Lately there’s been this recurring TV commercial that my husband, Chris, and I find particularly distressing. It’s for a diabetes drug. The ad begins with a son coming home for a visit after leaving for college. He observes the way his father has turned his focus to old hobbies and is developing some new, healthier habits, implying that using this drug opens space in your life for other things besides managing your Type 2 diabetes.
The 60-second spot cycles through scenes of the father — a somewhat hefty, gray-haired man — working out, preparing salads (while his wife flashes their son an approving look), tinkering with his car’s engine and fishing on a scenic lake. The wife, a woman with a nondescript, practical haircut (also fully gray) and mom jeans (definitively not the trendy ones that my 19-year-old daughter wears), hovers on the periphery.
Our distress is rooted in the implication that this man and this woman supposedly represent people at our stage of life: parents with a child who has just left for college (our daughter began this fall), adjusting to the empty nest, rediscovering old pastimes and trying out new ones. Every time we see it — and if we happen to be watching the nightly news or one of the early morning shows, we see it a lot — one of us inevitably has to ask, “Do I really seem that old?”
“No way,” the other reassures. “There’s no way that couple is our age.” An unsure silence usually follows. It’s weighted with all the denials that want to confidently claim our hold on youth and vitality but are struggling to take shape and leave our mouths. Even if the actors in the ad are miscast age-wise (and I really want to believe they are), a nagging feeling tugs at the edge of my consciousness and leaves me doubting. Maybe that commercial is more about us than we care to admit.
This week, I turn 50.
I’d like to say that I am embracing this milestone birthday with boundless grace and gratitude. But honestly? I’m dragging my heels more than a little bit as the looming finish line of my 40s approaches and I teeter on the brink of becoming officially “middle-aged” (which statistically actually happened when I turned 40, since the average life expectancy for women in the U.S. is 81).
“You are only as old as you feel, right?” a friend (still living blissfully in her mid-40s) quipped recently in an effort to reassure me that turning 50 is no big deal. It didn’t work. “If that’s true,” I responded, “I’m in big trouble.”
Because here’s the thing: I do feel old. In. So. Many. Ways.
Take, for example, my left foot. It hurts. Regularly. Especially when I wake up in the middle of the night to pee (don’t even get me started on this epic betrayal by my bladder). The first step out of bed genuinely feels like the floor is made of spikes. I move through the darkness to the bathroom in an off-balance hobble reminiscent of a drunken sailor. It’s not pretty. A recent trip to the podiatrist revealed that the plantar fasciitis I had surgery for in my 30s has returned along with a half-inch heel spur. It might eventually mean more surgical intervention, but for the time being it means consistent use of a bulky stretching boot, Advil and sensible (translate that to ugly) shoes.
My foot issue wouldn’t be overly concerning if it weren’t for the fact that I’m supposed to be training for a half-marathon at the end of May — an ill-conceived venture instigated by my oldest brother (who might also be pushing back against the realities of his age; he’s 53, FYI) that I grudgingly agreed to because of my lifelong FOMO and not being able to stand the thought of my three brothers accomplishing it without me.
My foot, coupled with the gathering aches in my joints, the extra pounds assembling at my waistline (and other places I didn’t even know you could gain weight) that are more determined to stay than I am to fight them off, and an expectation (based on empirical data from the last few years of trying to regain my exercise momentum that includes two broken kneecaps and a stress fracture in my hip) that at any moment something is inevitably going to break down, have me strongly doubting the possibility of running that race, let alone making it up the stairs.
So, this very-soon-to-be-50 body — with its taunting night sweats forecasting menopause, mysteriously appearing spots and wrinkles, and obnoxious sagging flesh — is making me feel old. But it’s not just the physical. There’s also the fact that my firstborn (the culprit in the creation of that sagging flesh) is about to turn 22. How is it possible that I have a 22-year-old? Chris and I got married when we were 22. There’s no way that this kid of mine, who I still partly see as the 4-pound premature baby I could hold in the palm of my hand, is possibly ready for anything so grown up. And yet, whether that’s true or not, he does have a serious girlfriend and is about to apply to graduate school.
Despite my sincere efforts to stay relevant and keep up with the interests and outlooks of my own Gen Z kids and the college students I teach, some recent interactions have exposed the grim reality that I have not. Here’s a sampling:
I made a “Schitt’s Creek” reference in my class the other day, and my students offered me their best blank stares. “Nobody has watched ‘Schitt’s Creek’? Come on! ‘Ew, David’? ‘Best wishes, Warmest regards’?” I exclaimed. One guy dutifully raised his hand. “My mom loves that show,” he said.
