Terrifying Milestone: My Life at (almost) 40

Spooky40In just a few days, I’ll be turning 40. Like most everyone around my age I’ve talked to lately, I truly, truly believe age is just a number, that there is absolutely no reason a “milestone” birthday should hold more significance than others, blah, blah, blah.

And yet.

It’s hard not to stop and take stock at 40. Such a round, intimidating number: one that I’ve associated since childhood with black balloons, those horrifying “over the hill” gag gifts and the lighthearted passing of youth. I remember my dad’s 40th birthday party vividly (I was 13) and I can assure you, he was old then. Really old. Weird that I am the same age now but not old at all.

There is a sense that you’re supposed to know what you’re doing by 40. To have at least a vague understanding what life is all about, and where your own life is going. I may have gained some wisdom in the past couple of decades, but it’s a little surreal to me that in many ways I feel no different or smarter than I did at 24.

Still, there are a few things I’ve noticed about this time of my life that I thought I would share.

First: Hangovers, soreness from workouts and PMS all go on for DAYS now. What used to be cured with a single greasy meal, bad movie and a nap, now lingers unpleasantly for up to a week. Also I am no longer permitted to take naps.

So, you know what a young face looks like before wrinkles. And you know what a much older face looks like once the wrinkles are permanent. What you may not know about are the ante-wrinkles. These are the weird fissures that show up on your skin overnight in middle age, often in the shape of your pillow or in the place where your cheek mashes up against your eyes and nose. They aren’t permanent (yet) but they hang around for an hour or two, as though someone has drawn on your face while you were asleep. It’s as though the wrinkles are there, just under the skin, threatening to return in greater numbers. Very disconcerting.

I have finally, finally reached the point in my life where I seriously don’t care what my house looks like. I used to say I didn’t care, but then people would come over and I’d fly into a an embarrassed panic, shoving things in drawers and trying to confine guests to the foyer (which is awkward since there’s no place to sit there, and let’s be honest even that space manages to get messy). Lots of stuff has happened in the past few years to put cleanliness in perspective, and now I consider it a success when people come visit without a child or pet actually vomiting directly on them. A house is only as beautiful as the friends and family within its walls, and the memories you make there. Period.

Paradoxically, Year 40 has brought me to terms with my slight hoarding pack-rat tendencies. I recently read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Okay, I bought it and I’ve heard people talk about it. And I plan to read it. Eventually. Anyway, apparently there is some kind of fabulous Japanese osmosis thing going on because just having that book in the house, I feel much more at peace lately with letting go of STUFF. I come from a long line of pack rats (none of whom ever quite reached the level of serious hoarding but came close), and I was trained from an early age to hang on to everything sentimental or any item that could possibly ever be useful, somehow. “What? We can’t throw that away! What if the Braves win the World Series in the rain during the Zombie Apocalypse?”

In other paradoxes, I’ve stopped caring so much what people think of me (especially how I look). This is good because I’m reaching the age where young guys I once would’ve mooned over me now call me “ma’am.” But I actually think I look better than I have in a while, because I have started taking care of me for myself. Middle age is kind of freeing that way: even if I could keep up with fashion trends and fad diets, I wouldn’t want to. I like having my own style.

I like being active and eating well (when I can stay out of the Halloween candy) because it makes me feel better, not because I’m trying to meet some kind of glossy magazine standard. You know what I think when I see those magazines now, the ones I used to read obsessively in my twenties? Oh, darlings. Life is so much bigger and richer than you know. If your main concerns are cellulite and sex tips “to drive him crazy,” you’re doing something wrong.

tattoopicsmallI finally got a tattoo this year because I quit worrying about whether everyone in the world would like it or approve of my choice. I quit worrying about future regret and decided to own what I wanted in the present.

This year I also finally set down my half of a toxic relationship with my only sibling. It was miserably, tortuously hard. When I think of him now, it makes my heart ache for both of us and what we could’ve had, the relationship that would have benefited both of us in the absence of our parents. It took me a long time to realize that I couldn’t take responsibility for what isn’t mine, and that loving someone doesn’t always mean you can help them, or that they can be who you need them to be. Sometimes the trying just hurts you both.

I think of my brother every day. I still hold onto a tiny, flickering hope that our relationship might one day return from the ashes, the same way I still hold onto an almost maternal fear for his safety and well-being. I’ve had to learn to put both those feelings away for now, though. That energy is needed by my husband, our children, the life we have built, the passions I pursue. You can’t give endlessly of yourself to someone who can’t give back, and not lose something very important in the process.

At 20, I understood this concept in an arrogant, petulant way that allowed me to push people away and keep myself safe, with little thought for the emotional consequences. At 40, I come to it again with the weight of real losses and real loneliness on my heart. The decision is the same in some ways, but I choose it today with a reluctance and sadness I know will never fully heal.

My tattoo reads, “Fear no more, says the heart.” It’s a quote from Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway, a book I loved long before I could really understand it. The whole quote is:

Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.

What I understand at 40 is this: if we are guided by fear of what might happen, how others could hurt us or themselves or both, our lives become shaky, tenuous things — where the world grows smaller each day and the power is always wielded by someone else. I’ve experienced enough tragedy in life to know that anticipating it doesn’t make it hurt less. Most of our control in life is an illusion: if we believe in it too much, it only sets us up to fail (or feel we have). I’ve lived with regret and I’ve lived in fear. At 40, I’d rather live in love. At least I’m going to try.

There’s lots more I could share about parenting and working and chasing that elusive balance thing as a working mom. “Balance,” by the way, is a complete misnomer: it’s less like gracefully walking across a tightrope carrying a nice bendy pole, and more like trying to navigate an EF-5 tornado in a minivan full of a drunk clowns and still trying to look like you’ve had a shower in the past three days.

Still, with all its complications and messiness, with the heartaches and frustrations: life at 40 is pretty damn amazing. Last night I snuggled on the sofa with my six-year-old (who I know won’t want to snuggle with me for much longer), drank a glass of cheap red wine poured up by my sweet husband, and watched Despicable Me 2 at the request of our four-year-old. Okay, it wasn’t a request so much as a twenty-minute tantrum-filled argument between the boys resolved only by a convoluted peace treaty and grilled cheese.

But still, as I lay there under a fluffy blanket with my family around me, doing our boring but wonderful Friday night ritual, I had the best thought any human being can have: “I am so happy. Life is really, really good.”

Happy Halloween!

MJ Pullen

M.J. Pullen is a distracted writer and the mom of two boys in Roswell, Georgia, where she is absolutely late for something important right now. Her books include quirky romantic comedies and playful women's fiction. She blogs erratically with writing advice, random observations, and reflections on raising very loud kids and dogs. Join her Distracted Readers newsletter list for updates, free content, giveaways and more.

2 thoughts on “Terrifying Milestone: My Life at (almost) 40”

  1. Carolyn MitchellCarolyn Mitchell

    Happy Birthday! This is a wonderful reflection on 40. I just turned 50, and you should remind yourself to go back and read this in 10 years when you pass that day. On my 50th birthday I…wait, what? I did something fun, right? Memory loss comes shortly after those wrinkles 🙂

    Have a fabulous day!

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