Turning 40 can be scary for women. While our 20s are a period of exploring and taking chances, and our 30s a period of growth, by 40 we’re supposed to have things all figured out. If we don’t, it can provoke anxiety and feelings of unworthiness, especially when society and the media tell us that at 40, we’re no longer desirable or attractive: We’re over the hill.
These messages are what prompted therapist Sarah Brokaw to write Fortytude: Making the Next Decades the Best Years of Your Life – through the 40s, 50s and Beyond (Hyperion Books 2011). Part prescriptive advice and part personal stories including her own, the book offers real-life advice for tackling these significant years with grace and an open mind—and making them the best years of a woman’s life. While it targets women over 35, its messages are applicable to women at any stage of life.
A New York Times best-seller, it’s based on five core principles that she identified successful women as developing and appreciating to see themselves through their transitions into their 40s: Grace, connectedness, accomplishment, adventure and spirituality. Based on her book, she presented “The Five Core Values as Our Guiding Principles” to keynote the Women’s Leadership Institute annual conference in Amelia Island, Florida in December 2012.
The daughter of TV news anchor Tom Brokaw, she grew up amid high expectations, which led her to earn a degree at Duke University NC, teach English in Japan, earn a master’s in social work from New York University and do a post grad program at Fielding University for executive coaching.
Part therapist, part life coach, and part philanthropist, she counseled survivors in New York City after 9/11 and has traveled extensively to war-torn and devastated areas such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Haiti. Her focus is on women, wellness, healing and empowerment.
At age 37, Brokaw was living in New York City, with her own psychotherapy practice. She was single, focused on competing in triathlons. Most of her clients were women, many concerned with the aging process.
One client, a 36-year-old woman with three kids, announced that she was going to have an affair. “I don’t have anyone in mind, but I know I’m going to do it,” she said, explaining that she’d been married for 13 years and was happy but was losing her sexual vitality and needed to be reaffirmed. Comparing herself to an earlier self, she worried that at age 40, her sexuality would be lost forever.
Working with Brokaw helped her come to terms with the aging process. They did so by inviting her husband into the conversation—and she ended up taking him to a pole dancing class.
Another set of clients, a lesbian couple ages 47 and 43, came to her because the younger one wanted a baby but a gynecologist said it was too late. Statistics show that by age 43, a woman has only a 2% chance of conceiving using her own eggs. Nobody had told these women earlier in life about freezing their eggs for use with a surrogate or through in vitro fertilization (IVF) down the road.
This scenario was interesting to Brokaw because she was 37. Why hadn’t anyone told her—or her client—about women’s fertility? A fertility expert at NYU suggested options. IVF was costly. In the end, the couple chose adoption. Brokaw realized that women needed to know their options earlier in life, so that they could keep them open.
Another female client, a managing director in an organization at age 41, burst into tears while telling Brokaw that she was there because she knew she’d always be single. Working 80 hours a week, she found few ways to meet men.
Brokaw pointed out that men usually don’t have this problem because they don’t have a biological clock, go after younger women and can go out with the guys to meet them. She and her client worked on ways for the client to meet men, including going online, and the client did find other ways to meet people.
Despite being a therapist, Brokaw herself chose not to attend her 20th high school reunion at age 38. All her classmates seems to be married with kids, so she worried about being seen as “empty-handed” and a “loser.”
“It was out of fear, and I felt lame,” she said. She decided that it was hypocritical to advise clients to sally forth with confidence and curiosity, not fear and regret, when she couldn’t do it herself.
A situation like this can be defined as a crisis moment or a “sparkling moment,” said Brokaw. “It let me define my path, look at women with a different lens, and want to help and empower them.” She started by reviewing the literature. Only one book was out there; Gail Sheehy’s Passages came out in 1976. Since women’s lives obviously had changed a lot since then, Brokaw decided to write a book to help women aged 35 and over.
Using FaceBook to connect with women and asking women she met elsewhere, she traveled across the country looking for women to talk to, from Seattle to Dallas to Bozeman to Provo to San Francisco to Madison. She interviewed more than 385 women, in two to three-hour discussions.
“Facilitating an effective discussion with women isn’t easy,” Brokaw noted. To add structure, she asked them to list their top values. Five emerged: Grace, connectedness, accomplishment, adventure and spirituality. Each woman explained what each of the five words meant in her own voice, and each had different definitions.
She needed to find women who had faced adversity and overcome it. After interviewing 282 women at age 42, she chose 40 “pretty amazing women” to feature in her book, with “exemplary” women highlighted in each of the five value categories.
Grace is the ability to face life with a sense of equanimity. It is living with patience, acceptance and congruency, and making peace with life events, even when they don’t go our way.
