Childless Milestones: The Useful Byproducts of Fifty

My fave fifty character Sally O’Malley expresses it well

I’ve been trying to pinpoint why I was so excited about turning fifty.  I know the indifferent hands of time don’t REALLY coordinate with life’s happenings – multiple failed fertility treatments schooled me fully on that.  For example, just because it’s a New Year on January 1 doesn’t necessarily mean we can all have a clean slate, depending on whatever life is randomly serving up.

But yet, I had been giddy over the prospect of fifty for quite some time.  Even when I turned forty-nine in February of 2021, I announced that “This could be fifty and I’d be FINE.”  Why?

My forties were a complete and utter debacle.  It was as if I inadvertently slipped down a black hole that spit me out, unsystematically, into a merciless parallel universe.    

While many of my peers were finding themselves settled in their lives of choice, busily and unthinkingly going about the routine of activities that accompany the onset of middle age, I was getting anointed by a set of much harsher realities.

Like so many of you dear readers, I myself was busy being impaled by not asked for transformation, meeting my own vulnerability as a human, and learning that love and hard work can be completely powerless and not matter in an outcome one iota.  I had to relearn nature and the universe as the indifferent forces they likely are, my own irrelevance as a life form, and the fragility of my own body.  I had to not just know, but live every day the fact that life will not hesitate one slice to give you more than you can handle, all as I was acquiring a deep understanding and observance of that which we don’t control (which is a heckuvah lot MORE than we’d typically care to acknowledge).  I could continue indefinitely on this topic – the existential cataclysm of trying hard to have a child and not being able to – and turn this whole paragraph into a book really.  But for now I’ll move on. 

So I wasn’t busy in the conventional sense.  Multiple fertility treatments, raw grief and PTSD severely limit the activities in which you can and should participate, and when you’ve got a nervous system disorder that only allows you to stand for ten – fifteen minutes at its onset and then keeps you from going food shopping unaccompanied and unmedicated for almost three years, there’s just not a whole lot you can pencil in on your calendar.  I was however, extremely occupied.  It was as if life had thrown me into the crucible of transformation, locked the door and gave me no fruit whatsoever to bear for it.

And then, in my very late forties, the fog started to lift, droplet by droplet.  Some obstacles dimmed, and a couple of things started to swing a little bit my way.  And through it all, my infertility and childless healing had been trudging on, now bringing me to a place where it didn’t have to be so front and center all the time.  I now find myself freed up, however slightly, to appreciate a few things.

I’m going to venture to say we’re all strangers – to one extent or another – to milestones marked by the trivial passage of time.  Having lost so many of them we childless folks have to dig deep to create our own rites of passage that are most often deeply internal and unseen.  My own milestones that quickly come to mind from the last set of years?  The fading of trauma triggers, grief becoming significantly less occupying on a day to day basis, punctuating Infertility Honesty to start Afterward Honesty and learning bit by bit how to navigate life as an unintentionally childless person.  Hardly the trite, black and white variety norm.

And so I turned fifty this past February 19 and for once I didn’t actually have to DO or suffer anything to make this milestone happen.  It just showed up on its own and even synchronized quite flowingly with my current mindset and evolutionary path.  Nice, huh?

And yes, it was also nice to have a milestone that was not obliterated or even just ruined by infertility and childlessness.  If anything, the losses of all of my children, parenthood and grandparenthood are making this rite of passage a bit easier and sweeter, I think.  Now THAT’S a first!!

While others might be lamenting some of fifty’s possible trimmings, I see fifty as a welcome pocket of social respite, albeit a slight one.  Your position in life is perceived as a bit less Mom focused – you know, for as much as our culture is actually capable of turning its attention to other things.  In addition, you’re still seen as too young to jump into the grandmother ring.  

In my forties, things were, understandably, all out of wack.  There was my chronological age, the fact that I looked younger than I really was, and then the fact my soul, by my estimates, had been aged to about ninety five with all I had gone through.  I was a walking conundrum (well, at least when I could stand and walk..…).  Fifty for me feels more….aligned.  The age and milestone in and of itself has credibility, and so do I as a person.  I think we’ll pair well together.

And sure, there are some aspects to this phase of life, and in my life itself that can present as a bit heavy.  Eight years out of multiple failed fertility treatments, I’m nowhere near through the intensive phases of rebuilding and reinvention.  Though less than before my path forward is still rife with obstacles, deficits to reverse and things to untangle.  However my path is also absent the necessary meandering and openness of youth and is now piloted by a rich self knowledge and lined with self respect bolstered intention.  I seem to be welcoming the pressure to be more directed and conscious with whatever time I have left.

I’m looking ahead at a life that will need to happen purely based on my own efforts and merits should circumstances allow, without the laurels of parenthood to rest on or the opportunity to have my life buoyed by the motivation of offspring or the statuses of parenthood and grandparenthood.  This feels intense at times but I also feel totally ready to take it on.

And what describes my state regarding some of those typical fifty something experiences up ahead?  Unbothered.

The slew of medical things I went through in my forties leaves the early fifty something medical protocol looking, at least for now, like a most welcome underwhelm.  On the heels of one surgery and ten failed fertility treatments, far be it from me to have the time, need or bandwidth to bemoan a colonoscopy!

I don’t feel so bothered by being closer to death either.  Perhaps this results from already having internally died once.  More likely it’s my understanding of life’s randomness that infertility and its subsequent experiences brought me face to face with.  I’ve relearned being alive at all in a working, regulated body and mind as a random stroke of good luck, even more-so as one gets older.  I’d much rather spend myself taking advantage of this for however long it does or doesn’t last than fretting over the inevitable.

