The big Five-0

Is reaching the age of 50 that big a deal? Or is age just a number?

What comes to mind when you think of the number 50? The bullseye in darts? A half-century in cricket? An iconic American police drama based in Hawaii?

Or maybe it’s a milestone birthday which firmly underlines an individual’s position in middle-age?

Either way, I turned 50 last Friday. And my birthday turned out just fine.

One decade at a time

The end of one personal decade and the beginning of the next is a significant moment. It’s a reason to celebrate but also a moment to pause for thought.

My 30th birthday felt like a big thing in some ways, if only because everyone around me seemed to make it a big thing. I remember having a little wobble at the time but it was fine. After all, it felt like so much of my life – starting a family, career, experiences – was still in front of me. Heather and I had only been married for three years.

Turning 40 wasn’t a big deal at all. I’d been a parent for not quite three years. Isaac was still in nursery; a seven-month-old Toby was still at home; Kara was still some way off. But it did feel like I had reached or passed my peak already in many ways. Career-wise, I’d hit my ceiling. I’d been diagnosed with diabetes just five months previously. A day spent reminiscing with friends in a pub beer garden and enjoying my kids’ latest achievements was all I needed to celebrate.

So the approach of my 50th birthday didn’t really faze me at all. Just another day; just another year.

Taking stock

What does it mean to be a year – a decade – older? It’s very much swings and roundabouts.

On the one hand, I’m undeniably now firmly ensconced in middle-age. It’s almost statistically certain that I’m now closer to the end of my life than the beginning. There is no escaping the fact that I now have the body of a 50-year-old. Although, having taken massive strides with my fitness and diet over the past two years, that’s a considerable improvement over when I was 48 and felt more like I had the body of an obese 60-year-old.

So, yes, I’m older than I was. Aren’t we all? But I’m also wiser. Well, arguably, anyway.

I’m definitely more comfortable in my own skin than I have ever been. There are so many aspects of my life in which I could have done better or where I have fallen short of my aspirations. There are moments I look back on where I wonder about the road not taken. I’m better able to recognise my own flaws and limitations than I ever was previously.

I know who I am. It’s not what I expected; it’s not what I hoped for. But I’m okay with it.

When I look back on my life so far, I do it with curiosity rather than regret. And when I look forward, it’s with expectation rather than fear.

What I am today is the sum of many decisions, experiences and events. Most of these have been positive; a few, negative. Heather and I have been together for nearly 29 years, and married for 23 of those. I left school 31 years ago; university 28 years ago; completed an MBA 21 years ago; started with my current employer 15 years ago. We have shared friends we have known for more than half our lives – and I have friends where I am old enough to be their father. Isaac is nearly a teenager. Toby is in his last year of primary school. Kara is more mature at eight than I was at 28. (I don’t think I’ve ever felt mature enough for my age, and I doubt I ever will.)

Do I feel old? Sometimes – and probably more often than I care to admit. But does that bother me? No, not really. I am what I am – and this year, that means I am 50.

My 50th birthday

2020 has been a distinctly odd year with the coronavirus pandemic. It had been obvious for some while that I would not be able to have a proper party to celebrate my 50th birthday.

But I didn’t really want or need one. Had we organised something, it would probably have been nothing more grand than getting a few friends together for an evening of food and karaoke at our local Japanese restaurant. Maybe, once things have returned to whatever passes for normal, we may have a delayed celebration, just because.

As it was, though, we had a quiet family day that I absolutely loved. My presents were inexpensive and simple, but came with smiles, hugs and hand-drawn cards from the kids. I worked in the morning and took the afternoon off. Isaac and I went for a coffee and a long chat. Everyone contributed to prepare a special dinner for me, including not just a Black Forest gateau (as my birthday cake) but also a lemon cheesecake (overkill, I know, but I love cheesecake). And we settled in to watch Mulan, which had been released on Disney+ that morning.

The one memory that will most stick with me from my 50th birthday is snuggling up on the sofa with the kids watching the film, and then seeing Kara gleefully recreate Mulan’s signature fighting pose with a foam sword. It’s moments like that which remind me that, for all my past failures, our children will always be my biggest success.

If you had asked me 30, 20, even 10 years ago, this is not how I would have imagined spending my 50th birthday. And yet I can’t imagine a day that could have topped this. It was the perfect day I never knew I wanted.

This is who I am. And it doesn’t matter whether it was my 21st, 30th, 40th or 50th birthday. Or indeed any random Friday night. Age is just a number. A birthday is just an otherwise ordinary day, with added presents and cheesecake. And I’m not sure I have any greater ambitions in life beyond having more days just like this one.

Having a good life isn’t about making the most of special days; it’s about making the ordinary days special.


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