Fifty women at 50 part three: "Generally, my life is just a complete juggling act"
Part three of Holyrood's special series of interviews with 50 women aged 50, offering different perspectives on the experiences of women at middle age.
Angela Constance, West Lothian
Angela Constance is an MSP and former social worker. She lives in West Lothian with her husband and 12-year-old son and turns 50 in July. She is planning to run five marathons to celebrate her fiftieth year and had intended to take a trip to Jordan with her sister, but that has been postponed.
“My life is slightly different to what I had planned. And I suppose my journey to becoming a parent took longer than anticipated, but when I think of my life in comparison to my mother’s life, my life is much different. It’s much more privileged, particularly at 50.
"So, unlike my own mother, I’m not struggling with health issues, which means I’m struggling with work, which means I’m then struggling financially. So, my life is very different to my mother’s, in a large part thanks to further and higher education, and leading a different life in the world of work. And I suppose in terms of looking to the future, I think turning 50 certainly makes you think more about the future and I’m conscious that the majority of my working life is over.
"I’ve been working since I was 15, jobs to keep me going financially in my student years, and I think therefore that gives you a determination that whether you’ve got 10, 15 or 20 years of your working life left, you really want to make the most of it. You want to be productive and determined to continue to make a difference.”
Mumtaz Unis, Edinburgh
Mumtaz Unis is a project development officer for the RNIB, working with the BME community to support anyone who is visually impaired or blind and raise awareness of sight loss. She lives with her husband, in-laws and three children, aged 18, 20 and 24, in Edinburgh and turned 50 in May. She had planned a large party as well as a trip to Las Vegas and Hawaii, but those were postponed due to COVID-19.
“It was a lockdown birthday, which was a little bit depressing. However, my children and my family made it very special, and my friends.
“[I felt] depressed, to be honest [about turning 50]. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to be 50.’ Forty’s alright, 41, 42, up to 49 and then that word 50 – the five, you know. And people are like, ‘Oh my god, you’re going to be 50.’ Other people think it’s a huge, huge thing … But you know what, it’s just a number. It just says how many years you’ve been on this on this earth. How you are within yourself and how you represent yourself is more the thing. It’s just a number. A depressing number.
“When I did hit 50, I thought, you know what, do I have to grow up now? Do I have to be responsible? Do I need to tame down? Because I’m kind of a wild cat … But deep down, I think I’m still kind of young at heart. So, it’s kind of mind over matter. Your brain thinks other things and your heart’s like, well, I don’t know what you want to do now, I want to go and do all the silly things, cos that’s me.
“My mum, although her skin was great and she looked great, she dressed kind of old, so you could separate the older and the younger with the dress sense and so on. I can’t even remember how many years I’ve been hearing ‘Oh, you’re the mum. I thought you were sisters.’ I hear that quite a lot. It’s quite a bit of a compliment, although my daughter’s like, ‘Honestly!’ … I think it’s all down to how you dress and probably how your personality is and how you behave, to be honest. My mum behaved as a mum, you know…If she could see me now, she’d be like, ‘Grow up! You’re 50 years old.’ But I think that’s probably the difference between us, that generation and this generation.”
Sharon Simpson, Edinburgh
Sharon Simpson is head of communications at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
“I was widowed in my early 40s and became a single parent to my children, who were both still quite young. Parenting is fantastic, but it’s not always easy and doing it on your own whilst working can be exhausting and sometimes lonely. I feel immense pride, though, at how they have coped and as they start to create their own lives, I’ve been able to step back and focus more on mine.
“I feel very positive moving into my next decade: my experience has made me realise that nothing is more important than your friends and family and I’m lucky to have so many good people around me. I’ve got a great job at the RSE and feel privileged to work for an organisation whose work has purpose. I’m healthy, so are my kids and that’s what matters.
“I think 50 is going to be okay.”
Shelley Jofre, Glasgow
Shelley Jofre is editor of investigations at BBC Scotland. She has two children.
“I got a bit of red in my hair, red streaks, coming into 50. I thought, bugger this, I’m going to have my hair the way I want it.
