In the months before I turned 40, I felt little of the angst I’d heard was supposed to come with entering mid-life. I had a lot to be grateful for, including the opportunity and ability to do work I enjoy, the countless faces and kinds of love I’d been shown over the years, and the expectation of more good things to come.
Then, a week before the big day, I remembered how my childhood self had viewed this decade. In her eyes, forty was for people who were done growing up, for parents who delivered clear rules to live by and spent the majority of their time driving kids to softball, track and field hockey practice.
Forty was authority, gravitas with wrinkles. It was for teachers with no fashion sense. It was for people who followed the rules, had handy answers to children’s questions, changed flat tires and knew how to fix things. Forty was when you were where you were and that’s where you were going to be.
I had one week to find a new definition. In some ways the childhood version did fit my life. I am a teacher, though hopefully with some fashion sense (I will admit to wearing my grandmother’s sweaters sometimes, but to be fair, this was a woman who would not descend the staircase Christmas morning without her lipstick on. She had style. Plus, when I wear one I imagine she is blessing my day, and that’s more important).
But I am not a parent, I haven’t changed a flat tire since my dad taught me how when I received my first driver’s license, and following the rules has not always served me well. I don’t have all the answers for children, though I have been asked some hard questions (Standing in front of a class of 9th graders on September 11th comes to mind).
And I am not willing to concede that in mid-life, we are where we are and that’s where we’re going to be. Not yet. One thing I’m sure of: we are not stagnant. No matter what our decade, we are still becoming.
So what is mid-life supposed to be?
When I started searching for a new definition, suddenly everything seemed full of significance. At the gym, I punched my daily “39” into the treadmill. How would treadmill algorithms compute my new decade? Would I get a greater mathematical credit for a 4.0 incline? Would the 39 year-old’s workout send the mid-lifer’s calorie burn off the charts? I could like this definition.
But browsing the Internet later in the day, I came across a new website for “women in their forties.” I clicked on it, found their mission statement, and read:
“We aim to debunk myths and stereotypes about women in menopause.”
Ok, I am not naïve about biological clocks. I know—personally and from conversations with single and married women alike—how loudly they can tick on days when the womb feels empty. But menopause, as in next week? Would there be a rumbling of the ovaries when the clock struck midnight? Should I warn the neighbors?
A single girlfriend of mine, as a bridesmaid during a wedding ceremony years ago, found herself an awkward part of the minister’s sermon when he began naming the other bridesmaids on the altar, holding up their lives as positive examples (Names have been changed to protect the horrified):
“Now young Sarah here will also become a wife and start a family of her own. Just like— " he gestured to the first bridesmaid on the altar, “Like Mollie here, whose two beautiful boys… and Tanya, a wife and mother of... and Carol, whose children were just baptized…, and— " he got to my friend, and realized his mistake.
“And—Kristin—who, um—also did a wonderful thing—chose her career!”
Followed by uncomfortable silence, and the weight of old definitions about women’s roles, choices, desires and will—all of which my dear friend bore with humor and grace.
From My Thirties, With Love
As many women report, I learned in my thirties what I was oblivious to in my twenties. My thirties sanded rough edges, increased my level of comfort with myself and decreased my level of concern for how others viewed my choices. I figured out what I want and how to walk away from what I don’t. Hopefully these things are obvious to you, but they weren’t to me.
But I also learned some specifics: the loss of divorce, death and expectations that do not lead to joy. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that, though treatable, changed some big plans and demanded my attention for a year. I heard my body scold that I needed to give it credit for knowing some things. I learned it has a voice of its own, one that will not tolerate deaf ears.
I exchanged some carefully wrought plans and gilded expectations for surprising gifts of “Ta-Da!” from a God who takes more satisfaction than I’d like in rewriting our stories mid-plot.
Of these lessons and more, finally my 30s came through with some pointers. Should your own childhood definitions of your age come up for challenging, feel free to heed my thirties in creating new ones:
1. Make Room for Gravitas, but More for Joy
I once heard a younger female colleague criticized harshly for being deficient in the gravitas every woman needs to be successful. While I concede the role of gravitas in professional life (especially for women, who face stereotypes that make “being taken seriously” an issue in a way that is not the same for men), this was a problem for me.
This young woman brought so much joy to her work and her serious workplace could have learned from her. She had needed skills and was developing others. She was eager to learn and she brightened the space around her. But the exuberance she could not help but betray seemed to work against her with her supervisor.
My thirties say to back her up. We should not let joy go gentle into that good night, especially the night of serious old people-dom, or what we think it’s supposed to be.
2. There will be contradictions.
The other day, I was in line at Dunkin’ Donuts after a long walk on a sunny day. When Pitbull and Chris Brown started singing about “International Love” on my I-Pod, I had a strong urge to start dancing around the store, to grab the lady by the Baskin’ Robbins ice-cream display and spin her around with me.
“What are you doing?” asked Gravitas.
