By Stacey Gualandi
Sarah Brokaw has hit a nerve with the 40-and-older crowd with her new book “Fortytude – Making the Next Decades the Best Years of Your Life through the 40’s, 50’s, and Beyond.” Facing the big 4-0? She says have no fear.
“Having Fortytude means realizing that while you can’t control what happens, you can control your reactions.”
Yes, Sarah is related to that other famous Brokaw. Tom is her father. Her mother, Meredith, is a successful entrepreneur. Yet Sarah navigated her own successful path. By 30 she became a licensed psychotherapist and certified coach, but like so many women, she wanted to marry and have a family.
Sarah’s personal story inspired her to write “Fortytude.” She interviewed hundreds of women from all walks of life for the book. Of course, being in my 40’s, I knew this book would speak to me. Not only did it speak to me, it shook, slapped and snapped me right into a new way of thinking!
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with my 40’s so Sarah addressed my personal problems, or “sparkling moments” as she calls them. Now I’d like to share our stories with you…
EYE: Happy Belated Birthday!! You say have no fear about getting older, but how did this one feel?
SARAH: I’m 41. This one was nothing to me. It was the big 4-0 that was quite depressing. Someone asked me about turning 40 and that I probably thought “No big deal, I’m writing this book and I’m someone with the answers.” Actually, not!
I remember having my 40th birthday party. Everyone brought their spouses, and there I was alone. I thought, “This is so not the way I wanted to celebrate my 40th.” I had this big fantasy that I would be coupled up with someone, and he would have held my hand and said “It doesn’t matter that you turned 40,” but I didn’t have that.
At that moment I said to myself that I either can feel sorry for myself, or I can practice Fortytude! Haha. So I went to Haiti following the earthquake in 2010. I did what I needed to do to get myself out of my own head. I did what I’m most energized by which is to work with the women there. I do photography on the side so I documented the resilience of those women.
“I felt it was about time for women in our age group to de-stigmatize the aging process…”
EYE: The book is in its 3rd printing. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’ve started a movement here. Was that the goal?
SARAH: In the back of my mind, I did want to create a movement. I felt it was about time for women in our age group to de-stigmatize the aging process, particularly between 35-40. I felt it was the time for us to just say we can sit here and feel irrelevant and be angry, or we can redefine what it is to be in our 30’s and 40’s and beyond.
EYE: You wrote that there was very little out there on this subject.
SARAH: There was nothing. I found the book “40’s for Dummies”!
EYE: You are a licensed psychotherapist. This book is about helping others but was it also therapeutic for you to sit down and write it?
SARAH: Yeah, re-search is me-search!!! Hahaha!!
EYE: Did you feel once stepping into this project that you would have to share a lot about yourself?
SARAH: I was really reluctant until my editor encouraged me to do so and said, “If you really want the reader to believe what you say and to help them relate to you then you have to share some of your own stories.” That was tough.
However, I also felt like it gave me an opportunity to really think about all the struggles that I experienced and had to put into perspective. I asked myself what did I need to do and how have I handled them in the past.
I was determined to overcome these struggles. One of them was talking about my scoliosis. I have a 40 degree curve in my spinal cord. When I was younger, I wore a brace 23 hours a day, three years in a row at the height of my adolescence. It was not a fun experience.
I wasn’t happy about it, but was all the more determined to get into athletics and be active in my 20’s. I became a tri-athlete in my 30’s, and now I’m into surfing!
EYE: You were extremely candid in the book about your desire to have a child and to freeze your eggs at 37.
SARAH: I definitely want to have a child. It is a private matter. I was able to share that I do want to have a kid, and I did freeze my eggs. But it was a moment that was very sacred to me. It’s not like I’ve changed my mind. I do want to have kids, but that’s just where I leave it.
“I discovered that there were so many other women out there who thought like I did.”
EYE: After writing about these cathartic experiences, what do you ultimately think you’ve learned about yourself?
SARAH: A couple things. I definitely had assumptions about other women who were not like me. Those assumptions were challenged as I got to know more and more women across the nation, women from all walks of life. That was really enlightening for me.
It made me appreciate the female gender that much more. Secondly, my way of thinking is to know about the human condition, our psyche. That was not in my parents lexicon. I discovered that there were so many other women out there who thought like I did.
EYE: With all of your experience and accomplishments, you wrote you felt unqualified to write a book. You call it the “Imposter Complex.” That really surprises me.
SARAH: There are moments when I still feel that way. Recently, I was noticing feeling short of breath. I had panic attacks in my 20’s, and I wondered whether I was having another one. I think partly it was the feeling that here I was going around the country telling women that they need to have Fortytude, that I’m the person with all the information, and I’m thinking I’m not the person they can rely on for that info.
