The biggest leap: What’s it like to completely start over in your forties?

·16-min read
Taking the plunge: life begins again at 40  (Getty)
Taking the plunge: life begins again at 40 (Getty)

It’s long been thought that our lives are “fixed” by our mid-thirties. That’s when we’re apparently meant to have found our forever partner. When we’re meant to have found a stable job, and one that will carry us through to retirement. And when we’re meant to be proud owners of a three-bedroom house within commuting distance to a major city. It’s there that we’ll raise at least one child and a raft of grandchildren. The rest of our lives, according to this ridiculous metric, are then set in stone.

Up until a couple of years ago, even our personalities were thought to be set by the time we reach this age. Research from 2020, however, found that our personalities are more fluid and malleable than we first thought. In fact, researchers discovered that our personalities gradually change from the time we are teenagers until we’re well into our eighties. They called it “personality maturation”.

So if our personalities can be fluid, surely other aspects of our lives can be too? That’s the premise, at least, of a new TV show. Sex and the City and Emily in Paris creator Darren Star has returned with Uncoupled, which launches on Netflix this week.

It follows Michael (Neil Patrick Harris), a real estate agent in New York, who is forced into a total life overhaul when his boyfriend of 17 years abruptly leaves him. Instead of wallowing in uncertainty, though, Michael leaps into the great unknown. There, he flourishes.

He’s not alone. More and more people are starting over in their forties and beyond, by choice and by circumstance. Here, Hannah Fearn speaks to six of them.

The London leaver


Jo Atkinson, 45, left behind her “work hard, play hard” London lifestyle after her mum passed away. She now lives a rural life in the New Forest and feels happier and healthier than ever.

“Five years ago, I was a Clapham social butterfly. I worked in the City, so I would cycle to work, go to the gym, pop out for a coffee, and go for dinner and drinks after work. I’d be out socialising pretty much every day of the week. My cooker would regularly have dust on it – the telltale sign of a London lifestyle – and weekends would be spent feeling quite hungover and going for brunch.

“When I turned 40 I started to question things for the first time. I’ve got a huge circle of friends, but I manage projects for a living and I was managing my social life like a project, constantly filling up my time. I suddenly felt like I was the oldest person at all the bars around Clapham.

I can’t think of anything worse than going to a bar in Clapham now

Jo Atkinson

“Then the trigger for the change was my mum passing away at the end of 2019. I decided to go and do something completely different and handed in my notice on my rental flat, didn’t renew my contract at work and found myself a job in a horse riding holiday centre in France. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit and France locked down, so that was cancelled, but I had already given up my flat so I moved into a holiday cottage in the New Forest near where I grew up.

“Once I’d settled a bit I asked myself, do I really want to go back to London? I now had a completely different lifestyle. I’d acquired my mum’s dog, got myself a cat and was horse riding regularly again. I was living this outdoorsy life and really enjoying cooking at home. I decided to stay and buy my own home.

“A lot of my friends have been really shocked at how quickly I’ve adapted. I can’t think of anything worse than going to a bar in Clapham now. I rarely go out for dinner or drinks. I don’t have a gym membership but I do a lot of yoga at home. It feels so much healthier than what I was doing before.

“My previous lifestyle was getting very stale but now I can see a future. I’ve bought a house and my pension pot is growing nicely. All the things I’d been putting off to play Peter Pan in London I’ve done.

“I guess I’m not scared of growing up and growing old now; I’m looking forward to it. I recently had a couple of months off between work contracts and I loved it. I was so busy. I realised this is what retirement will be like. You shouldn’t stick with what you know just because it’s familiar and safe. Change is wonderful if you embrace it.”

Going solo

 (Catherine Simons)
(Catherine Simons)

Teacher and director Sarah Spencer, 44, broke up with her partner during lockdown after multiple attempts to conceive failed. Then she decided to go it alone via IVF with donor sperm and eggs. She’s now a solo mum to a five-month-old daughter.

“I went to drama school and always wanted to be a director but I became a school teacher to make money. You get into it, you get used to being paid, and I ended up teaching full time until I was 30. But one day I just couldn’t take it anymore. I quit and set up my show, which consumed my early to mid-thirties. I didn’t prioritise having a child, even though my partner and I were already trying.

Theatre is not equipped for mothers and I want to work with mums

Sarah Spencer

“I went to the doctor when I was 35 to ask why it wasn’t happening and my doctor just said I need to relax. It was only when they finally suspected endometriosis and I got a hospital appointment they said ‘that ship has sailed’. So we tried IUI and IVF, but it didn’t happen. Finally, I had a missed miscarriage, and after that my partner said he didn’t think it was the right time. He wanted to revisit it in five years. I couldn’t do that, and we split up in the middle of lockdown. I thought, that’s it, that’s my chance gone.

