Fifty women at 50 part two: "Age is only an issue if you make it an issue"
Part two of Holyrood's special series of interviews with 50 women aged 50, offering different perspectives on the experiences of women at middle age.
Karine Polwart, Pathhead
Karine Polwart is an award-winning singer-songwriter. She lives with her two children.
“I would say my feelings about turning 50 have changed as a result of what’s happening. Prior to all this, at the beginning of the year, I was feeling quite positive about it. I’ve got a few pals who are 50 or are turning 50 and the chat was that we were going to have a celebration (my birthday’s in December).
“I’ve an awareness that turning 50 is very different to what it was when my mum turned 50. By the time my mum was turning 50, I was 29; my daughter is only 10.
“I don’t feel like I’m on the wind down but at the peak of my powers. I’m making the best work I’ve done.
“As an artist, there’s no substitute for time. I have more craft, more experience, a lot of strong collaborative relationships, many with women, so I feel I’ve built up a team of great people.
“This year to come, had things been ordinary, would have seen me collaborating with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh, have a curated thread at the book festival.
“One of the new things is that my life is now quite precarious and I didn’t feel like that in January. I felt quite excited.
“My workplace is decimated. In the world of music and theatre, it’s really difficult.
“My 50th birthday I’m neither here nor there about, I’ve got much more stressful things to think about, like how I make a living to support my kids and how I can support other people. Vulnerability is just beneath the surface for every single one of us.
“I rent and the two weeks before lockdown I had had an offer accepted on the house I live in and that’s had to be put on the shelf.
“The positives are that, thank God, it’s happened when I’m 50 and not 30 or 20, because I think I would have coped much less well at those stages of my life. I’ve got support and contacts; I’m thinking, can I make a sideways step into other art forms? And to an extent, it suits me better.
“There’s been a conflict between the very public nature of what I do, putting myself out there, and what my body wants me to do, which is not that.
“Last year was pretty bad [with the menopause]. I had terrible insomnia, anxiety and a whole range of things. I ended up with a little intervention, a little bit of oestrogen.
“If lockdown had happened in October of last year? Carnage. It breaks my heart that there must be hundreds of people out there [dealing with menopause] and this has hit when they are at peak discombobulation.”
Dr Anne Woodhouse, Highlands
Anne Woodhouse is a clinical psychologist who specialises in children’s services. She left the NHS six years ago to go self-employed. Originally from Linlithgow, Anne has lived in Edinburgh, London and South Wales, and then moved to the Highlands. She lives with her husband and two girls.
“I think if a 20-year-old version of me could see me now, I’d be surprised that 50 is so young. My mum passed away a few years ago, but at 50 she was quite an old lady. She’d knit and drink tea and go out to meet her friends for a coffee, whereas I’m much more likely to be cracking open a bottle of champagne and partying with my friends that way. I actually knit as well, and my children laugh at me for it because they think it makes me seem old, but we would just never have done that with my mum. Sometimes I think I am actually healthier and having more fun than I was in my 20s – I am definitely fitter than I was in my 20s.
“I was always a fairly confident person, but I remember turning 40 and thinking, ‘40-year-old women are grown-ups’, and you need to stop worrying about where you fit in that, or whether you are good enough to do this or that – it was around the time I got a head of service job. I absolutely loved turning 40 because it made me realise this is knowledge and experience and ability and it isn’t some fantasy which is yet to come. I think people often spend a lot of time thinking that other people are more experienced or more able than them. So 40 allowed me to do that. But 50? It suddenly feels really close to 60, and 40 didn’t feel like that either. I still had little kids then, so it felt like a new level of maturity, and I think most people would be surprised I am 50, so I will hold onto that.”
Amanda Luscombe-Smith, Drumnadrochit
Amanda Luscombe-Smith is a pupil support assistant (PSA) in a primary school, a relief librarian and teaches drama and musical performance. She is married with two daughters, aged 15 and 11, and she turned 50 in May.
“Right now, I have started on a new job, a new career really. I was made redundant just over a year ago from a job that I’d had for 20 years, totally loved. So that was a very hard time for myself, and for my family, I guess, now that I look back. It must have been incredibly hard for them. And it was a massive loss of identity, I felt at the time. I really felt that the job had almost been who I was … But I think after a year of mourning – and I think that’s exactly what it was, I think it was mourning a loss of a friend – I’ve come out of that now going, actually, there’s more to me. There’s so much more to me … I kind of feel very, I don’t know to describe it, fresh, new almost, going into this job as a PSA, which uses all the skills that I had before in my work … So I think for me, in a work respect, I’m at the start of a new journey, which is lovely, really, really lovely.”