“I had discovered skiing earlier in the year, in February, when I went with my two kids [now aged 16 and 11] on a trip to Norway. They had learned and I thought, what’s the point in going if I don’t learn? By the end of the holiday I was feeling reasonably confident on the blue slopes as they hurtled down the black. I was quite proud of myself for taking up something quite risky at nearly 50.
“My birthday’s two days after Christmas, so we flew out on Christmas Eve to New York, spent Christmas Day skating in Central Park and having a Chinese meal, and then for my birthday we went up to Vermont, skiing, and had a lovely holiday to remember.
“I just stuck it on the credit card.”
Rebekah Widdowfield, Edinburgh
Rebekah Widdowfield is the chief executive of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She is single with no children and turns 50 in October.
“Overall, my life looks pretty good. I’m feeling in a good place. I’m in good health. I’m probably one of the fittest periods of my life because I do a lot of hillwalking. I’ve just been doing more of it over the last year … I know it probably sounds a bit silly, but if you’re walking and you pass younger people, it gives me a bit of a buzz going up a hill faster than these 20-year-olds. I think, yeah, I’m not so bad for an old lady.
"So, my health’s pretty good. I’m in a job that I enjoy. I changed job a couple of years ago and I think that’s actually made me a bit more confident and that allowed me to do different things and as a chief executive, maybe sort of set the tone and run things in the way that I want them to be run that accord with my values and things like that.”
Samantha Barber, South Queensferry
Samantha Barber is a non-executive director of international energy company Iberdrola. She turned 50 in October last year.
“I was fortunate to be effectively a board level position by the age of 30 and I got my first non-executive director position in a big charity when I was 30 as well. I feel fortunate that I have 20 years non-executive director experience and 20 years specialising in environmental, social, and governance leadership in the boardroom at an age where many are just embarking on an NED [non-executive director] journey.
“I just decided to really embrace turning 50. I have a view that growing older, it’s not a privilege afforded to everyone and that we should really embrace that opportunity to grow older. And it’s important at any age to balance of career, family and personal wellbeing. We all need to have that balance. And I think as we get older, you’re more aware of the nuances of that balance between career, family and your own personal wellbeing.
“The key for me is always, no matter what age you are in your career, how can I add value? And I feel that at 50 I am just very much looking forward to new future chapters.”
Prof Nicola McEwen, Edinburgh
Nicola McEwen is a professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh. She is married with two children, aged 14 and 11. She turned 50 in February.
“Turning 50 gave me more pause for reflection than I had expected. I’m lucky, I have a loving family, a successful career, and am in good health. But like many women, I often question whether I’m getting the balance right.
“I was looking forward to a year of celebrations as old friends from childhood and university pass the same milestone. Of course, the year hasn’t quite turned out that way.
“I still think of myself as quite young. Maybe because I’m the youngest of four and my eldest brother, who just turned 60, still thinks he’s 18! I’m lucky that my octogenarian parents are alive and kicking and still dancing; they have a better social life than me.
“Looking ahead, I’m conscious that if I don’t take up some adventures in the next decade, I might never do. Post-lockdown plans are already in train for sea kayaking, munro-bagging and finally learning to ski.”
Jaqueline Varty, Edinburgh
Jaqueline Varty is an occupational health doctor with two teenage daughters. She turns 50 in August.
“In a way, I’m blessed that I’m going to get to meet that milestone. Physically, I’m possibly fitter than I have ever been. About three years ago I ran my first half marathon, having been inspired by some cousins of a similar age, and I get so much pleasure from running. Now, I suppose as you get older, I’ve lost a few friends sadly along the way from various illnesses, and I lost my own father in January of this year. And so you start to, that kind of cliché, become aware of your mortality and the things that you can do. I’ve got two girls, a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old, and they think I’m mad about the healthy lifestyle. But it’s all focused on that kind of long term, that you’re kind of investing in your future.
“Generally, my life is just a complete juggling act. Working, and then coming straight home or coming out the office at home to take one child to an after-school activity, and then obviously my mum is on her own, so she’s got more demands from that perspective as well. I do my running group on a Saturday morning and it’s sacred. Just having that protected time. And a bath every night. Again, that’s my sacred time. Just having those little moments that the rest of the week could be just a complete whirlwind, but you’ve got that.”