Aware of its cult-like following, I convinced my 19-year-old daughter (who’d binged the series) to watch the first episode of HBO’s “Euphoria” with me while she was home for spring break. It was a mistake. She’d prepared me for the sexual content and substance abuse. But as I watched the teenage characters face one traumatic experience after another, I couldn’t stop myself from repeating, “Where are their parents?” and felt a burgeoning anxiety for the well-being of all teenagers the world over. “I can’t do it,” I told Lily, peeling my fingers away from my eyes, when she asked if I wanted to watch the second episode. We turned on “Grey’s Anatomy” instead.
I once saw a T-shirt that said, “You know you are getting old when you open your mouth and your mother comes out.” Well, last week, when I spent 10 minutes engaged in a sanctimonious conversation on a walk with a friend about Rhianna’s sheer black maternity dress over a lacy bra and panties and nothing else! that she wore to the Dior Show during Paris Fashion Week, I heard myself say, “I mean, really, can that even be called a dress?” and there my mother was.
Today I experienced a disproportionate surge of excitement when I managed to guess the day’s Wordle on my second try (and I came precariously close to posting it on Facebook).
When I turned 40, I didn’t feel old. There wasn’t time. I was teaching a full load of classes, and I’d started a master’s program in creative writing with lofty literary goals keeping me focused. My children were 12 and 9, and I was looking ahead to the business of middle school and high school. My work and the kids’ activities and year-round sports — baseball, soccer, gymnastics, basketball, track and field, lacrosse — were the guardrails that kept my schedule full, productive and moving in a defined direction.
Now, 10 years later, my kids are both in college and where all that scheduled activity used to live is wide-open space. Unlike Drug Commercial Man who has apparently pounced on the chance to re-create himself as he’s entered his new stage of life, I feel stalled. I’m approaching this sixth decade without a map, and a languishing sense of uncertainty has latched on and won’t let go.
It doesn’t help that I’m turning 50 at a time when the whole world seems to be experiencing an existential crisis. There are layers of collective and individual trauma that have emerged from the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the sobering forecasts from global climate researchers that have us all feeling a generalized sense of unease. But as I try to wrap my head around the mounting dread accompanying my birthday and what comes next, I recognize there is more to it than that.
My dad died when he was 53. He’d lived with an incurable illness for close to 10 years, and though reaching his 50th birthday was an achievement none of us had allowed ourselves to envision after his diagnosis, it felt less of a celebration and more of a step closer to the end (which, as it turned out, it was). My mom was 52 when he died. She and my father had dated since she was 14 years old. The grief of losing him derailed her natural transition to midlife, and she spent a good part of the next two decades trying in various ways to reinvent herself and fill the void. Now 78, she’s reached a graceful and settled rhythm, one definitely worth striving for when I reach that age. But in terms of role models for how to lean into my current moment or portraits of “flourishing 50s,” neither my father’s nor mother’s trajectories offered much guidance.
The truth is, I’m scared. I’m scared that I’m 50 and I haven’t done enough. I’m scared that I’m 50 and I don’t know what to do now. And I’m scared that before I can unravel these fears and grab onto a tangible thread of direction, time is going to run out.
Positive thinking, and oftentimes my therapist, tell me to wrap my arms around my fears, pull them close and listen to their wise whispers. My thinking, on the other hand, tells me to grab a handful of chocolate chips, hide under a weighted blanket and ignore my fears for as long as I can.
My immediate challenge, since there’s only so much fulfillment I can garner from the chocolate chips before self-loathing about the chocolate chips sets in, is to find some sort of middle ground. Maybe I don’t have to go as far as fully embracing the things that scare me, but I can at least acknowledge them, give them a little space inside all of this new wide-open space I have and stop trying to run from them (which, currently, doesn’t have the outlook of being all that successful anyway — see previous commentary on my left foot).
Maybe it’s not so much about suddenly re-creating myself in a way that’ll make my kids feel compelled to do voice-over narration about their new and improved mother when they come home from college, but instead it’s about taking the pressure off, easing my way in and reminding myself who I already am. And even though I’m clearly not all that secure about her, there’s one thing I do know about 50-year-old me for certain: She’s not yet surrendering to the exterior cues prescribing mom jeans and a practical haircut for women her age, no matter what portrait that drug commercial paints of who I’m supposed to be.
Melanie Brooks is the author of “Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma” (Beacon Press, 2017). She teaches professional writing at Northeastern University and narrative medicine in the MFA program at Bay Path University in Massachusetts and creative writing at Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. She is completing a memoir called “A Hard Silence” about the lasting effect of living with the 10-year secret of her father’s HIV before his death in 1995. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband, two children (when they are home from college) and two Labs.