The following is an essay based on a concept featured in my book, Fortytude: Making the Next Decades the Best Years of Your Life—through the 40s, 50s and Beyond. Life runs on a continuum, and just because the big 4-0 might be looming, or even if it’s passed, it doesn’t mean your life is over, and there’s no time left to grow, evolve and reach your dreams. Keep dreaming. Keep living. Harness your fortitude.
–Sarah Brokaw, licensed therapist and New York Times bestselling author
For many women, within five years of their fortieth birthday, their biggest worry isn’t their relationship (or lack of one), their boss, their kids, their financial situation, or even their health.
It’s the calendar.
Admittedly, I was one of those women when I hit my mid-thirties. I was not fully cognizant of my own anxiety about the calendar, though, nor the fact that the number 4-0 was a daunting reminder that there was an expiration date. But then, two very distinct, potentially catastrophic moments occurred, which I now describe as sparkling moments.
To clarify, sparkling moments could be potential problematic events when you are inclined to believe something is wrong with you. You feel a constant nagging need to fix the problem. And if you can’t, you figure something is even more wrong with you. Problems also elicit fear. You might find yourself obsessing in the middle of the night, “What happens if I don’t solve this problem right away?”
Having a sparkling moment, however, doesn’t imply that you’re dysfunctional or that you must leap into action to rectify the situation. When you view your challenges as opportunities to change, experiment, push yourself, grow, and learn new skills—then you have sparkling moments.
The first sparkling moment occurred when I was 37-years-old, when my sister encouraged me to see a fertility specialist and have my fertility checked out. I remember her saying, “Sarah, you’re not that young anymore.”
Ouch. I remember thinking, “How dare she say that I am not that young anymore?”
Clearly, I was so disconnected from reality that I imagined myself as still having the body of a 25-year-old. I was healthy, energetic, athletic, and I took excellent care of myself. However, I heeded my sister’s advice and finally connected with reality when Dr. Jamie Grifo, the fertility specialist, presented me with graphs that demonstrated how much easier it is for a woman to get pregnant at 27 than it is at 37.
How did I respond when I saw those graphs? I burst into tears. At the time, I didn’t recognize it as an opportunity for a sparkling moment. However, I took a deep breath after Dr. Grifo and I discussed the following options:
- Have a baby with someone I know as a friend or co-parent right now, even if I am not sure I want him as a life partner.
- Get into a relationship and start trying to get pregnant within the next year.
- Freeze my eggs to use IVF further down the road, either with a partner or with a sperm donor.
- Even further down the road, use my partner’s sperm and a donor egg.
- Don’t do anything and come to terms with the idea that I might not have biological children.
With much thought and conversation with my family, I created the sparkling moment by deciding to freeze my eggs the following month. Since then, I have referred over 25 women to consult Dr. Grifo, and to create their own sparkling moments.
While I had a renewed sense of control of my life and my own aging process, I still experienced self-doubt because I had not reached the traditional milestones that defined an “accomplished woman.” While I have always created my own path and proudly possessed my freedom, I always thought that to be the ideal woman, I would be married with children. Where and when did I establish this belief? Perhaps, society has indoctrinated this belief or perhaps I looked at my mother as the ideal woman who was married, a mother of three girls and a successful businesswoman by the time she turned the big 4-0.
I was not fully aware of this lingering self-doubt, until I had been invited to my high-school 20-year reunion. After much deliberation, I chose to not attend. The thought of walking into a room sans spouse or children and re-engaging with the alumni where all of them would be partnered with their spouses and proudly presenting photos of their children made me sick to my stomach. Overwhelmed with anxiety, I could not muster up the courage to attend this type of setting seemingly empty-handed.
The following day, a number of my fellow alums called and asked, “Sarah Brokaw, why did you not come to the reunion? I was looking forward to seeing you!”
UGH. Now I really felt foolish. How could I explain to them that I simply didn’t attend because I was too embarrassed to tell anyone I was not married nor had any children? I also felt like a hypocrite. As a therapist, I would consistently and persistently say to my clients, “Face life with confidence and curiosity rather than fear and regret! Make a sparkling moment out of the problem!”
And there I was, doing exactly the opposite. That’s when I decided to transform this problem into another sparkling moment.
After these two sparkling moments, I became increasingly curious about the aging process and the feelings that other women may have experienced in their mid-to-late thirties. I already had an idea what New York City women felt, especially after conducting several sessions with women in my practice. I decided to make it my mission to travel across the nation, to talk to women about their experiences.
Over the next 18 months, I did my due diligence and was able to find women who were willing to share their feelings about the aging process. I ended up traveling across the nation and facilitated discussion groups—from New York, to Seattle, to Greenwich, Connecticut—even Oxford, Mississippi, and Provo Utah.
In addition, I conducted individual interviews with women from all different walks of life who created their own sparkling moments: single mothers struggling to make ends meet, high-powered executives, recovering crack addicts, Ivy Leaguers, surfers and social workers. There were women in their late thirties, longing to have children, and 50-plus-year-olds, who already had cleared hurdles that seem to be impossible. There were breast cancer survivors, and victims of abuse.
With the information that I was able to cull from these discussions and interviews, I committed to writing a book to celebrate women and the sparkling moments that give us confidence, curiosity and Fortytude. While this book ended up taking me three years to write, I did experience many more sparkling moments along the way, and I anticipate many more.
Here within is the difference: I will listen to the most self-assured voice—that being by my own voice, and continue to observe and witness with awe the actions of the most inspirational women around me.