“You belong to AARP?” I asked my father twenty years ago when he mentioned a discount he’d received due to his membership. A man who never refuses assistance, I figured he had pulled one over on the retired people’s lobby. But that wasn’t the case.
“Yep. You only have to be fifty to join,” he said. While fifty is still the official age of enrollment, AARP is happy to confer senior status as of January 1 of the year someone turns fifty. Born at the end of 1965, I had just turned forty-nine when I received my first membership card last winter allowing not only me but also my partner to become members based solely upon my age. Just one more benefit I can offer to Max as an older woman.
When I was in the fifth or sixth grade, the staff and faculty of my elementary school went all out to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of our principal, Mr. Tomlinson. A sturdy man who spoke only when necessary and never needed to smile, it was hard to imagine his younger self. In his defense, our regular visits together in his office were not to congratulate me for any achievements. Half a century, that is really old I thought looking at him from across his desk. A classmate who occasionally joined me in Mr. Tomlinson’s office wrote in his birthday greeting, “Fifty looked a lot older when we were younger!” And by younger, fifty looked pretty old just ten years ago.
“When you are in your forties, your children are older but you still have your looks,” a much older friend told me when I was pregnant with my first child in my late twenties. She also had aphorisms for the other decades of a woman’s life, but I only remember the one. When my forties arrived, I found some truth to her words as there was a freedom in having older children while still relatively young myself. That is until I had my fourth and fifth children at ages forty-four and forty-six. People tell me my littlest children will keep me young, but more than once have I thought, Whew, I’m too old for this, these two could be my grandkids in which case I could send them home to their parents. Fortunately their father enjoys the routine of getting the two Littles, as I call them, ready for bed each and every night.
While I may have looked much the same as I had the previous decade, when I turned forty, I began to notice wrinkles in places I never imagined. Like the tops of my wrists where lines appeared seemingly overnight giving my hands a doll-like quality. You know, the kind that a child can turn in the plastic socket. Or pull off altogether revealing a small ball at the end of the palm and the hollowness of the entire arm. But it’s not so gruesome as I once imagined, this aging of the body. On most days, it feels like puberty only slower, watching what you assumed was the way you would always look slowly shift and change. And, just like puberty, it includes acne. For years, I have noted women in their fifties who look fabulous not because they look young, but because they no longer seem invested in pleasing anyone but themselves with their appearance. Carefree short hair, fun earrings and bold eyeglasses on faces both weathered and softened by the elements and time. Today my hair is short, my earrings are fun and my glasses (when I can find them) are colorful. It is not as though I am unconcerned with my appearance. I still love make-up, jewelry and more shoes, boots and coats than any one person has need to own. But I am content with my physical form, even as it is softer in substance, rougher in texture and more lined than it once was.
Like seeing numerous cars the same color as your new vehicle, as my forties wound down I noticed these lists written over the years by people turning 50. Sprinkled with humor, the thrust is Hey, I’m wiser at 50 than I was at twenty. Or thirty. Or even forty. Last spring I read an article in the Atlantic that defined those possessing wisdom as “satisfied, calm and grateful” and that studies show this is more commonly found in older people because they are less reactive to negative stimuli. But beyond learning to regulate emotions, at around the age of 50 many people begin to have more realistic expectations of themselves than they did, say, in their 20s when life looks for many as though it will go on indefinitely. As expectations realign with reality, disappointments in life are understandably fewer.
I don’t have a big list of things I’ve learned after trotting around the earth for half a century. In fact, pretty much all the elements of most of those lists was best summed up by Andy Warhol in a single quote:
When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can’t make them change if they don’t want to, just like when they do want to, you can’t stop them.
I have been both the person futilely trying to change others and the one who has changed in spite of great resistance from the very people I previously had tried to change. At fifty, the friendships (and acquaintances) I have with people I have known from every decade of my life, going back to elementary school, constitute the sauce of a rich life. But just as importantly, I learned in the last decade to let go of relationships that were either toxic or continuously draining including a spouse, two parents, and a number of people I once considered friends. I wish none of them ill, but like a house with termites, no long-term good can be expected in keeping such company.
I am a fifty-year-old mother of five children and therein lies the other truth I have come to know: You are only as happy as your least happy child. Nineteen years and one week before my fiftieth birthday, I gave birth to my second child and since then there has been a round-robin game of who sits in the hot seat of maternal worry. At this moment, and for the first time since my eldest child began kindergarten, all of my children are flourishing. Claude, once diagnosed with severe dyslexia, has spent four successful years at the University of Michigan and will graduate this spring. Hugo, who might never have gone to college given his recalcitrant procrastination and misplaced priorities, is thriving at one of the best music programs in the nation. Jules, my other dyslexic, has taken to high school and its workload with aplomb. Leif, whose fiery temper gave his senior citizen parents a run for their money for three long (long, long) years, began kindergarten at the local public school this fall and *presto* became a boy who now delights in most things and happily goes to bed each night at eight o’clock. And then there is our Lyra, the bright star of our family show, who also began public school this fall and has had an explosion of speech and skills in the past three months. Best of all, my children have concrete, loving relationships with one another, which includes disagreements, misunderstandings and arguments. But they always work through it because there is, for now, nobody else with whom they have a closer relationship. Which is what I wanted for my grown children from that first moment I was a mother of more than one child.
All those years of worrying now seem unnecessary. Sure, it’s easy now to see that everything worked out beautifully. Yet I do not doubt future episodes of difficulties will befall my children, along with my attendant concern, for in every life a little rain must fall. Until I was in my mid-twenties, I said I would never have children. Nobody, therefore, is as surprised as I am that I am a mother of so many. Yet here I am and with the three Biggins – that’s what I call them – there is little else that gives me more delight than seeing all the years of raising them come together and finding I now have these (tall, handsome) adult men in my life who are as engaging as anyone I have ever met.
However, raising children and running a household is only a portion of who I am and my greatest frustration in life has come from putting my career and personal goals in the back seat while bringing up my babies. And there I find my only regrets. Many things would I tell my younger self to do differently if I could: Don’t drop out of graduate school, give up your assistantship and move to Boston in a fruitless attempt to save your marriage. Don’t let your husband talk you out of good job offers time and time again. But most importantly, don’t think you can ever change anyone other than yourself because you can’t and you are wasting precious time trying.
Then again, we are who we are because of the experiences we have had. And at fifty, my little corner of the world is better than I ever imagined it might be even just ten short years ago when I was too young to join AARP.