Sunday, March 01, 2015

So this is 40

Some months back I decided I wanted to write about turning 40 but in a way that was different from all the satirical and cliched pieces that are floating about. I wanted to make it uniquely about my experience and if it contained elements that other people related to  - great. But ultimately I didn't only want to write it for the purposes of publishing, but more so to provide a  record for myself - a kind of keepsake to look back on and read one day when, please god, I reached the next big landmark age - like 80? Which is why this is a very long post and probably a lot of TMI going on - you've been warned.

I started and stopped writing this on several occasions, and the somewhat disjointed result of that may be evident here. I just didn't quite know how to approach the subject.  Changes tend to be gradual, almost imperceptible - so even though I've attempted it here, it's tough to sit down and articulate exactly how I've emerged through the years and what conclusions I've made thus far. Unless of course you run into a childhood friend whom you haven't seen in some time and they point out things like: "Wow you look so different. You used to have a lot of acne and were so shy! And do you remember that time you peed your pants at school? That was hilarious!" And you think to yourself, 'Ah yes, now I remember why I haven't seen this moron in 20 years.'

So why all the sturm und drang over what is essentially just another birthday? Maybe the real anxiety we have is that turning 40 marks a crossing over from one phase of our life into the other. A bit like 21 is the alleged gateway into adulthood from childhood, 40 is the gateway into mid life - as in, this is it guys, you are officially into that next chapter - no turning back. There is also the fact that 40 for a lot of people comes with expectations of what we are supposed to have achieved by this point in our life and it forces you to stop and take stock. Thoughts like: 'I just didn't expect my life to turn out as it has,' or 'This is not where I thought I'd be,' or even, 'This is not the life I want' are not uncommon. It reminds me of the John Lennon lyrics: 'Nobody told me there'd be days like these, nobody told me there'd be days like these, strange days indeed, most peculiar mamma.' And perhaps more poignantly, also by the wonderful Lennon: 'Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans.'

Rewind to 30 years ago: It's 1985 and I am 10-year-old kid, slightly shorter than average, enviably slender, with a boyish haircut. I'm thinking about the the year 2015. Wow, 2015. What will I be doing? Where will I live? What will I look like? I cannot remember the specifics (memory and age aren't great friends), but I do recall my fantasy of myself at 40 involved having fabulously big hair, impressive shoulder pads, a glass desk, and an office with an incredible view. Oh and I thought I'd be old, because 40 was old to me back then. But old with style. All very Dynasty - with a pinch of Stephanie from The Bold & The Beautiful thrown in for good measure. There were no picket fences or children in this vision. I never imagined myself playing happy families. I suppose as a tween my idea of reaching some kind of pinnacle in my life was about being a powerful independent career woman - something to do with what my mother had always instilled in my sisters and I: "Never be dependent on a man or anyone else for that matter. Always be financially independent and have a good job to fall back on."

Fast forward 30 years and I am a stay-at-home mother of two children with absolutely zero interest in a big office  - great view or not. I have never been particularly well designed to a job in an office or working within an institution. Which is not to say that I lack ambition, but I'm more of a solitary worker and I never really had that killer instinct to want to climb to the top the way some people do. I always wanted to be happy however, whatever that is, and being happy was more important than zeroes on a check. In the days I did work in an office I'd often fantasise about working in a zoo as a keeper or being someone that read the millions of books that aspiring authors sent in to publishing houses. But like so many people you do what you do in order to make a living and pay the bills. These days I fantasise about having a place to paint that has great light, and often stare longingly at my elderly neighbours house which has this beautiful old glass extension on her 1st floor. Ahhh just think of all that natural light. I might have to go over there and make friends and suggest we discuss studio rental space.

I suppose the point I'm trying to make is that I'm not doing what I thought I'd be doing at this age, i.e. the whole sterling career, but that's OK. Where I am now is a product of hundreds of choices, some of which felt extremely random and insignificant at the time, and circumstances over the years. And in my opinion luck plays a greater part in things than we'd like to think. Because the fact of the matter is I do consider myself incredibly lucky - I like and enjoy my life. And while I am not yet published and I may not have a name in the public or have invented something that changes lives, I have what I feel to be a meaningful life. In the last few years I've come to appreciate the importance of this and not chasing after a fantasy of what I think I should be or have. And living a life that is not about what everyone else thinks or has, but it being an authentic existence that works for me. And let's not forget about choice - even if sometimes if feels as though I only have a few choices, that's better than a hell of a lot of people in the world today.

For a long time 40 felt old to me, and now that I am 40 myself I don't feel old. I think mentally I kind of stopped ageing somewhere in my 30s which is when I genuinely feel I hit my stride. Being blessed with a solid relationship, good friends and a supportive family, and having children also helped me start appreciating who I was, being OK with that, and I suppose finding my voice. Also conflict became a whole lot easier for me in the last few years - not easy in that I don't have anxiety about entering into it or occasional contrition after the fact. But more so I suppose when you have a degree of confidence in your opinions and feelings about something and are not as concerned with people's opinions of you, you can hold your boxing gloves aloft and enter the ring with a degree of confidence - irrespective of the potential bloodied outcome.

