Fifty women at 50 part four: "I don’t think 50 is middle age anymore"
Part four of Holyrood's special series of interviews with 50 women aged 50, offering different perspectives on the experiences of women at middle age.
Heather Woods, Uddingston
Heather Woods works for a women’s health charity and has one son. She turned 50 in September last year.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer on the day that Donald Trump was elected president. So, a bad day for the world and not just for us [laughs]. Reaching 50 after that experience of cancer was, for the whole family, I think quite the milestone and a success, if you like.
“I have a son – he’ll be 23 this year – and that was never in the plan, to have children. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I do, because it’s only him and I that live at home. He’s a wonderful young man and I’m very proud of him. But it was never in my plans. And still living in the village that I grew up in probably wasn’t in my plans either. But I came back to the village and I live next door to my parents now because they’re getting on in life – my dad’s 84 and my mum’s 79 and so being near them is quite important to me.
“I don’t think [50 is] middle age anymore. I think attitudes have changed. I think maybe the roles of woman have changed. Probably because of woman like my mother. My mum is the first feminist I ever met, although I didn’t realise that. She brought six of us up while working as a nurse and dad was a truck driver. She brought her four daughters up to know their worth and never to depend on anyone, let alone a man, for anything. She encouraged us to save for ourselves and told us if we only have enough money for one steak and one sausage, you take the steak and give your hubby the sausage because women always do the heavy lifting. She is right, of course.
“I don’t think that being 50 means that you’re old and have finished your life. I would say, probably, the freedom of being 50, the expectations that are on younger woman to look a certain way, to behave a certain way, I’m through that at the age of 50 and I can be who I want to be. I feel comfortable in myself.”
Cath Denholm, Edinburgh
Cath Denholm is the former director of Public Health Scotland. She has recently taken up a new post as executive director of corporate services and partnership with England for the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
“I had lots of great plans for turning 50. I came up with a thing called project 50-15. I’ve asked 15 people closest to me, family members and friends, to come up with something that I could do with them before I was 50. I had a fantastic range of different things, so just as an example, my son challenged me to climb Ben Nevis with him, so we climbed that last June together. I’ve done all sorts of different things, and I’ve done half of them; the other half are probably on hold in one way or another because of COVID.
“I like birthdays with zeros in them because it just makes you kind of stop and reflect. Where I am now, from where I was at 40, I had my kids then, but they were young, so they’re now growing up: one’s primary seven and one’s first year of senior school. My husband’s older than me. He’s retired while I’m feeling very much at the peak or real flow of my career. I’ve really loved the work that I’ve done in the NHS, but I’m really excited about my new job and working in a different organisation at a UK level. I feel really at peace about where I’ve got to, but feeling like I’ve got a whole lot more to go.”
Dr Morag Prach, Dullatur
Morag Prach tutors chemistry and biology in the winter and is also a bike mechanic, the Cycling Scientist. She is married with two children.
“As a bike mechanic, I’m inundated at the moment.
“Prior to this I was a research scientist and have a PhD in immunology. I retrained when my kids [now aged 13 and 16] were young. This is something that is key about being 50, making a success of this business that I’ve been playing at since 2016.
“I had an accident at Christmas. I was cooking dinner and decided to peel some packaging off something but hadn’t put the knife down. It went through the base of my left thumb. My left hand was out of action until April. I didn’t think I would get back to being a bike mechanic, but the physio says it’s the best work I could be doing.
“I’ve been peri-menopausal for a few years. The hot flushes are horrid. I did hit a very, very low patch. I wasn’t prepared for the low moods, probably exacerbated by the accident.
“I’ve had times in my life when my confidence has plummeted and more so approaching 50. I thought, what if my business doesn’t work? So it’s been a time of reflection.
“My birthday is in September. I feel I am in my prime, the fittest I’ve ever been. There’s so much that I would like to do with the next 20 years.”
Dr Ella Taylor-Smith, Edinburgh
Ella Taylor-Smith is a university researcher who lives in Edinburgh with her partner.
“People my age still change careers, or start new careers. I used to work in catering, but I went back to university when I was 30 and did a kind of conversion, and instead of going to industry, I went into research. The research I do now is about student experience, and I am sometimes interviewing students who are the same age as me, who are maybe on the cusp of a new career or undergoing a major transition.
“Things aren’t slowing down, but I think you become more fussy about what you do as you get older. You have to make trade-offs at any point in your life and I think you are maybe a bit more conscious of it at this age. You feel more confident in yourself a little bit more each decade. You have different things to worry about – you become more confident in your 40s and more bloody minded in your 50s.”
Fiona Findlay, West Lothian
Fiona Findlay is a clinical support worker at St John’s Hospital ENT. She lives in West Lothian with her partner, Neil Findlay MSP, and has one daughter.
“I don’t know if it’s living with Neil [Findlay] or not, but I’ve got a lot more confidence now than when I was younger. You can laugh at yourself at 50, whereas when you’re in your early 20s or 30s you were a bit more serious – you worried about how you looked or what you wore. Now, nope. What you see is what you get and if you don’t like it, that doesn’t worry me in the slightest.
“I don’t know if it was the menopause that changed me – that’s another thing that hits you when you’re 50. I had breast cancer five years ago, so after all my treatment I went straight into early menopause. Apart from brain fog and sweats you just learn to get on with it, to cope with it. I think it’s maybe Neil and my daughter who see the worst of it. The night sweats are horrendous, and at work, because the hospital is so warm, but you just have to take it in your stride. Life’s too short and I just live for the moment now.
