Celebrating Mid Life by Harriet Stack
‘Shhh, don’t say that,’ ‘it’s not here yet,’ ‘you don’t look that old.’ Those were some of the many comments friends and acquaintances made when I told them I was making big plans to celebrate my 50th birthday. I had decided that I didn’t want a party, but I did want to make a fuss, draw attention to myself and my big birthday, and make it a totally positive experience. I planned to do 50 exciting, interesting and inspiring things during the calendar year in which my birthday fell.
It wasn’t a ‘bucket list;’ I was very clear about that. These were not experiences that I needed to have quickly before I got old or my life ended. There was to be no pressure, and no sense that after my birthday the celebrations would stop. I wanted to live my life purposefully and in celebration for the whole year. I wanted to be excited, happy and grateful that I had reached this important milestone, that I had gained wisdom, character and grace, and that I had so much to contribute to the world, as a result of reaching this age.
But many other people didn’t share my enthusiasm. I know what image the idea of a 50 year-old woman conjures up, because this is what I used to see, in my mind’s eye: grey hair, glasses, a dumpy figure, old fashioned clothes, stuck-in-the-mud attitudes and an inability to run, jump and be silly. I used to think that you had to have your life sorted out, your career nailed and your fortune well on its way by that age. If I still thought that was what being 50 meant, I wouldn’t want to shout about it either. If I had to adopt society’s stereotypes, I would have pretended it wasn’t happening, and I certainly would not have been able to make a big song and dance about reaching my half century.
Luckily, I know that I don’t have to accept any assumptions or beliefs that don’t serve me, and I decided to make my own rules. I spent over a year making my list and talking about it to anyone who would listen. There were big things on the list, like going white water rafting, and little things, like practising gratitude every day. There were things that were pure fun and indulgent and others that required effort and courage and challenged my comfort zones. Then I spent an inspiring and life-changing year actually doing many of the things on my list. And yes, it’s true, I didn’t get it all done and there are some items that I still want to achieve, but that in itself gave me a wonderful gift in helping me to let go of perfectionism.
The most frightening day was my high ropes adventure. My teenage son had told me what fun high ropes courses were, and I thought this would be an exciting adventure for us to have together. It was only when I was harnessed up, standing high up on a platform and getting ready to step out into the void that I discovered a paralysing fear of heights! I wanted to be unharnessed, helped down and to sit on a bench like the other mums and watch my boy enjoying the day. The woman running the centre had other ideas, however, and clicked her harness on next to me and helped me find the courage to step out and start the course. She gently talked me round until my son took over as coach and encouraged me to get round three of the four courses, high up among the tops of the trees.
I was terrified the whole way round and I had to school myself not to think, and to find self-belief to tackle each obstacle. The sense of achievement and delight when I had finished was so much greater because I had been so afraid, however. I bought a T shirt that said ‘I’m a Rope Runner’ and I wore it for the next two days. Whenever I have to do something a little daunting now, I just picture my feet walking on one of those swaying rope ladders, or stepping from one tyre to another, and remind myself that I did it, and if I could do that, I can do anything.
In some ways similar, but in others so very different, was the day I spent white water rafting on the Olympic course. I had wanted to try white water rafting for such a long time, so it had to be on my list. I went with my friend Kim in November, when the skies were grey and the water was rather cold. The whole experience, however, was the stuff of dreams for me. The centre was excellent, so well run and staffed by cheerful and professional people. I loved the swim test, when we had to leap into the rushing current in our wet suits and helmets, let ourselves be carried downstream and then swim strongly to the edge. I loved rowing with our fellow rafters and tipping down the rapids faster and more dramatically each time we went down the course. I loved the boat being filled with water and I loved jumping back into the water to swim to the edge after our last run down the course.
The actual experience was very exciting, but it was also deeply satisfying to achieve a long-held goal and to find that this activity that I had craved for so long really was as much fun – or perhaps even more – than I had anticipated.
On other occasions, I revisited and released my past, rekindled old interests and created new memories. I accepted my own challenges: to be more visible, to take chances and if no-one wanted to come with me, to go alone and do it anyway. I lived purposefully, structuring my days and always looking for opportunities and asking myself, ‘do I want to do that?’ I had left room for spontaneity and had some wonderful times when I said ‘yes!’ on a whim when something was suggested.
Anyone could do what I did. It didn’t cost much because I didn’t have much money. Had I been more affluent, I might have gone to Paris, the Taj Mahal or New York. I might have spent more but I doubt I would have learned any more. It didn’t take much time because I was juggling family responsibilities and my business. I didn’t have to take time off; I just decided what I wanted to do and then wondered how I would schedule it in.
In fact, I know that several women have decided to find 50 ways to celebrate their 50th birthdays, or 40 ways to celebrate their 40th, after hearing about my year. But exactly how we celebrate doesn’t matter; the important thing is that we do celebrate, that we start to see mid-life as a wonderful experience, and ourselves as vibrant, unique powerful beings not despite our age, but because of our age.
It really is possible to turn around the way we see middle age, to choose how we experience life at this time and how we see ourselves. But we do have to make a conscious decision and a sustained effort to replace those old ideas with new, joyful ones.
To find out about Harriet’s year in more detail visit: