As I approached my fiftieth birthday I found myself thinking more and more about ageing. I would look in the mirror in the morning and increasingly see wrinkles and sagging where before there used to be bright eyes and smooth skin. I saw hollows emerging, skin creasing, blemishes that were permanent features as opposed to passing irritations. What is this weird spot thing that never goes away on my inner thigh? Why have I got a purple mark on my lower lip? When did these soft brown flecks appear on my forehead?
For the last few years of my forties, my ageing really bothered me. I was still single. But was I still young? How was I going to find a partner looking like a grannie? How could I be fifty years old already? Where had my life gone?
At the beginning of the diary I write:
“The problem is that my mind hasn’t aged in counterpart with my body. I’m not inwardly flabby, worn out, and aching, and although I may have wrinkles around my eyes, grey hair under my highlights, aching knees, and hips that give way, my attitude to life is still open and optimistic. I feel fresh, mentally. My sense of adventure and need for fun hasn’t diminished. I want to learn, see, and do new things, and broaden my horizons. I still want to travel the world, experience different cultures, and immerse myself in unfamiliar environments. I love being challenged. The spirit is willing, it’s just that these days the flesh is starting to complain a little.”
So, approaching my half century I suddenly had the idea of writing a diary beginning on the day of my fiftieth birthday and continuing for exactly 365 days to record what it feels like to be a modern, menopausal, English woman in the year 2019 – 2020. A treatise on ageing and death, an honest (sometimes humorous, sometimes philosophical) examination of what the menopause feels like, how a “mature woman” copes with middle-age, hot flushes, dating, and parenthood – a thinking woman’s Bridget Jones Diary; with kids!
Yes, I still had two young children to add into the mix, and of course, what I didn’t realise was that half way through my year of writing, a new disease would emerge into the world. ’50: Diary of a Middle-Aged Woman’ became an accidental work of witness to the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a record of the fear and anxiety in those early days of lockdown as the death toll rose and we all thought we were doomed. Having health anxiety at the best of times, this was extremely worrying for me. I didn’t have a partner to comfort me, to talk issues through with, to make light of the whole terrible situation with much-need humour. I was extra specially careful about staying away from people and constantly washing my hands, nevertheless, in early April 2020 I managed to catch Covid and was never more terrified in all my life. My existential worries about the aesthetics of ageing were blown away by my very real fears that I was about to slowly choke to death on my own sputum as I gasped for breath and my organs gradually failed. Very little was known about the virus back then, and all things considered it felt like we really were living in calamitous dystopian times.
I wrote: “2020 has been the year of catastrophes and disasters. At the beginning, there were appalling bushfires across Australia that killed one billion native animals, destroyed property and wildernesses, and resulted in an unprecedented ecological disaster for the country. It was horrific. Then there was a plague of locusts in Kenya, and murder hornets in America, a volcano in the Philippines, flooding in Indonesia, an earthquake in Turkey, and a deadly avalanche in Kashmir.”
Writing my diary was a great comfort. I was able to set down my fears, expand on my worries and, having got it out of my head and onto paper, it was somehow consoling. Talking face-to-face with friends and family wasn’t allowed during the lockdown and dealing with the isolation and loneliness was something everyone was having to surmount, but I think it must have been especially hard for the very elderly, confused and frightened stuck in their nursing homes without any visitors allowed. I just thanked God it wasn’t my time yet. I hope there’ll be more compassion by then, but it’s not guaranteed.
Putting my thoughts down on paper gave me the feeling of being witnessed and understood, it helped me navigate my way through those bizarre times. Each time I wrote an entry I recorded the rapidly rising death toll and infection rates for that day (which were being announced on the news stoking the flames of terror). I became somewhat obsessed by the numbers.
I furiously, sometimes desperately, continued to scribble my thoughts, not just about the new coronavirus and all its ramifications, but about ageing, the menopause, and the struggle of home schooling and parenthood. It might be a cliché to say, but my diary became my best friend, the place I turned to when I was in a panic or frightened and where I recorded the hilarious and frustrating things that happened – my various struggles and triumphs.
The year I wrote my diary also happened to be the year when my relationship with my parents began to change significantly. I started noticing my mother was experiencing symptoms of some kind of neurological disease and that she was becoming less able to do things for herself and think clearly. Her hands trembled and her muscles stiffened. My father too was gradually going downhill, losing weight, strength, and dexterity. I had to reconcile the changing nature of my relationship with them, where, instead of me turning to them for help it was now the other way round: it was they who needed me to open the lid of a jar, make a doctor’s appointment, or change the bed sheets. I could no longer ask them for favours, such as collecting the children from school if there was a crisis, or looking after the kids if I needed to go out, even for a short while. It was now too much for them. More and more, I was facing life on my own caring for the young ones on the one hand, and my increasingly frail parents on the other.
Somewhere in amongst all the anxiety I felt I was losing myself. Just as I’d glimpsed freedom on the horizon with my children edging towards their teenage years, my parents declined and a global pandemic shut everything down. Life became small and even more inward-looking. We all stayed inside our homes and could only sigh and watch from a distance as spring began to display her magnificence as normal. What was happening inside our dark, anxious minds was in sharp contrast to the emerging colourful buds outside.
I decided to self-publish my diary and make it available for other people to read, not just for readers to experience what life is like for a menopausal, middle-aged single mother, but later, as a moment-by-moment historical record of the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, how we felt about it at the time, and how it affected and changed our lives forever.