Kerry Cassells, Largs
Kerry Cassells is a community-based nurse.
“Turning 50 actually doesn’t bother me. I’m more comfortable in the person that I am. I’ve been separated for a year after being together with my husband for 22 years and we have two girls of 20 and 16.
“Turning 50 is a fresh start. I wouldn’t have thought I would be in this situation back in 1997 when I got married, but you’ve got to embrace change.
“I’ll mark it quietly. I’ve got a small and very, very wonderful group of friends from school and through nursing. We had discussed going to Arran for the weekend, but that’s obviously not going to happen now. But you’ve got a whole year to mark your 50th.
“It’s going to be a chance for me to grow even more. I’m keen to do a degree course and I’m wanting to go back to work full-time. I’m starting to feel it, having a part-time wage. I’ve got another 20 years to work and I would like to get a promotion.
“I also want to go places and do things that I want to do and live my life to my own tune. I prefer city breaks to holidays lying in the sun.”
Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, Glasgow
Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh OBE is a lawyer and was the SNP MP for Ochil and South Perthshire between 2015 and 2017. She is married with four children.
“I was the only mixed-race child at my primary school in Edinburgh and racism was a part of my daily life. I don’t look overtly like a person of colour, but it was a big issue. I’d get beaten up at school, kicked in the shins, my playpiece stolen, all of that. But I see it for my children again now, and I find that very painful because I thought we’d put some of it to bed. I used to hide the bruises because I didn’t want my parents to know.
“I went to Edinburgh University, where I got an MA in English literature, philosophy and international politics at the age of 20, then got married straight away. I moved in with my in-laws in Glasgow and it was the toughest time of my life. I was living with people who didn’t want me to continue my education, who didn’t want me to work and thought I should stay at home. It was a horrible time, so we had to leave. My uncle was a producer on a famous TV show in Pakistan and he gave me a role in a TV serial. I didn’t speak a word of Urdu; I learned it in two months to perform the role. People regarded me as an actress, they forgot I had an education and that irritated me somewhat.
“But I wanted a career that would allow me to stand up for myself, and to stand up for women, so I chose law. I came back to Scotland to do an accelerated LLB and fell pregnant in my final year. One of the greatest achievements in my life has been my children and my ability, through adversity, to keep a career going and a family going.
“I’ve found that throughout my life, nothing comes to women, without a fight. No one hands you equal rights, or a position, or a degree. You have to fight for everything. I’ve done that all my life.
“Being part of a minority community, there’s a constant need to be accepted by the society in which you are living. So when I was elected as an SNP MP, and as the first woman of colour from Scotland to any parliament, it was a feeling of not just achievement and a desire to represent, but also a feeling that they thought you were worthy of that. As a person of colour you set a bar even higher than you do as a woman. As a woman of colour it felt really big.
“I’m not sure what a 16-year-old version of me would make of my life if they could see me now [at 50]. At 16, I was vocal, politically enfranchised and not shy to voice my opinion, so I think I’d probably say that I’ve done alright. I’ve not done enough yet, but I’ve done alright.”
Judith O’Leary, Edinburgh
Judith O’Leary is the founder and managing director of PR and digital comms agency Represent. She is separated with three children , aged 23, 21 and 19.
“The five years up to my 50th birthday have brought substantial adjustments to both my private and professional life. Career-wise I took bold steps – some have paid off, others less so! Personally, I began tentative steps to live a more authentic life … to say ‘no’ to things that didn’t feel right – it was uncomfortable, challenging and emotional. I am learning lots about myself. Being a mum to three creative young adults trying to find their way in the world has been inspiring and tricky in equal measures. Meanwhile, coping with the grief of losing both parents to cancer – my mum at just 59 – was harrowing and took time to process. However, their gift of a strong moral compass has guided me well thus far. I remain optimistic, curious and cheerful. For me, 50 is a time for reinvention.”
Dawn Vallance, Ayrshire
Dawn is principal librarian at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. She lives in Ayrshire with her family and turns 50 in August.
“Age is just a number. Every time I get to a certain ‘milestone’ I look back realise that it’s not age that matters. You see so many fit and healthy people, it’s not about age, it’s about ability. I think as long as I’m fit and healthy, then age isn’t going to be something that frightens me – there are amazing women doing so much in their 70s and 80s to inspire us all.
“As I moved through my 40s I became more confident. I juggle children, run a house, maintain a rewarding and responsible job, volunteer and have a great support circle in friends and family. However, as I head for my next decade, I know that there will be changes – the boys won’t rely on me as much so I will get more time to enjoy things for me.
“[For my 50s] I don’t think I want to change much. I just want to remain active and enthusiastic.”