“But then I realised: with my show,Notflix, off due to pandemic restrictions, I had all the time in the world to make this happen. If I didn’t throw everything at it, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.

“I looked into egg donation. I only had one chance at IVF left and so I wanted to give it the best chance. When you read about egg donation it’s one of the most inspirational things. Going into IVF as a single woman is amazing because you have all the control yourself. I was 42 by now, so chose an egg from a Scottish woman in performing arts who was just 23, and I had sperm imported from the US.

“IVF is amazing because you even see the embryo in its petri dish before it goes in. They put it in and instantly I could feel it, it just felt right. It worked.

“My daughter was born at 39 weeks. Being a mum now is absolutely amazing and every day is like the best day of my life. I’m trying to take her with me to our run at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. It won’t be easy but we’ll make it work. It’s changed how I run a show. Theatre is not equipped for mothers and I want to work with mums. We need to create more spaces where they are welcome.

“My ex and I are together again now. He was there at the birth and has continued to be involved. He loves her very much and she’ll always have him as her dad figure. But I am a single mum: I make the decisions, and it’s me and her doing things together. I had no other chance to be a mother and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

The Great Escape


Tracy Thomas was surprised when, early this year, her marriage came to an abrupt end at the age of 50. She is finding new purpose in a new job and by spending her first summer abroad with her teenage daughter.

“We’d been together for 20 years and engaged for ages. The pandemic made us reflect on losing each other and we decided we’d finally marry. We were a good family. I never saw any problems; I completely trusted him and never doubted him.

“Then last year he stopped bothering to do so much family stuff and seemed to want to do his own thing. At Christmas I found out via a friend locator on my daughter’s phone that he’d been cheating. He went to his mum’s and left me to tell our daughter what had happened. We tried to make it work but one day he said ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ and packed his stuff and left.

“It could have gone one way or the other, and I did go through a really dark phase. I’ve been having some CBT and my daughter is waiting for counselling too, although the list is very long. We never had any closure so I’ve just had to find my own, and I’ve tried different things.

I wanted to get stuck into something new, to have a new challenge thrown at me

Tracy Thomas

“I decided to declutter everything: I cleared his shed out, I cleared everything out of the house that was his to get rid of the memories. That was a good therapy session and that helped. I’m drinking CBD products at night, which help me to relax and sleep, and I’m in the process of changing my job from being a respite carer and teacher to working with victims of crime. I wanted to get stuck into something new, to have a new challenge thrown at me. It’s a new start.

“Right now I’m in Gran Canaria for a month with my daughter. My initial response to the breakup was that I had to get away. So I booked it, and this has kept me going; it’s been my goal just to get to this stage.

“We’re going parasailing. Going on a submarine. We’re doing things I would never have done before. I’m really enjoying my life again now, and I didn’t think I would. I genuinely thought that was it for me.”

Bye bye booze


Shelly Shulman, 44, had a successful creative business as a cake maker, but two years ago she stopped taking new orders and threw herself into a new career as a business coach. After decades as a heavy social drinker, she also took the bold decision to go sober.

“Before the pandemic I was a cake maker. I started my business in 2006, and it was growing and thriving: I’d made cakes for the Queen and for Take That. I was really good at it and I really loved it. But a few years ago I started working with a business coach and I learned about passive income. Even though I was enjoying cake making, I had an upper earning limit; I only had one pair of hands. So what I started to do was to coach other cake makers about how to grow their business.

I realised the coaching was giving me the freedom to do what I wanted to do

Shelly Shulman

“Then in 2020, Covid hit and there wasn’t much call for cakes. But there were a lot of calls for coaching. Through the pandemic I was helping so many cake makers with how to deal with client cancellations, and for the first time other people were coming to me for business advice, too. I started to branch out. I realised the coaching was giving me the freedom to do what I wanted to do, on my own terms, and on my own hours. I decided not to make any more cakes and now I just do business coaching full time. I love it because I was that person once, now I get to give them the knowledge that helps break a loop and get them to where they want to be.

“Then, on 14 June 2021, I went sober. The problem with drinking was that I never had an off switch. People would say ‘I can only have three and that’s it’; I knew I should only have two, but when I’d had the second I’d just want the third. I could go to an event where everybody else would be sober and I would just be drinking and drinking.

“The day before I quit I went to a garden party and I woke up with the worst hangover. When you’re in your forties they can last for days. I just woke up and thought, I’m done. I didn’t want to be photographed and become a meme on the internet. I accepted that alcohol doesn’t sit right with me and I’ve not looked back. I have so much more clarity now in absolutely everything I do, and I can get up easily in the morning. I feel healthier, my friends say my skin has improved. I’ve not looked back.

