Never liked the sound of 39. It’s a last-ditch-effort age. You get that “in one more year it’s all OVER” look over and over on this particular birthday.
For a good week, I had a burning desire to finish out the decade with a big bang. How could I get ahead of the new chapter that would magically start on my 40th birthday? The bucket list was closing in on me. All at once, get it done! Yes!
No. I quickly came to my senses.
I started reflecting a couple of days before 40.
“Whhhhhyyyyyyy do you make me do this every New Year’s Eve?” the husband whines. Looking back from time to time is healthy. Why was the year good? What can we work on? Turning 40 was a New Year’s reflection, multiplied by 10.
Certain experiences of my 20s gave me the most clarity. Being a waitress, the job that offers the most vivid picture into humanity, both wonderful and pitiful, Working on and near a trading floor, a miniature “Lord of the Flies” specimen of the human condition. Teaching at an all-boys high school and seeing firsthand that anyone can grow and learn in a comfortable environment. Traveling abroad, living in NYC with friends, saying “I do.”
I became a teacher and a mother in my 30s. Motherhood changed everything —expectations of myself, hopes for this crazy world, dreams for the kids, the definition of balance. The baby years were truly amazing days, minus two hormonally nasty months where I didn’t sleep too much and cried when I ate a bagel. It was a humbling, nonsensical time. Going through it during one of my four pregnancies strengthened my thoughts about emotional health. I will never subconsciously judge any woman who cries when she eats a bagel.
Watching a dear friend fight for her life against cancer in my 30s changed my thoughts on health, wellness, strength, pure hope, the need for comedy in even the most trying situations and acceptance of the lack of fairness in life.
Now in my 40s, parenting continues to shape me. I always wanted to be a mom, but now that I am and that the children are getting older at what feels like an epic pace, I am grappling with every life lesson I need to teach them. In the midst of those lessons, I am finding that they are teaching me more about myself than I could have ever learned on my own. Parenting does not get easier with age. Older parents who say, “It gets easier. Just wait, you’ll see!” lie like a rug. It gets better and harder every day.
I don’t know what else will shape me in my 40s. I never thought when I was a waitress that I’d be writing about that experience 20 years later.
Since I’ve hit 4-0, I am checking off a different box at the doctor’s office. I’m experiencing a similar feeling when you check off that box that you are over 35 and pregnant. The plague. You might as well have the plague.
It means that if I start a new career or go back to school, I will be in class with students or have colleagues I could have birthed myself. (Not a deterrent, not a deterrent!)
I have new mantras. No news is good news! Never say never! You only live once! Find the positive! Life is good! Kale is not a product of the devil!
There’s also the inevitable change in my body. I think about a carb and gain a pound. I can no longer do an inversion in a public yoga class because of the sounds that involuntarily come from certain parts of my body.
Intimacy has taken on new meaning. We bribe each other like 7-year-olds. If you put the kids to bed, I’ll…and so on.
I don’t underestimate the value of a random conversation with a stranger. A lot of amazing things in my life have begun with a random conversation with a stranger.
At my recent annual dermatologist screening, I was asked, “Can I help you with anything else?” I broke out into a sweat. “Yes. I mean no. Well, I mean, what do you think?” as I purposely frowned. By the looks of his assistant, who was expressionless at 60, I knew I was in for it. I never thought I’d be having that type of conversation, ever.
Forty seemed so old to me when I was 20. But now it doesn’t. I don’t feel old. It just feels like time passes quicker, and I’m turning into my mother. (I, too, store tissues in the sleeves of my sweaters). And that unspoken “I will live forever!” feeling of my youth has left the building. Maybe it’s due to those continual Facebook updates with inspirational quotes and pictures of sunrises, but I doubt it. It seems like I blinked away the past two decades.
I fall into a reflection trap with every milestone. But now, I take it a little easier on myself and the reflection is not so prolonged (Yay! says the husband who I just bribed to take out the trash). Peeking backwards helped me to see so clearly how uncertain, unpredictable and miracle-like the future will be.
This is 40.
Jen Winn, who just turned 40, is a parenting columnist for a small arts and entertainment magazine in New Jersey.