Katherine Keay, Peterculter
Katherine Keay is a caseworker in the office of Liam Kerr MSP. She lives near Aberdeen with her husband, beloved dog and two children, a daughter aged 22 and a son of 19. Both have returned home during lockdown after being away at university. She celebrated her birthday in February with a trip to Edinburgh to see Dick and Angel from Escape to the Chateau.
“I don’t particularly like the word 50 because I don’t feel that I’ve been around long enough to say that I’m 50. It just takes a bit of getting used to. But I’m not going to let it stop me doing things … My children will both be fully away from home very soon, so I guess that’s the sort of thing my husband and I have discussed about planning. Maybe we can we can do far more impromptu things, we can go away for the weekend if we want to, just have some time for us and have some time for me. I was supposed to be going to Abu Dhabi to see my best friend as a birthday treat, but that’s not going to happen, so the treat has now turned into a potting shed. So I suspect that’s going to be my me time.
“I have a job that I absolutely love and I have to say that that is a massive contributing factor to my life satisfaction. I’m certainly more content with being me. I feel that my children have done well. And I’ve got good friends, lovely family. I don’t know if I really thought too deeply where I would be when I was 50. I just hoped that I was fit and well and still able to do all the things that I do now.”
Helen Cockburn, Edinburgh
Helen Cockburn is nurse from Edinburgh working with first-time mums in an intensive parenting programme, the Family Nurse Partnership. She is a single mother with a 14-year-old son.
“A close friend turned 50 a few weeks ago and I was at her party and that got me thinking, ‘Oh right, this is actually happening now’, but do you know what – I feel good. I feel happy to have reached this age. You know, I had a best friend who sadly died at the age of 43, so I’m grateful to be here and I’m embracing it.
“I don’t know what 50 is meant to feel like. I certainly remember being much younger and thinking that 50 was very old and now I’m nearly here, it’s really not [laughs].
“I think about how my mum was when she was my age. She was probably a bit old before her time actually, but I think that for women now, it’s completely different. We’ve got many more opportunities to keep fit and healthy and I actually feel the happiest I’ve ever felt in my life. (Apart from this bloody coronavirus).
“I think I’ve got a deep sense of peace and acceptance about where I am. Whereas before, perhaps when I was younger, I was always striving for something else, not feeling quite so content. “I don’t feel like I have to conform anymore. I think I did when I was younger, but not now. Maybe I’ve finally grown up.”
Jen Watson, Troon
After spending much of her career working in IT for colleges, Jen Watson made a change and now manages a small hotel in Troon. She is single and turns 50 in October.
“I’m a person who likes to learn new things and I like to sometimes get out of my comfort zone.
“It is very much a mindset. If you sit in the house and think ‘Oh my god, my life’s over, I’m 50’, then that’s exactly how it’s going to be. You’ve got to be positive and want to do things.
“I’d like to see myself go back into IT, use the skills that I enjoy and maybe do that through education. I’d quite like to finish my degree that I never got a chance to.
“We’re kind of written off. If you’re trying to get a job, it’s still harder at this age because, well, how long have you got left in your working life? But there is no substitute for experience.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of things in my life. It’s funny, because when we’re a bit younger, we’re very ambitious. I’m not saying we’re not ambitious now, but it’s not the same type of ambition. We’re more educated and perhaps a little less cut-throat in how we want to fulfil that ambition.
“I try to be the best at whatever I can be. My motto is ‘learn something new every day’.”
Alex Hems, Edinburgh
Alex Hems is the head of St George’s School for Girls. She is married with two teenage daughters and turned 50 in November 2019.
“As a headteacher of a girls’ school, at 50 I am privileged to be constantly surrounded by young, creative people who are starting out on their life journey.
“They definitely keep me feeling young at heart, even if my body sadly reminds me all too frequently that it is not what it once was. My teenage daughters are my greatest source of pride, but also of anxiety, especially as a full-time working mother. Work, motherhood and my marriage are the three pillars of my life, each one propping me up, giving me identity, joy, love, companionship and the thrill of constantly learning, but at the same time demanding a constant juggle, compromise and guilt management.
"At 50 I am grateful for the life I have and determined to ensure that the next generation of young women have the confidence to live their lives to the full, both personally and professionally.”