WAIT UNTIL YOU'RE FIFTY
A Woman's Journey Into Midlife
I’ve given a lot of thought to the title of this book, but no sound bite could capture the horror (and sometimes, guarded optimism) of crossing over into this no-man’s land of change and disorientation.
When I was forty-two, an older friend waggled an arthritic index finger in my smooth young face and said, “Wait until you’re fifty.”
“Mark my words,” she said with a demonic glaze in her presbyopic eyes, “nothing in your life will ever feel good again.”
“But Babs,” I protested, “you’re only forty-eight.”
“I feel like I’m fifty,” she said.
I felt like running out for an industrial-strength container of malocchio repellant. Maybe Babs had a lousy attitude. Maybe she was born fifty. I felt like I was twenty-two at forty-two. What difference could eight years make?
“What does fifty feel like?” I asked.
“It feels like midriff bulge. It feels like you have a pair of fuzzy earmuffs wrapped around your brain. It feels like you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. It feels like you can’t look at your neck without thinking candied yams and cranberry sauce.”
I couldn’t relate. Nobody can unless they’re experiencing it firsthand and I had eight years to go—or six, by Babs’ calendar.
“How about your sex drive?” I asked, trying to get back onto familiar turf.
“Please,” she said, “I’m Italian; but my German husband would rather dress up in a pink tutu and dance in clogs than have sex with me, so my drive has nowhere to go.”
“Are you going through menopause?” I asked, whispering “menopause” as if it were a dirty word. My mother always told me that women routinely had nervous breakdowns during menopause. For that reason, I lived in fear of it since puberty, dreading the advent of my first hot flash, terrified that I would be one of those poor unfortunates that ended up playing soccer with their own breasts and sending money to televangelists.
“Hell, no,” Babs said. “I had a hysterectomy at thirty-five and have been on estrogen ever since. Fifty just sucks, that’s all there is to it. Your skin begins to sag, waiters call you ‘ma’am’ and don’t get me started on my saddlebags. You’ll see.”
Babs is not typical, I reasoned to keep from panicking. Surely I knew other women Babs’ age who were doing just fine.
My closest friend was Babs’ age. Marion was beautiful, refined and successful and was married to a man ten years her junior. Of course, she did die of ovarian cancer a month after she turned forty-nine. Poor example. Maybe I should mention Carly. She was a well-traveled public speaker, sexy, adventurous. She learned that she had MS as she was circling the bowl of fifty. Now, she worries about wheelchairs and incontinence—another poor example. Hmmm. A good example evades me, at least among my female friends.
Maybe it’s not just women, I thought. Several years ago, an old boyfriend warned me of the sand trap that is fifty. He sounded just like a male version of Babs.
“I looked great until I turned fifty,” he boasted. “Then, it all fell apart. Now, I look like Grandpa Walton. You’ll see.”
Maybe he exaggerated his decrepitude. The last time I saw this guy he was sixty and an oarsman on an Olympic crew team. He was engaged to marry a beautiful thirty-eight-year-old Brazilian who wanted to have his baby. Go figure. Can you imagine a reverse scenario for a sixty-year-old woman, outside of Sophia Loren? Sure—maybe if she’s loaded and on the verge of death.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to downplay the angst that some men experience at midlife. Men are somewhat more susceptible to coronaries and colon cancer than women. Some may have a moment of remorse about their career choice. Generally speaking, though, men get off a lot easier than women. They may buy a red Corvette or trade in their wife or find new employment. Some may put a little Grecian formula in their hair, if they still have any, or pop Viagra, if they don’t have a heart condition. But, then, they get on with it, usually without the aid of antipsychotic drugs.
That’s not to say that middle-aged women don’t get coronaries and colon cancer and career willies. They do. In addition, they get hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, mood swings, wrinkles, brain fog, migraines, vaginal dryness, cellulite, porous bones, memory loss and yeast infections—at about the same time their kids leave home and their husbands go hunting for strange. Thank God there’s no chocolate shortage.
Thirty years ago, I experienced a scene that stuck with me. I was visiting my dying grandmother at the hospital. I went into the visitors’ lounge to collect myself. There was a woman of about fifty sitting there in a wheelchair amid her family. From what I was able to overhear, she had somehow managed to get run over by her own car. Here’s what made the impression. At the top of her lungs, she kept screaming over and over, “I’m old. I’m old. I’m old.” It was horrible…worse than listening to Babs on a good day.
I decided that I was not going to fall apart at fifty. Why should I? At forty-two, I was at the top of my game. I had an exciting career and a comfortable six-figure income. I was able to read menus from less than six feet away. My hair was an uninterrupted shade of mahogany. My husband made thrillingly inappropriate sexual remarks to me in front of our dumbfounded friends. Why should I feel like the Sword of Damocles was hanging over my head?
Why? Because I was a woman and fifty was closer than I thought…even closer than Babs thought.
I got my first hot flash when I was forty-four. I remember the exact moment it occurred. My husband and I were in bed at the San Francisco Hyatt. One minute I was in the crook of my husband’s arm, enjoying the cool crispness of the sheet and the soapy clean scent of his skin. The next moment, I was soaked in sweat from the collarbone up, ejecting myself from my husband’s embrace like he was the Prince of Darkness. It was the beginning of a whole new ballgame, and I didn’t know the half of it.
There are scores of books on the market that claim the years past fifty can be a woman’s most creative. An AARP magazine cover announced, “Sixty is the New Thirty.” That’s the good news and the bad news. It’s great to know that all hope is not lost as you go into the back fifty.
On the other hand, if you drag yourself out of bed at five in the morning, soggy and exhausted after a sleepless night, you shouldn’t have to feel like a failure because you’re not up to discovering a cure for AIDS that day. What’s the good of having all that sunshine blown up your skirt if you can no longer wear the four-inch spikes that go with it?
With the proper attitude and maintenance, fifty can be tolerable and maybe even fine, a time of reinvention and spiritual growth. However, it can also be a protracted journey through a seemingly endless wall of fire, no matter how brave and upbeat you pretend to be.
I’ve written this book to give voice to women who are schvitzing (sweating) their way through midlife—either literally and/or figuratively, as they change their perspectives on relationships, careers, healthcare, self-image and spirituality. I hope it gives you some comfort, lots of practical survival tips and a few laughs.
And, for those men who read this book, I hope it gives you some perspective on what makes middle-aged women tick—and sometimes explode.