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If you have your plans and dreams in gear, a milestone birthday is nothing to fear. It’s an opportunity to take stock, reflect on the road you’ve travelled, and look forward to doing the things you’ve always wanted to do.
By Mandy Collins
The significant birthdays we celebrate – 21, 20, 40, 50 – are really just a calendar flip, or as my brother put it, the anniversary of another trip around the sun. But our immersion in the decimal way of thinking about things tends to make the decades feel more significant somehow. There’s a difference in the way we perceive ourselves in our 20s or 50s or 70s.
I reach my half-century this year, and my children and my friends will confirm that it has been very much on my mind, and as Winnie-the-Pooh might put it, in a Very Complaining Way. I am less than thrilled with the grey hairs that are sprouting in various unexpected places: certainly, my parents did not prepare me adequately for this.
I’d go as far to say that a talk about ageing should be as important as the talk about the birds and the bees. Maybe not at the same time, but at some point before 21 would’ve been helpful!
I look at my face in the mirror and have to look past the small creases to find the girl I once was, the outward expression of the way I feel inside, most days, which is 16 and bewildered by all of these responsibilities and duties. She’s there, but mostly only in the eyes and the smile.
But I also find that as I contemplate the visible signs of that very large number later this year – and you do understand, I am 49 until the clock strikes midnight on my birthday – that there are invisible changes too. And as I look at my family, I find myself very much on the cusp of a whole new chapter.
It’s partly a phase of loss – my father died late last year, and my beloved uncle is gravely ill. At the same time, my children are almost grown – they’re still at home while they study and go to school, but I’m very aware that this time will pass quickly, they’ll be on to live their own lives, as is right and proper, and that’s when people around me will start to intone mournfully about Empty Nest Syndrome.
But I don’t fear it. No doubt I will feel a sense of loss when my kids have moved on, and I’ll miss them terribly, but there’s also a delicious sense of anticipation about what that might mean for me.
Because I see it as a time when I can decide exactly where I want to live, what work I want to do, how I want to design my days, and when I can go on holiday. Plus I don’t have to make a packed lunch for anyone, except myself, ever again! (That last item might be the most exciting event of all. I had to restrain myself from typing in capital letters.)
And I’m not alone. In a time where most of us outlive our pension funds, there’s a worldwide trend of people in their mid to late 50s starting whole new careers, not only out of financial necessity, but because there are things they’ve either wanted to do their whole lives, or recently fallen in love with. Or just because they want to.
So as I start to think about what life will be like when my children have flown the nest, I’m taking stock of where I’ve been and what I still have to offer the world. I’m lucky enough to be able to do my job anywhere in the world where there’s an Internet connection, which means I can up sticks and go wherever the work takes me, become a digital nomad.
There are things I’ve dreamt of doing – running a B&B, walking the full length of the Camino de Santiago, and getting one of each type of undergraduate degree, just for the hell of it. With only myself to support, and time that is completely my own, those dreams seem far more within reach.
So I’m slowly coming around to this new stage in life as a time to really grab life by the horns and live it entirely on my terms. And that is mighty appealing, grey hair and wrinkles notwithstanding.
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