I wrote this piece nearly 8 years ago. I thought about it the other day while I was talking to a potential client about writing a book. This client was sitting on the fence, not sure if the investment of time and money was worth it, or if being content with the current state of affairs was the way to go. To risk and grow vs. remain safe and small. We face this choice all the time in myriad ways.
Happy 50th Birthday!!!
I must say, turning fifty is distressing enough without being divorced by your husband of 26 years a few days prior. One could equate that sequence of events to being slammed by a speeding tractor-trailer.
Nevertheless. Welcome to this, your brand new chapter.
This is the turning point. Will your second act put the first one to shame? Or will you simply close up shop?
Will you perceive the unknown that now unfolds before you as an enormous white canvas on which to paint an exciting new life, or a black abyss into which you might fall?
I’d like to discuss a few things as you lay there, spread-eagle, on the asphalt.
Because, when you get up and resume breathing, you’re going to have to make some very important choices.
Getting divorced at 50 carries with it some pitfalls one does not encounter at 30.
When H and I split up, I was 33. My children were young—4 and 6—and there was never a thought that being a single mom would fill me up. There were just too many years ahead of me, or so I assumed. I set out on the path of creating another life, one that would eventually include a man.
I know you often sat back, in the comfort of your marriage, and marveled at my choices. I made life look utterly exhausting. And I remember you watching in horror as your sister-in-law, the same age as us, conducted her post-divorce dating life—a circus act in which she swung from one clown to the next wearing nothing but a spangled leotard, her kids sitting unattended on the sidelines.
From your perspective, I can understand why you might draw the shades now and hide in the house with the children—surly little teenagers that they are—why you might swear off men.
But to hunker down where it’s safe is to become our mothers.
When my mom divorced, she was the same age as we are now. For five years she dated an assortment of characters she found on the back page of the Advocate. Men best described as
fucking losers ineffectual. Then I came back from Iran. And she figured that she could step into the familiar role of mother and grandmother and draft. She decided to make me her spouse.
As if a switch were clicked, she stopped trying. Overnight, she ceased growing. She let herself go. She stopped socializing. She got old. Our relationship went to pot because I didn’t want to be married to my mom. No child does.
Will you become your mother, J? A woman who packed it in at 52 when your dad died. Who, for the next 30 years, trudged to work at the off-track betting parlor; unlocked the back door at 5 and heated up a can of soup; then watched reruns until bedtime, with or without your deadbeat brother. Day in and day out. Because she could imagine nothing else?
It’s very easy to play small.
You may think that, 14 days after your divorce, I’m encouraging you to get your hair bleached, show off those coltish legs in a micro-mini, and throw up a profile on Match.com. But that’s so not the case. I’m not talking about landing yourself a replacement man—something I’d caution women against every flipping day.
I’m talking about keeping yourself viable, when all you want to do is collapse on the couch with a good book. For, like, fifteen years. I’m talking about being a woman—with interests, goals, and desires—not just a mom.
Who you become will ride on everyday, seemingly innocuous choices:
- Will you clean the house when the kids are with their dad; or will you learn to surf?
- Will you avoid those third wheel social situations; or will you take your rightful place?
- Will you allow bitterness to creep in? (It’s so much easier to blame. Even if you never open your mouth.) Or will you free yourself by wishing him well?
- Will you shrug and pretend that you’re fine, fine, fine? Stuff your feelings so deeply you get sick? Or will you trust the process and face your grief?
- Will you hang out with other unhappy women; or will you risk engaging with others who seem to have it going on?
- Will you bank on your kids for company and a sense of purpose; or will you release them when the time comes?
- Will you cling to the scraps of the familiar; or will you force your introverted ass to go out and interact?
- Will you play old; or will you kick it up a notch or ten?
My darling J, you have been hibernating for a very long time. It’s what tends to happen when you’ve been married a long time and have young kids. Time to wake up and get on with all of those things you always wanted to do but couldn’t.
Time to cross the country in a rented camper to see the biggest ball of string, if that’s what you feel like. The world, I am here to tell you, is your fucking oyster.
I know you’re not feeling particularly attractive right now.
But I want you to know that you are magnificent. Beautiful, smart, funny, and kind. You would be a terrible thing to waste.
Be brave. There is a wonderful community of women routing for you.