Somewhere in my 30s I also learnt to be OK with saying no to things that I didn't feel comfortable with and realised that doing things to make other people happy and the cost of my own wellbeing is not worth it. The sad reality is that a lot of people will take as much as you are prepared to give and don't always have the same degree of empathy or generosity as you imagine they do. Likewise as I've gotten older I've become more choiceful in terms of how I spend my free time - which granted has a lot to do with not having all that much free time when you have children. But the whole politics of relationships from my 20s and early 30s just doesn't interest me any more. And if spending time with someone leaves you feeling drained or unhappy or anxious, then it's not something I want to invest myself in. Which is not to say that all friendships are always happy and plain sailing and a good friend is indeed someone that is there for you when times are bad. But generally speaking some people just suck the life out of you or make you feel bad about yourself, and life's too short to be going round in circles with them as they deprive you of the will to live.

I asked my husband, who turned 40 last year, how he had felt about this milestone. "Well its was fine really, no big deal," he replied in that upbeat philosophical manner he has. "But listen, let's not kid ourselves. It's a reminder that a good half of my life is over and that I'm going to be getting older, and I'm that much closer to, if I'm lucky,  a natural death."

Ah yes, death. Once you get to a certain age, that's really at the heart of all this older birthday anxiety business right? No one likes to talk about it, so we talk about super vitamins, taking up running, juicing, re-reading the classics, learning an instrument, painting classes, visiting South America etc. And late at night when we are lying in bed we think about and put off making mammogram appointments and prostate exams and try to push these scary thoughts far out of our minds. A few weeks before I turned 40 I got a letter in the post saying I was eligible for a free stroke screening test. Now, I appreciate from my friend who is a neurologist that you don't have to be elderly to get a stroke, but the timing did make me wonder if I'm now in store for a whole bunch of 40+ medical test pamphlets to start flooding through my mail box. Because whether I like it or not, I now fall into that category and tick that box. 

I think about exercising more now because I am acutely aware that diet alone doesn't shift the pounds as it used to, nor does it get the heart rate up and one is meant to do that a few times a week to be healthy etc etc etc. Dear god. The truth is that all of this stuff, all of it, is to somehow avoid facing what will be the inevitable decline and decay of our bodies, and the really big elephant in the room: our eventual death. But it's a shitty subject and like everyone else I like to pretend everything is not about it, even though it is, so let's continue along the lines of self denial and change the subject.

My views on politics, religion and sex haven't really changed that much over the years. I mention these three things because apparently your views on these big three conversational no-no's are a fairly good indication of who you are as a person. Well, OK, sort of. In terms of sex and relationships, there are times I become very sad thinking about how I allowed myself to be treated in my 20s (and indeed treated others) and the almost careless manner in which I threw myself into relationships and situations that were evidently bad for me. I want to go back and take hold of my younger self, look her in the eye,  and say: "You are worth so much more than you think. Don't waste your time on someone who doesn't see that about you." I also want to say to my university self, "Stop with the peanut butter and syrup on toast and be more active," but that's another story. The virtues of hindsight.  

These days I am blessed with a partner who I love, and who I like and respect and have a lot of fun with. When I was younger and probably even at university, I genuinely didn't think I would get married. I saw relationships as things that were about arguing and having to compromise massively in a way that I didn't think would suit me. I also thought that if you had a relationship and didn't argue then it lacked passion and wasn't the real thing. And when I looked at some of the passionate relationships around me the protagonists didn't look all that happy. It never occurred to me that I might just be lucky enough to meet someone that I could find friendship with and mutual respect, someone that fit around my rough edges, complemented the good in me, and made me want to be an even better person. And that kindness, consideration, compassion, empathy and trust is at the heart of everything. Oh and fun, you've got to have fun together. This is something the rubbish romance novels you read as a young girl don't tell you.

Likewise I spent a lot of my younger life worrying about my weight - OK I still worry about it and like everyone else I think I could be 5-10kgs lighter. But as a younger person I obsessed about it and spent a lot of time wearing baggy clothes and hating the fact that I wasn't as thin as my friends. I look back at my high school diaries and see myself miserably counting calories and marking down my weight each day, and being overwhelmed with self loathing because at 16 or 17 I weighed 55kgs. Yes 55kgs.  I pray to god my daughter doesn't go through the same thing but I think the fact that my husband and I are not fat phobic and body obsessed as my parents were is probably a good start.

