system I began to write essays about my experience. None of them saw the light of day. I mean, I was a new mom. I had just about failed at nursing. Who was I to give advice to anyone on nursing?
In my Forties, I lost 80 lbs. My nutritionist had said, “If you could do this, you can do anything!”
Apparently, I didn’t believe her.
I wrote essay after essay about this experience.
Yet, only one essay was ever submitted for publication. I mean, I had lost the weight, but would I keep it off? Clearly, I wasn’t experienced enough to write about weight loss.
A clear pattern began to emerge. I had spent the better part of before fifty looking for some external validating process to render me fit to speak on any of the subjects near to my heart.
Sometime after my fifty-second birthday, I wondered if perhaps five decades of life wasn’t validation enough? I had lived. I had done some things. I had succeeded in raising a family. I had a voice and it was time to turn it up. I mean really, in the words of Rabbi Hillel, if not now, when?
If turning fifty is some sort of threshold, for me it became about finding confidence and the courage to use that confidence.
So I began a conversation. With any woman over 50 who would talk to me. I asked them crazy honest questions.
Questions about their choices: to career or stay home with kids, to have kids or not; questions about their bodies, their sex life, their dreams.
Crazy things happened. No one slapped me for asking, or walked away or even rolled their eyes.
Instead, in the corner of a kitchen during a party, in a bathroom at a restaurant, women leaned in. I mean really leaned in, our heads close together, a hand on my arm, raw answers. Gratitude for asking.
As interested as we might be to know the best skin regime to decrease wrinkles, or how we should dress after fifty to look neither old nor foolish, it became clear that I wasn’t alone in thinking this was a catalyst moment. There was a need to talk. To listen. To learn how someone else was making their way through menopause and emotional changes, to understand that fifty was a beginning, not a reinvention or a disruptor, but an opportunity.
Kieran Setiya, in his recently released philosophical guide, Midlife, wrote, “For most of us, midlife is not too late to start something new, though it often feels that way. Don’t be fooled by the foreshortening of time that accompanies middle age. You have more time than you think.“
So, I took these conversations I was having to the wide wide web and started this website. It’s called Fiftiness because at fifty I think fitness is far more than going to the gym and eating well. I think that might just be the tip of what it takes to live a whole full life after fifty.
The website is still a work in progress. I’ve had to learn an entirely new language in order to discuss metrics and SEO, and that language seemingly changes daily. To say I’ve made a few mistakes would be a grave understatement! I still wake some mornings thinking what the hell am I doing. Doubt has burrowed deep into the crevices of my fifty plus years and isn’t happy being challenged.
But I’m over fifty. I have the experiences behind me to know how to weather mistakes! And the fortitude to understand that failing may be an option, but quitting is not*.
What have you been putting off? Where have you let doubt and fear stop you from being an expert? What can you do with this decade to turn it into your fearless fifties!
Editors Note: This essay was originally part of a talk Erica Jamieson gave at a Fifties Cafe, Tipsy Talk on what it means to be over 50.
*From Muniba Mazari’s inspiration speech, Learning is Life, watch her inspirational talk here.