“It’s easier for me to not have any, rather than say I’ve had enough. If I’m sitting on the train on the way home from London and I see drunk people, I think I used to be one of them. There’s an embarrassment that just sits there.

“I was in Malta when I was a year sober. My husband bought me a ring to celebrate, so I have got a little reminder. Now it’s less of a goal, it’s just a way of life. It’s just automatic for me now.”

The vicar of Cheltenham


After having three children and settling into her dream home, Rev Kathryn Fleming, now 62, felt restless in her forties and retrained to become a vicar.

“I was running away from my calling throughout my thirties. I was a mum of three, living in a beautiful farmhouse in the Cotswolds. On one level it was all perfect, I had the house that I dreamed of since I was a child, a Georgian doll’s house with apple trees in the garden. On lots of levels it was fantastic, but I had what I can only describe as spiritual butterflies in the tummy. A general restlessness. I was doing a lot of things that were socially useful. I was an administrator for local charities. I ran a bed and breakfast. I was a school governor. I was involved in our local churches running their children’s work. But perhaps I wasn’t using my brain enough.

“In 1992, when my youngest was born, the Church of England voted to ordain women as priests. People would say ‘you’ll be next’ and I’d say ‘oh, no no no’. But then I just got to the stage where those voices became internal voices.

When I first applied, the selection board told me I was having a mid-life crisis

Rev Kathryn Fleming

“When I first applied, the selection board told me I was having a mid-life crisis because my children were getting older. They said, ‘Go home and get some chickens’. They basically told me to get lost. But having the door shut made it really clear that I needed to hammer it down. I went back after a year and everything was quite different. I knew where I wanted to be. I started training around the age of 40 and I was ordained at 44.

“I had to move to Cheltenham, leaving behind the gorgeous Cotswolds house. I thought I was wrecking my children’s childhoods but nobody else minded nearly as much as I thought they ought to. My daughter was a teenager by then and glad to move to a busy town.

“The first year was weird but I had this sense of being on my way. When I was priested in 2005 I felt this was who I was meant to be. I felt I was coming home but in a completely new way. It was wonderful.

“I’m not naturally bold but now, on the whole, my default is ‘yes’. By 40 you’re beginning to know yourself pretty well. You’ve got past the sense of ‘this is who I ought to be’, the people-pleaser agenda or peer group fitting that settles in in your twenties and thirties.

“If you feel there’s something that’s restless within you, then listen to it. If you don’t take the opportunities you’ll always wonder, and if it doesn’t work out there’s usually a way back somehow.”

Portugal’s calling


Tim Fry, 61, quit his job in education for a new life in the Algarve with his wife. He says moving to Portugal had a huge impact on his mental health, leading him to contentment after decades of struggles with anxiety and depression.

“I went into teaching in my twenties because I thought it was going to be easy; it wasn’t. I was suffering from stress, anxiety, depression and the effects of childhood anxiety too. Too often I was self-medicating with alcohol.

I think I’m healthier now than I’ve ever been in my life

Tim Fry

“From about the early 2000s I started to turn things around. I stopped drinking, and found anxiety medication that was working. But I was still rootless. I was teaching in London, living in Newhaven, taking four trains each way. One day I just said that’s it, I’m not coming back. I trundled off to Abu Dhabi as an education consultant and, while I was there, a friend put me in touch with an old school pal who I used to date as a teenager. We tried to catch up but she was always working when I was back in the UK. Finally, a decade ago, when I was in my fifties, she came to stay with me – and then never went home. We got married the next year. I never had any intention of being married, and I didn’t want the responsibility or to be tied down. This was a big surprise to me.

“Our honeymoon was in Portugal. I have friends here and Caroline, my wife, had been once before and I knew she liked it because she kept stopping to look at estate agents’ windows. In January 2020, a friend told me about a new international school opening up and I thought I would give it a try. I got a phone call the same day, and that was it. We sold the house and emigrated in August 2020 and had no issues crossing borders, but shortly after we arrived it all locked down again, so the timing worked out just right.

“We got residence in December 2020, just before Brexit, and if I’m still around in eight years’ time we can apply to become a national. We’ll never leave now. The Portuguese are a wonderfully friendly and helpful group of people and we wouldn’t want to come back to the political and economic situation at home. Or the weather.

“I think I’m healthier now than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m relaxed. I’m chilled. Even though I’m teaching, I love what I do. I’ll never be rich but for the first time in my life I’m content.”

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