I had bought an arguably misogynistic track, sung by a man who was non-arguably abusive toward his girlfriend. Is this what a 40 year-old English teacher puts on her I-Pod? (“I don’t play baseball but I get a home-run everywhere./ Everywhere? / Everywhere /…In Romania she pulled me aside and said ‘Yeah, you can have me and my sista’…in Lebanon da women da bomb…”).
Once when I was a teenager, my mother heard me singing George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” at the top of my lungs. Stricken with shock about what it meant about my beliefs, she made me turn it off. But then and now, when I hear pop-catchy songs−inane lyrics about women’s thongs included—I have a hard time not dancing. I believe it was the wise Ellen DeGeneres who said there is no problem dancing can’t solve.
Thirties? Explain yourselves.
Thirties: What can we say? You are not a straight line. There will be contradictions. Keep dancing.
It amuses me when journalists and political campaigns dig for examples of politicians contradicting themselves, using it to vilify. While it’s helpful to know who we are and someone without identity probably should not be in public office, we are all a bundle of contradictions. I’m surprised we haven’t learned this one yet.
3. Beauty includes lines.
For three years in my thirties, I lived in a small, bright apartment in Washington, DC. Every day the sun rose over the dome of Sacred Heart Cathedral across the street.
On some days, cotton-candy pink turned the dome into the insides of seashells, or the clean half-moons of babies’ nail beds. On other mornings, a tiger-orange disk announced itself on the horizon, hoarding its light to leave only white haze for the rest of the sky to share, betraying fine lines and scars on the aging cathedral dome.
Whether the day dawn yielded was sublime or heavy, the busy Richard-Scarry world awoke in my Columbia Heights neighborhood, where every person seemed to be busy at something different. My place was no more important than that of the man who worked on the scaffolding across the street, or the woman pushing her child in a stroller. But it was mine, and I was doing it.
Whatever dawn shows of your surface lines, if you ask my thirties, it’s what you’re doing that makes it beauty.
4. Teach head and heart to get along.
How do you make decisions? Whether you follow your heart, or you’re more analytical and use your head, it’s time to reach across the aisle and take a bi-partisan approach to your life. “Listen to your heart” and “Use common sense” actually need each other to get anything done.
In my thirties I found out what my heart was made of, choosing the extremely painful route via disastrous marriage. I learned of the heart’s limitations when given sole responsibility for decision making−but in the same miraculous beat, I was shown its spacious, surprising corners of strength.
Now, my head puts its two cents on the table before executive decisions are made. Though it took almost forty years, I have introduced my heart to my head, and despite a few occasional tussles, for the most part they get along.
4. Watch for the Suddenly's.
Recently I was talking with a wise girlfriend; she is one of those people who can weave scripture into regular life events in a way that never feels preachy or dogmatic, and I have never spoken to her without learning something. She shared some wisdom that a nonagenarian friend of hers had given her.
You have to be open to the “Suddenly's,” she’d said. Just when you think things are static—settled in comfortably for the good, or uncomfortably for the stagnant and frustrating—something suddenly changes everything. The advice is much older than any of us are, appearing everywhere in the Bible.
Suffering can happen suddenly: “When people are saying, "Everything is peaceful and secure," then disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman's labor pains begin.” (1 Thessalonians 5:3).
Freedom and change can happen suddenly (freedom from what chains us: worry, self-doubt, violence, intolerance?): “Suddenly the angel of the LORD stood by [Peter] and a light shone in the cell…and the chains fell from his wrists.” (Acts 12:7)
Guidance can appear suddenly: For Moses, “Suddenly, the angel of the LORD appeared to him as a blazing fire in a bush.” (Exodus 3).
Pregnancy always happens suddenly. The Angel Gabriel to Mary, “Surprise, you’re pregnant! (With the Son of God!)”
And God to Abraham, “Surprise, Sarah will have a son!” (And she was 90. If a covenant is involved, covenants trump all).
So say my thirties, anyway. For all of us entering mid-life, acknowledge gravitas, but don’t eschew joy. "Let the beauty you love be what you do." Don’t be too quick to shed your contradictions. Watch for the “Suddenly's,” and keep dancing to whatever music sends your heart flying around the room.
Then, I was forty...
...and the next day, the angst disappeared. At the gym I punched in my new age and waited for the treadmill formula to declare its meaning.
It didn’t. And that’s the best part of entering a new decade. We’re not supposed to have all the answers, or we wouldn’t need to be here anymore. It’s the thinking we are that makes it scary, and we generally do better when we’re not scaring ourselves.
There may be small lines claiming larger portions of real estate around my eyes. But I’ll give them credit for earning it. Though I’d like them to keep the space as tidy as possible, now that I know even a little of what it’s like not to have my health, they’re not so bad.
I feel fortunate to enjoy my work and glad I followed my heart in choosing it, but I haven’t “chosen my career” in the either-or, minister’s pat definition of what women’s roles or lives can or should be. Will I see my life as less if I do not have a child of my own? Will I accomplish everything I want to in the next 40 or 50 years? Will I get married again? Will I stay healthy? For how long?
Who knows. Those answers won’t come until I’m done. I’m interested in the story--in the Suddenly's-- that happen in between.