I can’t inspire them! I just had this internal dialogue in my head and I had to step back and think wait a second. I am human. This book is just about Sarah, a 41-year-old woman who just created a dialogue for other women.
EYE: You said you were a hypocrite for not attending your 20th high school reunion. I just organized a 15-year reunion of fellow co-workers. I’m going but I worry about looking older!
SARAH: I think it’s so important to realize that when you have this panic moment of “oh my god I’m getting old,” you’re not the only person who has reached that age. The minute you experience fear, it is so essential to re-language and reframe your thinking. With your reunion, replace the word fear with curiosity. Be curious about what it’s going to be like.
“A sparkling moment is when your Fortytude is being tested.”
EYE: You say problems should really be called sparkling moments. How do these sparkling moments play into having Fortytude?
SARAH: A sparkling moment is when your Fortytude is being tested. It’s the moment when you can either act out of fear or act out of anger or you can pause and think “ok, this is interesting”. Because we have the problem doesn’t mean it’s any less significant. The question is how do we change it from being a problem to just being another exploratory moment in our lives.
EYE: I agreed with almost everything in your book except when you wrote that people tend to experience a surge in self-confidence after 40. My self-confidence dropped severely after 40; I lost not one but two jobs as a TV reporter which meant losing my identity. When my father passed away after a 7-year battle with cancer in 2009, I was just devastated.
SARAH: You, my friend, have been traumatized. You have Fortytude because you’re telling me and being honest with me about what you’ve experienced. And you’re saying this is really hard. You’ve removed your hands from your eyes, and you’re facing these moments in your life that have been really traumatizing and just so happened when you turned 40.
Just stop in that path that you’re walking on and look at those moments in your life and ask what was it about being laid off? Where was my self esteem challenged? Did I experience self doubt? Did you seek any therapy?
EYE: I should have gone into therapy!
SARAH: You just said “should”? No more “should”!! It’s not too late. I think the death of a parent is extraordinarily traumatic and that’s why I wanted to bring it up in the book. It is such a significant loss. It brings up many emotions obviously for women. And I think you are still traumatized. I think that in every other area of your life you’ve been figuring it out, but this is the one part that really brought on the self-doubt.
EYE: You say it’s not too late. What about a career change for me?
SARAH: Before you do, and I would say this to anyone who has lost a parent, you’ve got to do some more work on yourself on your inside. There’s still a part of your body that constantly aches.
EYE: You describe the 5 core values that women can cultivate to live a happy, fulfilling life after 40: GRACE, CONNECTEDNESS, ADVENTURE, ACCOMPLISHMENT, and SPIRITUALITY. What is the most difficult value to harness?
SARAH: The one that was hardest for people to define was grace and how to practice that. It takes a lifetime to practice it and to own it everyday. But what is grace? It’s when you capitalize on your own strengths and then admire the strengths of others.
The other that is so important is connectedness, to really learn how to correspond without paying attention to anything else around us. We are the generation of personal attention. We find ourselves multitasking continuously whether texting while driving or if someone is talking to you, or while you’re going on email.
EYE: It is not hard to see that your parents have been very supportive of you.
SARAH: I really lucked out. They are tough parents – always have been – meaning that they always set high standards. They were not unrealistic standards, but they had expectations that we needed to meet. As an adolescent, I hated all the rules that my dad had set. I thought he was the most unfair father in the world.
In retrospect I think he did the smartest thing. I think that I have to give him a lot of credit for being very open to how I’ve navigated my own path. In the beginning as I was plodding through my 20’s and 30’s, they had a lot of anxiety because they didn’t know what the ending was going to look like. It was something that was so drastically different from the path they navigated.
My sisters followed paths that were very similar to my parent’s paths. They started dating, got married, and had kids. My parents were familiar with that, but the way that I navigated my life was so different.
EYE: Was it difficult having a famous parent?
SARAH: It was harder when I was younger because I was still evolving, and I didn’t know exactly who I was. Once my sisters and I got older we all picked professions different from my father’s. We created our own identities.
EYE: You write about the “magnificent hunch”, that light bulb that goes off when we meet Mr. or Ms. Right? So the dreaded last question, have you had a “magnificent hunch” yet?
SARAH: I wish I did. HA! I get along with men so well. But I haven’t had that chemical thing. Chemistry is what matters most. It’s not the resume!!
EYE: Thank you, Sarah! I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to hear your advice, read your words, and feel enlightened by your candor. I now can say I’m 45 and proud! Now where do I send the check for this therapy session? Haha.