Tricia Nelson, Glasgow
Tricia Nelson is the people advisory services partner at EY and is married with two children.
“Now that I’ve got to 50, I feel really empowered.
“When you’re younger, it’s about ‘what could I do bigger, what could I do better’, but when I turned 50, I felt this sense of calmness. In one way – and I know this will sound strange – I feel younger. It’s about being in the next stage of your life, about renewal.
“At 50 you have an acceptance of what and who you are, and who you are not. You stop worrying about what you’re not and start celebrating who you are.
“My mum died when she was 52 and I was 22, of cancer. I think I had a lot of personal anxiety about getting to an age starting with a five. She was already ill when she turned 50. I remember her 50th birthday and it was really quite sad.
“That tells you why I’m happy to be 50: I’m 50 and I’m well. Investing in myself is really important.”
Sharon Sweeney, Dundee
Sharon Sweeney is a community educator, student funding officer and trade unionist.
“Turning 50 proved to be more anxious than I had anticipated. Perhaps it was because it was my first birthday without my mother, or maybe I had realised that the numbers were creeping up! However, age is just a number and I remain 26 in my head.
“Having my daughter whilst studying wasn’t easy, although being 50 with a 26 year old does make life a little easier in some respects, with more things for which to be grateful. This helps alleviate the balance of supporting family caring responsibilities, including the practical difficulties of family in another city.
“It is natural to have a period of reflection for any big birthday. For me, it was consolidating my achievements and giving space to what I hope to achieve for the rest of my working age. Acquiring three unseen disabilities in my late 30s and early 40s, has been a major change in my life in so many ways. I have learned that on bad days, I don’t have to apologise for having no energy, being in so much pain that I cannot walk or that I cannot take the lunchtime meeting with no food. One of the hardest things is trying to explain that forgetting my words isn’t due to the menopause – well, not all of the time! However, I have been able to continue to develop my career as a community educator, academic and trade unionist and for however long I am able to work, I intend to realise some of my professional dreams and not stand by and ‘coast’ until I retire.”
Elaine Hamilton, Scotstoun
Elaine Hamilton is a business development director. She is single and has one daughter.
“I turned 50 in August and was quite excited because I felt it gave me permission to be really honest about some of the things I like doing. I don’t care if I like gardening now, or hillwalking. I embrace the fact that I watch Newsnight and listen to Radio 4.
“I’ve been doing 50 things I’d never done before in my 50th year – ‘50 things at 50’. It was all going really well until lockdown.
“The standout was the trip to California for two weeks. I did that over my birthday with my 13-year-old daughter. I’d never been to the States. I wasn’t particularly confident about driving on the other side of the road. I had such a sense of responsibility for my daughter as well, taking her into a situation I didn’t know. I had huge trepidation and it was all dispelled in the first 24 hours. It was mind-blowingly good. We only booked accommodation in San Francisco and Los Angeles and then we just went. I came back feeling very empowered.
“One of the other things on my list was going to Rome, to the rugby. I’m a big rugby fan but hadn’t been to a match outside the UK. I did that in February.
“I had tickets for Wimbeldon, Centre Court. Just one of those things.
“I’ve done loads of lovely things: planted dahlias for the first time, climbed eight munros, loads of lovely things, tried new restaurants, new drinks.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to go to the cinema by myself’ and that’s now something I really love. It doesn’t always have to be a big thing but pushing yourself a little bit outside of your comfort zone.
“Fifty hasn’t felt negative, it has felt real. There’s a feeling that time goes quickly, the speed at which things happen accelerates all the time.
“I have no parents alive and no family nearby, it’s just my daughter – I co-parent with her dad. I work full time and my friends are a fantastic support network.
“I wasn’t remotely concerned about being 50 and then I was meeting a friend for a coffee. I remember vividly where I was. It was a Tuesday. I was waiting at traffic lights. Someone had said on the radio earlier ‘10 years from now’ and I realised that I would be 60 in 10 years. I forgot to cross the street. That realisation was much more poignant to me than turning 50.
“The world is so different now. I think of my mum at 50. She thought that was it, she was settled in her mind into the way of life she would stay in. She died, suddenly, of cancer, at 54.
“I’ve banned the phrase ‘I’m too old for that’.”
Susie Cormack Bruce, Glasgow
Blogger and broadcaster Susie Cormack Bruce turned 50 in April during lockdown. She lives with her husband just outside Glasgow and also has a teenage step-daughter.
“I see turning 50 as a privilege. I have sadly lost friends who went far too early, so for me to get any angst about it would be doing them a great disservice. And as Jennifer Lopez is always going to be about a year older than me, I can’t complain!
“I think age is only an issue if you make it an issue. I like being old enough to know better and young enough not to care.”