Emma Freud: "I’m Not Interested in Spending My 50s Pretending I’m in My 40s"
My amazing mum was 90 last month. She’s been an actress for 70 years—and on her big day she performed two theater shows before hosting dinner for 30 people. She swims every morning, goes tap dancing every week, and has nearly mastered the names, if not the sexes, of her 18 grandchildren. When someone recently asked her how she is still sparkling at her mighty age, she suggested it might be connected to her lunchtime diet, always the same: a packet of potato crisps and a glass of red wine. She’s sharp, funny, and beautifully eccentric.
But each time we talked this year about her 90th birthday, she asked me not to mention her actual age. “I don’t want people knowing how old I am—they’ll write me off,” she said, in a 90-year-old way. So, in that incredibly patronizing tone that only a 55-year-old can use when addressing her nonagenarian mother, I had a massive talk to her (to her, not with her—she’s my mum, remember).
It went something like this: “Mum, if you’ve arrived at 90 with your health and your faculties intact—not to mention your insistence on sunbathing in a bikini and your refusal to wear clothes to bed—surely that is something to celebrate rather than hide. You fought for female liberation in the ’60s—you can’t now be part of the conspiracy that women are valid only when they are young. We’ve moved on from that. If people are standing up and openly saying ‘I’m LGBTQI’ or ‘I have mental-health issues,’ then surely we should say ‘I’m old’ with pride?”
I didn’t always feel this strongly. Seven years ago, my daughter had an operation that went wrong and left her in chronic physical and mental pain for years. Living with a child whose life is unbearable is a constant, acute agony. And the experience got me thinking: It’s been as bad as it can be, my worst fear was realized, and I’m still here, bruised and a bit battered but clearer, braver, and determined to embrace anything that is positive and kind, unapologetically and optimistically.
Consequently, along with saying goodbye to a wrinkle-free face, I’ve stopped trying to get life right all the time. Ten years as a TV interviewer and 20 years as a mother and producer have earned me a master’s degree in “pretending you know what you’re talking about,” with a postgraduate qualification in “not being found out.” I already don’t get life right all the time, and I now know that’s never going to change. I’m shedding the dread of thinking, “What if I make a mistake?” I’ve made so many. What if I go on making mistakes?
I definitely will. What if one of my kids gets sick—like, really sick? She did. But we survived.
I’m not interested in spending my 50s pretending I’m in my 40s—and the surprise is … I really like getting old. I’m aware I’m lucky in health and circumstances, but I enjoy being 20 years older than the rest of the guest list and still being the last to leave a party. I relish my mission to introduce the denim jumpsuit as a requisite uniform for those over 50.
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I’m finally delighted to be 5 foot 3 and have bid farewell to high heels because they are ridiculous inventions and I feel like an arse in them. I don’t want Botox to make me look like I’ve never had a sleepless night or a troubled thought. I’d rather be mutton dressed as happy mutton than mutton dressed as lamb. And if that leads to job limitations, I’d rather work elsewhere. I want to embrace the meaningful creases and the deep laugh lines, because there is a lot of stuff to laugh at. I don’t want to say, “Thank you,” if someone politely says, “You don’t look your age.” I’ve started being insulted by the comment instead, as I was when I was 12.
I’m 55½, and I’m excited about the future. As long as health and memory hold out, the next few decades could be the climax, the payback, the prize, the finest and most fearless stage of all. I’m optimistic about balancing work and home when my kids eventually bugger off, eating potato crisps and drinking red wine at lunchtime, and finally being allowed to wear a big T-shirt that says “Seriously F—ing Old.”