People often celebrate their 40th birthdays with memorable aplomb. A few years ago, when 40 seemed a safe distance away, I too wanted a piece of this ‘big birthday’ drama which even included the prospect of a children-free trip to New York! While Covid-19 made such indulgences impossible in any case, all I really wanted on the day was to be 39. The pressure to enjoy my ‘special birthday’ really did not help and meant that not only was I sulking, I also had to be discreet about it.
Now a few months later and being well and truly 40, I’ve been reflecting on what made this transition so difficult for me.
l It feels very much like a half way point. You know that feeling on a long haul flight when you hit half way and think, heck, still 8 hours to go? It’s that, but framed instead as, heck, only 8 hours to go? The panic of reaching your destination too quickly sets in, compounded by the worry that you might spend far too much of the journey worried about this! For the first time ever, I want time to slow down and stay settled. In my mind’s eye this looks like a beautiful autumn leaf on a windy afternoon, settling as the wind subsides briefly. Still rustling and dancing in circles, but settled. Turning 40 makes me want life to just settle a little, instead of pressing on headily with the wind.
l The completion of four decades makes you turn back, very intrusively, to ascertain what you have achieved in life thus far. The notion that we measure our lives out in achievements is arguably awkward and short sighted but it’s what we have become conditioned to do. As a species we are obsessed with ‘doing’ and I know I’ve spent a lot of the past few months tallying up what I’ve done...degrees, career, marriage, friendships, children, holidays (really, truly, in no particular order!). It wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it stopped at the tallying up though - however the next logical step is to wonder if you’ve done it well and what ‘the road not taken’ may have looked like! Oh boy.
Far from the idea of making every moment count in this decade,
I would be much better soothed with the idea
that every moment does
l A decade or so ago, I would think of the forties and make an automatic link with issues linked to health and vitality. I was aware that the forties is when you become more cognizant of potential health problems – words like cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes begin to nudge and tease as if to say “Tighten your seat belts now folks, if you want to keep us at bay!” I remember as a child if someone had a serious health problem that made me anxious, I would remind myself reassuringly that they were ‘over 40’. The thought that this is now me leaves me only a little horrified!
l While I have garnered some empathy from my fellow 40-year-old friends (some attempts have felt like a tooth extraction), many have assured me that instead of sulking I need to focus on making the most of this decade. Believe me, in theory that logic makes absolute sense to me - and this is indeed what I hope to do. But tell me I am not the only one who paralyses with fear at the invitation to live each day as if it were your last! What a terrifying notion. The notion of living the best life now is both thrilling and terrifying: last week as I was tediously tearing apart cardboard boxes for over an hour ready for recycling day, I found myself somewhat inconveniently wondering just how often I was living my best life. I’ll let you imagine the eye-rolling here. Far from the idea of making every moment count in this decade, I would be much better soothed with the idea that every moment does not count!
If I’ve come across as an ungrateful 40-year-old throwing all her toys out of the pram, then it’s worth clarifying at this stage that I am incredibly grateful for the journey. And yes, excited at what lies ahead. But one of the perks of being 40 is that you begin to care so little about being judged and measured that you find yourself speaking your mind with refreshing ease and openness.
So, it is with genuinely no qualms that I can say, I am forty and freaking out!
The author received a PhD in English Literature from the University of Warwick and is an Associate Senior Leader at The Ridgeway Education Trust in Oxfordshire, England