At 40 I do not have what the magazines refer to as a bikini ready body, or whatever the hell that means, and that's OK. My body is fit and healthy (knock on wood) and it's worked hard all these years and carried two babies. And since the day I was born, my heart has never once stopped beating - not once in 40 years. Isn't that an incredible thought? What an amazing machine. I am increasingly appreciative and thankful for the genuine miracle that is my body and in spite of the lumps and bumps and effects of gravity here and there I love it. It's mine right?  At some point you've got to stop with the self loathing, look after your body and be kind to it because it's got to last you.  And to decide that healthy is a lot more than most people have and it's a lot more important than some bizarre concept you have of what will make you beautiful and happy. Oh, and it's OK to buy a bigger dress size.

In terms of politics I still believe passionately in state funded good quality healthcare and education for everyone and I love the fact that I live in a country that uses my taxes to help people that are disabled, elderly and less fortunate - although obviously it could always be more. These things are essential empathetic societal components and I wouldn't want to live in a country that didn't give a shit about its citizens. I genuinely loathe the fact that the American political system always brings up abortion every time there is a vote. Someone's right to make this incredibly personal and difficulty choice is genuinely debased by that political circus. As for gay marriage - this is such a no brainer for me. You have every right to marry who you love, barring of course siblings, because well, as I say to my kids who often debate the merits of marrying each other: "You don't want too much of the same DNA in the mix guys". 

In terms of religion, we are what the Americans refer to as secular in terms of how we raise our children, but if at some point my children discover a particular faith they are interested in pursuing I will support them in their choices. OK, maybe I might try and talk them out of scientology or joining a cult. But barring that, ultimately you have to let your children be their own people and live a life that feels meaningful to them - irrespective of your own beliefs. I did however read an article recently on secular households that made me feel even more confident in the path we have chosen. You can see it here.

My music choices remain fairly eclectic; lots of classical, still some hip hop and R&B, Billy Joel and Paul Simon (great poets!), and since meeting my husband Radiohead and more recently The National. And I do find myself listening to a radio station that plays a lot of 80's and 90's stuff which I remember my mother used to do (only hers was 60s and 70s music). As a tween this used to irritate the hell out of me as I liked the trendier stations that had shock jocks (relatively speaking) who played current stuff. Now when I am driving and a song comes on that I know all the lyrics to and it takes me back, I am filled with inexplicable happiness.  Likewise I used to like Indie films and as a teenager bad horror movies - now I don't want to watch things that make me unhappy or anxious. If I want that I only have to open a newspaper.

I stopped going to nightclubs somewhere in my 20s because even at 24 I realised I was one of the oldest people there. Recently my husband and I went out with friends of ours and the club had a dance floor and the people there were all around our age or older, and it made me feel happy and comfortable - a kind of 'breathe out' feeling. I also loathe and avoid places where the music is too loud to have a conversation. This, I know, makes me definitively old - 40 or not. I also walk around the house switching off lights after people and berate anyone for letting the tap run while they are brushing their teeth. My dad used to do the same thing which I attributed to him being tight with money. And yet I do it, and for me it's about not wanting to waste energy or resources because I'm painfully aware that all things are finite. I recycle.

I've loved having children which was a surprise to me because while my middle sister, even as a child and a teenager, was always great with kids, they never seemed particularly interested in me and I had no idea how to be around them. When I had my daughter in my 30s I was absolutely clueless about babies, but I got there in the end and I cannot imagine my life without my children. I am definitely not someone who ever says: 'If I knew then what I know now I would not have had kids,' although I genuinely appreciate parenthood is not for everyone. I'm happy I did it, and a little sad I didn't meet my husband earlier because maybe we might have had a chance to have more children. My Obs Gyn tells me that in this day and age 40 is still relatively young to be having children, to which I respond: "Really, more children now? Who has the hell has the energy?" And she says, "I agree with you, but you know, if you wanted to... ."

In terms of the children we do have we are over that really exhausting baby and small child rearing phase and now into the next part of things which involves helping with homework, attempting to answer ever increasingly complicated questions about the world, and helping them negotiate their school yard relationships. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I handled particular situations, feeling bad about some of the shouting (especially in the morning ahead of school) and trying to be present, interested and fun with my children. And there's still a ton of tidying and cleaning up non stop - I'm not sure that bit of parenting ever stops. 
I definitely find myself looking forwards with my focus on my children and their futures, rather than mine so much, and hopefully steering them in the right direction to achieving a life that they find meaningful and fulfilling

My 72-year-old painting teacher tells me that provided you have your health, life just keeps getting better and at 72 she is having the time of her life. She tells me that she knows who she is, and that as you get older you really cut through a lot of the unnecessary stuff and focus on what is important, which inevitably makes life a lot easier. It's one of the many reasons I enjoy the company of older people because they take you by the hand and guide you through the stuff they've already been through with a attitude of 'Come on, follow me, it's not so scary. There's actually some pretty amazing stuff ahead of you.'

And so with some trepidation, but not as much as I thought, I take a deep breath, plug my nose with my fingers, and jump over the threshold and into that unknown, somewhat daunting, but undoubtedly exciting landscape that is my 40s.

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