Before turning fifty, it's possible for a woman to look forward and believe the majority of her years still lie ahead. (After all, the average life expectancy for a woman in the US now exceeds 80 years.) But after turning fifty, nearly all of us are closer to death than birth.
That thought can be both sobering and liberating. Sobering because it reminds us there's a finite span in which to accomplish what we want, be it a lengthy bucket list or a few simple wants and desires. Liberating because when we mentally and emotionally grasp that truth, a lot of non-essential concerns drop away and the important things come to the forefront.
For women the world over, turning 50 is a major milestone. in the US, jokes about being "over the hill" put a negative spin on aging. Compare this to the Netherlands, where women who turn 50 have 'seen Sarah' and are honored with a birthday celebration that acknowledges their wisdom and experience.
Turning 50 heralds a decade of transition, many of them involving bodily changes. Menopause ends the childbearing years. Gray hairs supplant natural color, forcing one of three decisions: let nature take its course, cover the gray or try a completely different shade. (Unlike men, women haven't embraced head shaving as midlife sexy.) Changes in vision require reading glasses. Gravity takes its toll as our necks sag, stomachs bulge, breasts droop, faces wrinkle, underarms swing like fish bellies. Waists thicken and knees and back ache. Skin loses its elasticity, causing some of us to try and turn the clocks back by means of all sorts of chemical and medical interventions -- moisturizers, ointments to reduce age spots, wrinkle creams, Botox injections, plastic surgery, face and eye lifts.
Exterior factors also push us in new directions. The empty nest that results when children leave for college or work leave may initially seem depressing. But in the long run the freedom can be exhilarating, providing an opportunity to try something new such as a career change, going back to school, or downsizing and moving to a new location.
Reaching age 50 can precipitate the infamous "midlife crisis," and divorce is often an end result. While experts cite fear as a major factor in men's lives, women are driven by the opportunity to change or improve aspects of their lives they may have been unhappy with over the years. And after years of building a career and achieving financial security, women may find themselves able to weather the economic upheaval of divorce -- something that was not possible in earlier decades.
At age 50, although a woman's physical appearance and attractiveness is still important, it is not the main focus of her life as it might have been in the preceding decades. Women in their 50s often acknowledge being more comfortable in their bodies and less critical of how they look. This self-acceptance, combined with one significant benefit of menopause -- freedom from unintended pregnancy -- often enables women to enjoy sex more in their fifties.
The rise of the cougar -- women who date significantly younger men -- proves that sexual attractiveness does not end once a woman passes a set number of years. Frequently women in their fifties find that as their obligations to children and family are lessened, they're able to focus on themselves; many report eating better and getting into better physical shape than they have been for years. With this comes a heightened sense of self-esteem, a quality that's attractive at any age.
While family concerns remain, at 50 women are better able to cultivate and enjoy friendships. While getting together with female friends may have been restricted to girls' night out during the childrearing years, women in their fifties have the time and financial resources to go on girlfriend getaways, either over a long weekend or during weeklong vacations.
Relationships with children often improve as daughters and sons advance into adulthood. Living on their own with no mother to handle cooking, cleaning and laundry, grown children have a better appreciation of their mother's hard work and efforts. As those children marry and have children of their own, they experience firsthand the sacrifices and burdens of parenting and gain understanding and gratitude for their mothers. In their fifties, many women become grandmothers for the first time and rediscover the joy of having babies, toddlers and little ones in their lives -- and the benefits of being able to hand them back to mommy or daddy when the day or the visit is done.
Turning 50 is certainly momentous, but it doesn't have to be portentous. It can be a time in which to evaluate what's important and what's not, and decide if, where and when change is needed.
Fifty isn't the end of the world, but a threshold that opens onto new horizons. Whether you view the landscape ahead of you with optimism and hope or regret and fear may determine whether you reach those milestones of 60, 70, 80, 90 and beyond. Perhaps the best news of all is this: with women outliving men in the majority of nations around the globe, the benefits of our gender finally outweigh the drawbacks.