“I think the ward I am in we are all similar ages, and we are all going through the same thing, so we kind of help one another. A few younger ones came on board, so we gave them the talk, and so they are all absolutely dreading it… Maybe we were a bit too honest… But apart from the doctors, we don’t have any male staff at the moment. But then that’s no bad thing. They don’t have to listen to us moaning at least.
‘I’m clear now, my health is absolutely fine, so I never refuse a party, and I never refuse a day out. We had a party for my 50th. I wasn’t dreading it. I planned a garden party with 50 people, a DJ, a singer and a piper. It was the best day ever. In fact it went on all weekend.”
Rosamond Joseph, Helensburgh
Rosamond Joseph has a dog-walking business. She is single with four children.
“My birthday was in March and I had a phenomenal birthday weekend, just in time.
“When I was 30, I was very ungracious about it; same thing when I was 40, maybe because I’ve got four kids and my youngest is 18. When I was 30, I had three young kids and my adorable grandfather lived with us. At 50, I just thought, enjoy it.
“I’m a single woman. I thought, I’m going to have a big party. My nephew is a brilliant fiddle player. We had a brilliant ceilidh.
“I just feel quite empowered.
“I work a lot, but I love my job. Normally I’m out at 8.30 and not back until 5pm.
“I started running in June last year. I’m fitter than I’ve ever been in my life. Last week I challenged myself to do 50k in a week. I don’t often big myself up, but I thought that’s not bad for 50.
“When I was young, I was so busy looking after kids. I had put myself into boxes, saying ‘that’s not me’. Last year, I got a wet suit and went swimming in Loch Lomond.
“Now I say yes to everything.”
Dr Erica Peters, Glasgow
Erica Peters is an infectious diseases consultant from Glasgow. She is married with an eight-year-old daughter and has caring responsibilities for her elderly parents.
“Turning 50 is really not a big deal for me, for some reason. Turning thirty was a bigger birthday. I thought that was quite a milestone – maybe because I wasn’t settled and didn’t have a family at that stage.
“I hadn’t made any specific plans for my birthday, but my husband turns 50 in February next year so thought we might have a joint celebration.
“One of the difficulties being the age I am is being in that ‘sandwich’ generation, having a primary school child and elderly parents. It’s hard work. My father has dementia, so I definitely feel that. Also, because I had my child in my 40s, I’ve not had the benefit of having parents help with childcare. I don’t feel the need to slow down at all – I still feel like I’m in my 20s. That’s until I look in the mirror!
“Having a child later in life in some ways is really nice. I’m really settled in my life and don’t feel like there are still things I need to do or things I need to tick off a bucket list.”
Professor Alex Shepard, Glasgow
Alex Shepard is a professor of gender history at the University of Glasgow. She turned 50 during lockdown in April and has one daughter.
“It’s been a difficult few years for me. I had my first child in 2007, just as I started my job in Glasgow and that made for a bumpy start because when I got the job at Glasgow and then I told them that I would be going immediately on maternity leave, there was a lot of upset about that, which was not great. Then I had a series of ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages, so I was juggling my professional life and working my way up the career ladder alongside some quite heavy and invisible reproductive demands. Then my daughter, who’s now 12, was diagnosed with quite a serious illness a couple of years ago, so I actually had to take a step back from work. I stopped working altogether in the summer of 2018 just as, professionally, things were really coming together for me. I had a load of projects that I’d been working on just coming to fruition; I’d just been elected a fellow of the British Academy, which is quite an honour; and I’d also been elected fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. And then the following year, in 2019, my husband died suddenly and unexpectedly of an aortic dissection. My mum had died in 2015 of one of those very sudden cancer diagnoses with very little time.
“So my 40s have been hell and I think my expectations of being 50 and just what personal circumstances have transpired, there’s a bit of a gap. I think, ideally, I’d be at the height of my powers, really enjoying the ride. Instead, it just feels like there’s been one blow after another. I’m now working half-time again. I’m lucky enough to be on a funded research fellowship at the moment, so I’ve got autonomy over my time, that makes it possible, but my daughter finds it quite hard to leave the house without me or be anywhere without me and her schooling has been very erratic.
“In many ways, I’m incredibly fortunate. I have a regular income, I’m not on a zero-hour contract, I’m aware of my privilege in all sorts of ways, but there’s a big gap between what I might be doing and what I am doing.”
Francesca Osowska, Edinburgh
The CEO of Scottish Natural Heritage, Osowska has had a long career in politics and the civil service. Outside of work she’s a keen cyclist and triathlete and likes to cook. She turns 50 in July.
“My mother and father had me when they were quite young. My mother was 19. My dad was 21.
“I can remember their 30th birthdays and in a sense, because the age gap between us is relatively low – when I was 30 my mum was just coming up to 50 – it feels like their age has not been so distant from mine.
“It feels like we’re all getting younger. Or is that just because I don’t want to admit I’m getting older... But the sorts of things that I am doing aged 49 are not that different from the sorts of things I was doing aged 29 or 39. I’m still fit and healthy and very active.
“I had planned a trip to France, where I was going to cycle six stages of the Tour de France in July.
“But one thing that I am conscious of is, you know, going to cycle six stages of the Tour De France would have been an amazing trip, but I do a lot of cycling. It would have been a challenge, but it wouldn’t have been new.
“A thought I’ve had for my 50th year and beyond is how can I experience new things, or experience old things but in a different way.
“It doesn’t have to be an adventure… just, what other experiences can I open myself up to?”