In our 40s, dealing with physical aging and health issues with grace is an issue. Women are encouraged to defy the physical symptoms of aging through plastic surgery, cosmetic injections and other procedures; many women are afraid to NOT do it. Brokaw advises women to find someone to be their example of aging gracefully.
Breast cancer survivors are an example of living with grace. With a double mastectomy, you lose your breasts; with chemotherapy, you lose your hair. But as a result of their health struggles, many of these women now know what it’s like to feel completely alive.
Brokaw met an African American breast cancer survivor who, after being diagnosed at age 40, called cancer “CANSIR,” as in “Yes, I can fight this.” She went to every chemo appointment dressed head-to-toe in pink sparkles and brought a range of pink supplies for her treatment station.
“I refused to feel sorry for myself,” she said. “I wore a pink boa, signed myself in as the Pink Diva, and pretended I was there for a manicure and pedicure.”
At the end of her treatment, another patient told her he signed up for treatments at the same time as hers because she uplifted him, and that he was alive because of her. She had been completely unaware of her impact on others.
In the workplace, it’s essential to establish relationships with others, especially female co-workers, said Brokaw, noting that she’d noticed a lack of effective mentoring for women. Competition in the workplace is one factor.
“Young women come in, but the older ones are reluctant to help them because they see a sense of entitlement,” said Brokaw. “The older ones feel that they had to work harder and get paid less, and the younger ones don’t respect what the older ones had to go through to get where they are.”
She recommends that women ask each other, “What do you need from me?” Don’t ask at the end of the day, when people are tired and have a lot on their minds. And don’t do it as a way to suck up. Ask with integrity.
Women in the workplace don’t have the outlets that men do, such as playing golf or going to bars. They may have to rush home to care for kids, pets or elderly parents.
Her sister, an emergency room doctor in San Francisco, heard EMTs and nurses complaining. Their solution was to establish a Wednesday Whine & Wine group. After each session, they went back to work with a sense of joy and connectedness to other women.
Other forms of connectedness can include friendships with women; groups such as book clubs, mom groups, knitting gangs, playgroups and professional associations; intimate partnerships; mentoring and volunteering.
Just don’t forget your partner. “It is great that women can connect,” said Brokaw. “But often we can connect with other women better than with our partners.”
Of the 100+ women at her presentation, only five raised their hands as feeling “accomplished.” Brokaw had always defined it as reaching the typical milestones for women: married by the end of your 20s, having kids and becoming an executive in your 30s. All done, of course, with “effortless perfection.”
She remembered that back then, “I didn’t realize there was so much more than reaching milestones. Now, I define it as insight.” Think of a five-year-old child, in awe of a bug on the sidewalk or learning how to swim. That’s a sense of accomplishment: understanding what’s on earth, and mastering a skill.
“We confuse it with money, being partnered or earning a promotion,” she said. “But it’s bad if it defines who we are.” While many women never feel accomplished, once they define it in their own words, things change.
To Brokaw, accomplishment meant creating a child through IVF. “I chose an alternative path, but I defined it was my own. My accomplishment was to create a being.” She was seven months pregnant at her presentation.
It’s about achieving fulfillment of our own personal goals, without needing recognition by others. When Brokaw doesn’t have any goals, she doesn’t feel like she’s accomplished. Beware, however, of false deadlines. Do things when you want, without deadlines. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself.
Why do many women omit adventure from their lives? Excuses include a lack of time and money, and too many other responsibilities getting in the way. But adventure doesn’t have to be a huge deal. It can take only 10 minutes a day, such as trying a new vegetable or sex position, or learning a new language.
“If you don’t incorporate adventure into everyday life, this prevents you from practicing curiosity,” she explained.
Spirituality means different things and has varying degrees of importance to everyone. Brokaw had always looked at it as being religious, and as brainwashing. But spirituality is more than religion.
As the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, Brokaw was watching TV at her apartment when FEMA called, requesting help from all local social workers. She went to St. Vincent’s hospital on 16th St. and spent 14 hours that first day trying to locate people’s relatives. After 9/11, she saw the importance of faith and spirituality.
“I don’t do organized religion,” she said, “but I did find a new religion—surfing.” Picking it up from a boyfriend, she learned to navigate the ocean using a nine-foot piece of plastic. It taught her to have faith, even after repeated splashes into the surf.
“I walk out at such peace, even after being pummeled,” she explained. “It’s taught me to have faith in myself, no matter what comes along.”
Summarizing, Brokaw said that change is inevitable. Growth is optional. Choose wisely.
Contact Sarah Brokaw at
Editor's note. Sarah gave birth to a baby boy, Archer Thomas Merritt Brokaw on February 13, 2013. Congratulations!
Farrington, Elizabeth L. (2013, February). MOVEABLE TYPE: How to Make the Most of Turning 40 and Beyond. Women in Higher Education, 22(2), 16-17.