Life Begins at 40
By: Holly VAnderhaar
I love being in my 40s. No, really. I do. It’s not all a bed of roses, of course. I don’t love all the gray hair (or the cost involved in hiding it), and I’m not crazy about the tendency of body parts to expand and/or move southward. I expected to be battling these things in my 40s, though. The physical deterioration comes as no surprise, and, anyway, I still look pretty good for my age. What is surprising is that, inside, I feel about 25. Better, actually. At 25, I was an emotional train wreck —or, at best, a partial derailment. Now I’m responsible, a reliable employee, a good parent (most of the time), and on an even emotional keel. But I don’t feel “mature” in the way that my younger self would have expected to feel at this age. I thought that when I was 45, I would feel 45, whatever that means. I don’t, not even close. I giggle with my girlfriends like we’re still in high school. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m more optimistic.
I think what’s made the difference is that I don’t care anymore what people think, and I don’t compare my life to others’ and find it wanting. My 25-year-old self, hearing a fortysomething express those feelings -that cliché that life begins at 40- would have thought, “How sad.” My 25-year-old self would have seen it as a massive rationalization, or self-consolation, or a kind of giving up. She would have thought, “That person is trying to make peace with the inevitability of getting old,” and she would have pitied that person, even while she was going out to a bar that she really didn’t feel like going to, or suffering through another blind date when she would rather have been at home in sweat pants, watching Northern Exposure with her cat and eating ice cream out of the carton.
When I was 25, I was constantly scrutinizing myself —my physical self, my relationships or lack thereof, my career or lack thereof— to see if I measured up. Inevitably, I didn’t. I was mired in the trap of trying to create a persona, to craft an identity, and it was all very plastic and crazy-making. At 25, I had to go out on Friday and Saturday nights, even though many times I would have preferred to stay home, because Monday morning at the office, someone would inevitably ask me what I did over the weekend. Not having plans would have been too humiliating for words. In contrast, the 45-year-old me is quite happy to put on her pajamas at 5:30 on Friday and doesn’t care who knows it.
Maybe some of this is the wisdom that comes with age, but most of it is due to motherhood. When I decided to become a single mom by choice, and had my daughters, I finally got what I’d always wanted. Much of my former unhappiness was caused by the fear that I wouldn’t find a husband, or wouldn’t find one in time to have kids, and since the one constant in my life has always been my desire for motherhood, all my future happiness depended on it. When I decided to stop waiting for it to happen to me, and started to act on my own behalf to make it happen, it opened up a whole new realm of possibilities. If I could make this dream a reality, maybe I had it in me to make some of my other dreams come true as well. I started to believe in myself. I stopped apologizing for my life and started living it. And if I had to become middle-aged to achieve this kind of peace, so be it. This gray hair is a battle flag, not a white flag…even if I do pay someone to cover it up every six weeks.