“Where has all the time gone?” has been a lament I’ve heard from my peers surrounding this age.  It’s not one I share.  Due to the catastrophes of the last decade plus, I know EXACTLY where the time has gone – four wretched years trying to conceive, then three years of raw grief and trauma recovery then overlapped by five years and counting of an autonomic nervous system disorder dotted by a few other misfortunes over which I had no control.  So yeah, no mystery there!  And thus, no great need to get caught up in the undertow of my past any more than is healthy and necessary.  Plus, my experiences with infertility and childlessness already coerced me to relearn much of my past.  Looks like it could be me and my innate forward thinking Aquarian nature full steam ahead from here, relatively unencumbered by what lies behind.

I’ve been pondering what renders the contentment I now sometimes feel.  I do worry less these days, as I have a greater appreciation for the bad stuff you can actually see coming.  I now know most of the time it’s the things you can’t see coming that tend to wreak a greater degree of havoc on one’s life.  And, the eternal nature of my childlessness has grown in me a deep appreciation for the terrible things in life that actually get to end.  The life that lies before me is not one I’d have chosen, on multiple levels, but I could also have been landing in a much worse place than I am, on multiple levels, and I know it. 

I recently read this in a yoga newsletter: “At the heart of every fear is simply the fear that we won’t be able to handle whatever life may bring.  It’s not the events or the emotions that scare us, but we are terrified of not being able to cope with those events or emotions.”  

Then it hit me.  After all I’ve been through, I don’t have much of this.  I mean, I still have some as this is a natural part of being human.  And sure, there’s always a bigger fish, but that said my coping abilities have been massively challenged and greatly maximized.  And funny enough, I think this breeds contentment.  I suspect I don’t have to wonder “what would I do if?” as often as the average person.  Because on some very key levels I already know.   

I do know my bouts of contentment do not come from being “okay” with my childlessness.  I’m not sure I’ll ever be fully okay with it, especially in terms of the events that led to it.  But you know what?  That’s okay!  Some of my contentment does come from having created loving space for the non-okayness inevitable in my experiences.  It comes from just having survived with some semblance of wholeness intact at all, regardless of other conditions people may feel the need to place on the situation. 

Many years back I had acknowledged that applying the terms “benefits” and “gifts” to my infertility and childlessness experiences was not going to be a fit for me.  For me, these concepts are quite misaligned with the experience of untimely, life altering traumatic loss.  While I wasn’t on a conscious hunt for a substitute, I had been finding myself oddly well primed for turning fifty and thus wondering what to call the things that were making this so.  And then the label “useful byproducts” innocently floated onto my radar one day as though it had been there all along.  

I define “useful byproducts” as anything spawned from a life altering  experience you’d rather wouldn’t have happened that provides you, at some point, with little pockets of ease or advantage. 

This doesn’t mean that it was all worth it, or that justice or equilibrium has been reached.  It’s just what it is, and this fifty phase seems to be revealing its share of useful byproducts.    

As for my good ole peers?  I’m fine to leave many of them, for now, grappling with the psychology of the general uncertainty of life and the bad, or even just inconvenient things that randomly happen to them.  I have, after all, way since been there done that.  And many of them are the people, let’s not forget, who, a mere decade ago had only dismissals, rationalizations and indifference to offer in response to the losses of all of my children, parenthood and grandparenthood.  

I see myself stepping, gently yet decisively over any empty nesters strewn in my path, mopey and wayward on their gilded stage of societal acknowledgement, social support and loads of books available to read on the matter.  And all over this very, very most predictable of life transitions at that.  From time to time I bend down and whisper, efficiently and firmly with just a tinge of my justly earned smugness – 

“Deal With It.

I’ve got my own mess I didn’t ask for to keep cleaning up, and what’s left of my life to seize.  I must be going now.  I’m finally on my way.”

6 thoughts on “Childless Milestones: The Useful Byproducts of Fifty

  1. Thoughtfully as always. I find my self approaching 50 with apathy more than anything else. The worst emotionally has already happened.

  2. Good to see you writing again, my friend.

    And THIS!!!! — “I was busy being impaled by not asked for transformation, meeting my own vulnerability as a human, and learning that love and hard work can be completely powerless and not matter in an outcome one iota. I had to relearn nature and the universe as the indifferent forces they likely are, my own irrelevance as a life form, and the fragility of my own body…”

    Oh, how i recognize these words and embodied this in my 40s as well. I went out of my way to tell anyone who would listen that: “hey, I’m 50 …BTW, did you know I turned 50? … Yep, you are looking at 50!!!” and similar unsolicited statements.

    50 truly felt like a turning point after the awful mid-30s followed by my grieving, drifting, WTF 40s. Now that I am coasting toward 59 in June (which means I start living my 60th year on this planet, I am equally grateful and giddy for that upcoming milestone as it puts a fork in the past few years of pandemic anxiety, grief and isolation (and a different form of misfit-hood.) Dang.As the Greeks say, celebrate every success no matter now small…

    1. Good to know I’m not the only one! My 50 bru ha ha at first seemed narcissistic, but I soon realized it’s potentially a big deal for us. A real eureka moment of arrival. We didn’t get to coast here, that’s for darned certain!!

  3. “Some of my contentment does come from having created loving space for the non-okayness inevitable in my experiences.” – I can absolutely relate to that!

    Love your writing, as always…

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