Back when I was 29—newly married, the mother of a small infant, a retired war photographer who’d transitioned to TV news producing—I could have never imagined what my life would be like today, 20 years later: That I’d be working here, at an online publication, mining my life for stories. That I’d be separated from my marriage and waiting to get divorced until I could afford the lawyer’s fees. That I’d have sole custody of my kids. That I’d be a published memoirist and novelist who was allowed to use the words “New York Times bestselling” in front of her name if she felt like it, though that would always feel braggy and silly. That I’d be, for all intents and purposes, deeply unmoored from my former life but at the same time more at peace than I’ve ever been.
So. 49. What does it look like from here?
Take yesterday morning. It was not a typical morning, since it was my birthday, but it was typical enough. I was awoken by my 18-year-old daughter, who brought me breakfast in bed, which my hungry 8-year-old then ate. (If that’s not motherhood in a nutshell, I don’t know what else is.) He was wearing a shower cap, as he’d just dyed his hair blue. On my mirror was a certificate from my daughter which I’m allowed to redeem for five rounds of nightly dishwashing from her without complaint. A useful, thoughtful, beautiful gift, particularly since we don’t have a dishwasher.
I did an hour of living room yoga, during which my son informed me that I was supposed to have been the snack mother for the week, starting Monday. Oops. Namaste. I thought that was next week. I dropped off the little dude at school, then ran to the grocery store, tying up the dog outside and hoping no one would steal him. Back to the school to drop off exactly $49 (whoa, universe, cool trick) worth of fruit, cheese, and rice cakes, then back home to drop off the dog and pick up my computer for work. I zipped downstairs to my building’s laundry room to add $75 to my laundry card, because I keep forgetting to do that, then out the door to work. I’m typing this on my subway commute. That’s pretty typical as well. I like to have 500 words already under my belt by the time I walk in the office.
Later, a friend took me to lunch and a Broadway matinee, surprising me to tears with four other friends who showed up at the lunch as well. Then another friend took my kids and me out for dinner at one of my favorite NYC haunts. I am lucky in friends that way. I know that. Instead of going back to the office between the play and dinner, I decided to take the afternoon off. It was New York’s first spring-like day in months. As a single mother who works full-time, I never have time to myself. So I walked more than three miles, all the way from the theater district to TriBeCa via the High Line, blasting old Rolling Stones and Mozart into my headphones.
That’s basically 49 for me, on a typical if atypical day. I’m sure it’s different for all of us, but if you’re reading this on your own personal laptop or cellphone in an industrialized nation, probably not by much. Even if you’re still married. Even if you have no kids or spouse. Even if you’re in flux, like me.
Would I have wanted this life, this flux, if you’d told me about it at 29? Absolutely not. But it’s mine, and I embrace it, and there are wonderful things about it—and about middle age in general—I could have never predicted as well. To wit:
1. That health, wellness and youth often have much more to do with one’s state of mind than state of body. Stay young inside, and your outside will reflect that. I know just as many 49-year-olds who seem 39 or even 29 as I do those who’ve settled into old curmudgeonhood.
2. That post-marital dating is not only easy via modern technology, but also, often enough, fun.
3. That shame is a useless emotion. There is no shame in asking for help, love, sex, empathy, an ear, or even an hour or two to oneself to go for a walk and gather some moss.
4. That children switch from sucking the life and milk out of you to giving more back than you could have ever given; that they grow into these amazing fellow humans with whom you get to share your home, but only for a painfully short blip in time.
5. That the idea of one perfect soulmate for each of us is a lie perpetuated by the marriage industrial complex; love is rare but possible again at any age.
6. That friendships whose flames have been gently stoked over several decades turn into a locus of warmth that can bring you to tears with its light and beauty.
7. That learning and evolving never stop: You don’t suddenly become an adult with a fixed set of ideas. What was right yesterday might not be right tomorrow. And you are always, at heart, a child, learning one more cool thing you can’t wait to share.
8. That whatever you thought 49 would be, I can guarantee it won’t be.
9. That loving one’s work and/or workplace is not an out-of-reach holy grail: it’s actually possible. In fact, do you know what I love best about being 49? I love this: writing for you. I really do. And I thank you all for reading.
Let’s meet back here at 50, cool?