I took my first breath in the arms of woman on the cusp of forty; my formative years were shaped as she navigated her forties. And, I suppose, in turn, her forties were shaped in part by me.
That woman was my mother. And, it was the ’70s.
Portrait of A Woman Turning Forty
There is a picture etched in my memory more vivid than any other picture from my childhood. I am three years old, grinning, leaning back over my highchair, craning to look at my mother who is sitting beside my father at my grandparents house.
My mother is what I remember most. She, and my father wearing a brown cardigan and stylish trousers, sit side-by-side, opening gifts. It’s their Silver wedding anniversary. My mother is naturally beautiful. Slim and trim and modest in a simple and stylish shift dress of the early ’70’s. Her skin is sunkissed. She’s smiling her shy smile.
She is 43 years old.
Looking back what is remarkable about that picture is not simply that she looks great at 43, unlike how we think most parents look, but, her life experience up until that point was so …epic.
I was three years old, and I was her youngest. There were eight who came before me. I was child-number-nine, born when she was 39 years old.
She’d gotten married at 18, had her first kid by 19, raised a baseball team of babies, including twins, lost a child to a swift and cruel illness, and was temporarily raising five of us and my father in a campground while he looked for work, having just relocated half-way across Canada on a wing and a prayer in the back of ’62 Ford cube van.
Struggle was her companion. Yet, bitterness never was.
Her persona is capped by her detached bemusement about aging. Her standard quip is ‘it’s better than the alternative.’
I, however, am not that zen. Here are five lessons I learned the hard way.
1: Don’t Look Back
Looking for some guidance when I was approaching 40, I tried to tap into her zeitgeist. She pointed out the obvious: at 40 she was too busy raising a family to remember her age half the time let alone worry about how old she looked. Besides, what did it matter?
Could it be that simple? I’ve thought a lot about this over the years and I’ve concluded that, yep, it’s quite likely that simple. For her. For some. My mother was (is) beautiful and beloved and unburdened by vanity and for the most part, the opinions of others. But, her life experience was nothing like mine. At 39 I was single with no kids, a career woman, traveling the world in an exciting job, meeting incredible people. I had a busy social life, and, an apartment in the middle of a big city.
Not only did our trajectories look radically different, the choices available to us during our lifetimes differed, the pressures and expectations weren’t the same. In 39 years since I was born, the world itself was in some ways virtually unrecognizable, for better or worse.
As much as I wanted advice, I would have to look elsewhere.
2: Freaking Out Is Totally Acceptable
I remember the day I started freaking out about turning forty. It was the day after my 39th birthday. In my mind it was the beginning of the end.
In fact, it wouldn’t really be an exaggeration to say I’d been mildly dreading it since I turned 30. With that kind of anticipation, what chance did I have of being anything but traumatized by this…this number? With October marching closer, I started a Being Forty journal. It was a safe place to vent and fret and dream; it led to my research. Later, it drew other women like a moth to a flame.
For years, I wished for a mentor, someone I could trust, who would assuage – heck, even diagnose -my neuroses; to inspire me about life-post forty, talk me off the ledge. My friends younger than me, just seemed to make it worse, confirming my advanced age with their flawless skin and tight bodies and endless energy. I was (and am) lucky to have friendships with women who are older than me whom I could at least inquire about their approach to this milestone, and, when needed, whine about my own perceived trials. But, for the most part, I wrung my hands in silence.
3: Don’t Compare Yourself to Halle Berry
Like any busy, misguided female in the 21st century I turned to the most obvious place to medicate my anxiety: the internet. I found women who were, like me, hitting this milestone age, and, they managed to look fantastic. Except these peers had personal chefs, personal trainers, stylists, air brushing, botox and had won the genetic lottery. Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Jenifer Aniston. These were my homegirls. Somehow, knowing even the most beautiful women in the world were also facing forty made me feel less of a pariah.
During this entire year I awkwardly avoided any jokes of being ‘old’, choosing instead to feel oddly ashamed and adopted the ‘lie about your age’ approach. Some of my closest friends were planning BIG 40th birthday celebrations. The very thought horrified me. What was wrong with these people? They should not be drawing attention to this terrible event.A full six months after I turned 40 I resigned myself to ’come out’ about my age, i.e. get over it. I’d call it more an act of surrender, borne of exhaustion from keeping up some imaginary ruse (I was kidding no one) than it was a peaceful and joyful embrace.
It was like my spirit had been waiting for me to figure this out. It made room for self-acceptance which is oxygen to self-confidence and empowerment. That freed up my psychic energy to pour into a creativity, to find true love and to be brave in my career pursuits. Things were looking up.
4: Reject Invisibility For Women Over Forty
Age is a delicate subject, even to the most courageous, feminist among us. Perhaps now, more than ever, we are pounded with the message that to age is to lose worth.
Psychologists have been telling us for decades that this – feeling unvalued, ignored, irrelevant- is one of the biggest triggers to anxiety and depression.
The secret, I’ve learned, in part from the dozens of women I’ve had the privilege of interviewing, is to not pay any heed to that feeling, whether it is self-induced or projected upon you by another. The truth is, invisibility can happen at any age and for many reasons. If you ask around, or think back to your own memories, invisibility happens because you’re too young, too short, female, male, old, timid, immigrant, don’t speak the language, not in the clique.
There will always be people who are invisible to you; not necessarily because of prejudice or willful rejection, but simply because we are not aware at all times. The same is true for those times when you feel invisible.
There’s a way to turn off the invisibility switch – you hold that power, your finger is on the switch. Stare down anyone who dares to consider you less visible.
5. Redefine Forty on Your Terms
If you’re turning 40 in the next few years your parents were Baby Boomers. You were shaped by their philosophies, but, also by the world you grew up in, which was a much different world than the one they grew up in. We are redefining what it means to be 40, and beyond. Embrace yourself. Put on blinders that force you to focus on your bliss, and, see what happens.
“There are far, far better things ahead than we leave behind.”
– C.S. Lewis
Bugging my parents on their 25th wedding anniversary