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Make your 40s — and beyond — the best years of your life

Sarah Brokaw, a therapist and daughter of NBC's Tom Brokaw, went on a quest to make the second half of her life the best yet. She describes her journey in "Fortytude: Making the Next Decades the Best Years of Your Life — Through the 40s, 50s and Beyond.”
/ Source: TODAY books

The aging process is inevitable, and each day we all get a little bit older. Sarah Brokaw, a therapist, author and daughter of NBC’s Tom Brokaw, went on a quest to find the key to making the second half of her life the best yet. She describes her journey into the next decade in her new book, “Fortytude: Making the Next Decades the Best Years of Your Life — Through the 40s, 50s, and Beyond.” Here’s an excerpt.

My Own Story

Recently, I had a sparkling moment when I realized that my life didn’t necessarily match up with my parents’ values or their way of life. Their traditional values — work hard, come home and eat dinner with the family, do your chores, go to bed, and do the same thing again the next day — didn’t reflect my goals and desires.

My father, NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, had such admiration and reverence for the World War II generation that he coined the term, “The Greatest Generation.” He wrote a book about those Americans who fought in World War II or remained on the home front taking care of the country’s needs, and those who built the U.S. back up following the war. To this day, my dad maintains a hardworking, self-sacrificing approach to life based on his traditional set of values.

My father and mother (who have been blissfully married for 47 years) projected these values onto their daughters, for which I am extremely grateful. Yet it did not dawn on me until recently that I was questioning the choices I had made thus far in life, because they had not led me to the traditional milestones of womanhood: engagement, marriage, and children.

I experienced this moment of clarity when an investment banker client of mine told me a story about her own parents. She had complained to her father that she was exhausted by the strain of her work. He had replied, “There were so many people in my generation who didn’t have just one job, they had two. And you would never hear them complain.” It sounded exactly like something my own father would say. As I discussed ways in which this client could free herself from parental expectations, and why she should feel entitled to her own experience, I realized that I ought to be following my own advice.

I have known for a long time that I didn’t have it in me to follow the traditional path — nor did I desire to do so. I always have felt that being authentic and obeying my heart mattered most. I have found it profoundly scary at times not to follow the path that my parents forged for themselves, or what society portrays as the “right thing to do” — husband, children, house. But I generally believe that I’m doing the right thing for me. So why do I allow myself, like the client I just mentioned, to feel undermined by the very values I choose not to ascribe to? Why do I sink into a place of self-doubt, feeling somehow like a failure because I haven’t traveled the traditional road?

Many of us hear our parents’ criticisms, disapproval, and condescension in our heads from time to time — and I’m no exception. That is why when I’m working with a client who is expressing fear over any particular issue, I ask, “Whose voices are you hearing?” So often, our parents’ belief systems continue to influence the choices we make. When I work with these women, we discuss how they can break free from the parental voices still “calling the shots” and instead discover who they are and who they will be as they go forward in life.

What amazed me during my own “aha moment” was that I somehow had fallen into this very trap that I so often help my clients get out of. While I had lived the life I wanted up to that point, I was still letting my parents’ traditional values be judge and jury. I was unconsciously measuring myself according to their standards. I was listening to their voices, rather than my own.

When I graduated from college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. So I took my Duke University degree with me to Guam where, at the equivalent of a Club Med for Japanese couples, I slid my 5’2” body into an ill-fitting faux satin pink strapless dress that was designed for a 5’10” woman, lip-synced to “Santa Baby” during the evening, and then rose early the following morning to teach snorkelling in an outdoor aquarium. How ridiculous is that? I am sure they were incredibly proud of me at the Duke career counselling center!

After lip syncing and breathing through a tube lost their novelty, I moved to Tokyo, where I worked as the only American in the Patagonia retail store, and honed my drinking skills to great effect. While that experience certainly didn’t help me lose the “freshman 15” I had packed on at Duke, it did offer many benefits. I learned the language and immersed myself in the culture, adjusting to unfamiliar customs such as no eating in public, taking off shoes before going inside, and bowing to introduce myself rather than shaking hands. I lived in a tiny Japanese neighbourhood with no other expatriates around, so I had no place to seek refuge. It forced me to grow up fast. It also was the first time in my life when my last name didn’t raise eyebrows or provoke questions, which was a relief.

From Tokyo I moved to San Francisco, where I committed myself to figuring out my next step. People were still telling me that I had my whole life ahead of me, that I could do whatever I wanted, that I was young and the world was full of possibilities. But at 26, I felt it was time to get serious. I decided to attend graduate school at New York University. I graduated from the School of Social Work two years later, worked in a hospital for another two years, and then opened my own private psychotherapy practice at age 30. I wasn’t married with children, but I had my career. 

Shortly after I began my practice, the tragic events of 9/11 occurred. Consequently, I began working with deeply traumatized individuals who had been in the buildings but were able to escape, and also with people who had observed what happened. I began two support groups, and saw almost 300 people within the first three months after the attack. Working with the survivors of 9/11 made me appreciate fully how important the mental health profession is. Any lingering concerns about therapy being something that was a luxury for the wealthy rather than a service of real value to the world vanished. It quickly became apparent how desperately people needed help. I was honored to be able to step up and utilize my skills for the benefit of the community. 

Fast forward to a year and a half ago. I was nearing 40. According to society’s dictates, I was supposed to be feeling as if time were running out. And I did start to panic. “Why should I feel this way?” I wondered. “I’m successful, but I’m not married and don’t have kids. While 40 is not old, I no longer hear people telling me that I have my whole life ahead of me. Most women I see my age have the house/family/husband package — I don’t. What, then, is my identity? What are my values? How can I get excited about who I am, where I am, and who and where I want to be, while my clock is ticking?” I looked around at the most capable women in my practice and saw that many of them were struggling with the same questions.

Then I had my epiphany with the client who brought up her father’s judgment, and realized that I was still stuck measuring myself according to my parents’ values. When I looked back at my sometimes-misguided life path, I discovered that actually I have been on a wonderful adventure thus far. There were many times when I didn’t know what I truly needed, and there were times when, out of fear, I relied on other people’s opinions and advice to help me make decisions. But all in all, I have had many incredible, eye-opening experiences as an adult. As soon as I was able to evaluate my life without hearing my parents’ voices, I was able to focus on what I have a achieved thus far. I was able to see even my “failures” as growth opportunities that shaped me into the person I am today. Shifting my focus in this way has helped me approach “the big 4-0” with fortytude. 

Excerpted from "Fortytude: Making the Next Decades the Best Years of Your Life — Through the 40s, 50s, and Beyond" by Sarah Brokaw. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Voice Books.