When I turned twenty-one (a landmark birthday in Australia, despite having no legal significance), my high-school best friend gave me a birthday card in which she wrote, “Only nineteen years until you’re forty!” We laughed. I probably threw a scrunched-up napkin at her. It was so far off. It was never going to happen, not to us.
Well, those nineteen years have passed (why didn’t anyone tell us they would?!), and today I turned forty. For the last twelve months, I’ve been dreading it. I didn’t want to dread it; I wanted to be all, “Hey, age is just a number, baby!” but I wasn’t. It didn’t matter how many friends reminded me of all the lovely things I should be happy about and proud of. I dreaded it.
Then, as my sister-in-law, followed by my step-sister, and then my high school friends all hit that number, I started to ask myself why it was so terrible. And it did feel terrible. Forty. Ugh! I hated even saying the word.
I never did the thirty freak-out thing. I loved turning thirty. Part of that was because I worked in the IT industry and, especially as a woman, being over thirty gave me cred. (It was probably cred a female IT project manager wouldn’t need today because things have changed that fast, btw.) But, I was also freshly settled into a new life in a new country and I felt like I was on a life-related upward swing.
Fast-forward ten years and the pendulum has done more than swing up and down or back and forth. It’s gone every which-way and turned itself in knots. Honestly, it’s been more like silly string, flailing all over the place until I don’t know even which direction I’m even facing, I’m just trying not to get any of the damn stuff in my mouth and eyes.
But that’s life, right? It’s always doing that. So, why am I freaking out now?
I wondered if it was because I’m entering a decade as a single woman for the first time since I hit double digits. I considered that maybe it was because, if I had to be single, why couldn’t it have been sooner? Did I waste my thirties? But the answer is, of course not. The first part I spent building a career, and the second part I devoted to my daughter. That’s a pretty solid thirties effort, really.
So, then I asked myself if the itchiness came about because I remembered so vividly what the forties decade looked like when I was a teenager. Shirley Valentine doing her empty-nester life reboot at age forty-two. Patsy and Edina from Absolutely Fabulous clinging to their fading relevance in an industry that only values youth and beauty. My own mum getting remarried at forty and trying to manage (and feed) a houseful of five kids from ages ten to fifteen. How could I be the same age as those women? Not because they were “old”, but because they were in this whole other life stage that I didn’t feel like I was anywhere near.
My friends tried to reassure me that forty is the new thirty, and that if the movies and TV shows that were around when we were kids were made today, all those women would be in their fifties. Maybe that’s true. I don’t know.
But what actually did make me feel better was pointing out to myself how goddamn stupid it is to hate or feel embarrassed about your age. Really. Even putting aside the ridiculously high value we place on youth—which is nothing special since we all get it and we all lose it if we’re lucky enough to live that long—only a hundred years ago, on average, I might only have a decade left. Today, by projected average values, I’m not even old enough to be due a mid-life crisis. (Side note: this does not stop some. No names.)
If you know me, you know I’m not about to start screaming YOLO! and climbing stuff and embracing every nauseatingly selfie-documented moment. No.
Nor am I going to irritate everyone by listing all the stuff I’ve managed to pack into forty years—even though I am essentially a horizontally-content person and it’s a miracle I made it onto a plane to move to another country in the first place. What I AM going to do is STOP. FREAKING. OUT.
I’m going to stop slipping into a state where I allow my age (an arbitrary number) to define me. There are things people ten or twenty years older (or younger) can do that I can’t, not because of age or youth, but because I hate exercising and I don’t want to and shut up you’re not the boss of me!
There’s also stuff I can do that other people can’t, again, not because of age, but because I try to focus on nurturing skills related to activites I love and at which I believe I can succeed.
Look, I know I’m going to slip. I’m going to catch myself cringing when I tick a box on a form that puts me in an older age-bracket. I’m going to lean in to the mirror and sneer at the little lines around my eyes.
And I’m going to do old-person stuff. I’m going to make a noise like a wounded rhino when I get out of a beanbag. I’m going to wonder who the hell invented beanbags anyway and WHY GOD WHY CAN’T I STAND?! I’m going to grit my teeth and roll my eyes when my bus home is filled with loud, drunken youths on a Friday night.
But then I’m going to give myself a little shake and remind myself that all of this is already true. I already do ALL this stuff. I’ve been doing it for quite some time. Turning forty didn’t change anything. Just as turning eighteen didn’t make me a grown-up. And turning thirty didn’t make me any better at a job I already knew how to do. Forty isn’t who I am. It’s how many years it’s taken to become this woman. And she’s all right.