Changing how we see 40

by Kristin on February 23, 2010

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by fluzo

I have a big birthday looming right around the corner. Let’s just say I’m not turning 30.

Actually, let’s just say what it is: One week from today, I turn 40. There.

For the most part, being this age is ten times better than I ever would have expected. I am very happy with how I feel, look and live at almost-forty. When I was 20, I never imagined life would be this good. And I wouldn’t go back if I could—not even 10 years, let alone 15 or 20. I am more myself and more content with my life than I have ever been.

But still, part of me is dreading this particular day, looming just one short week away. I’ve been trying to parse what exactly it is about turning 40 that bothers me. I realize it has nothing to do with the reality, and everything to do with the perception. I’ve always thought 40 was old. I can clearly remember when my parents were 40, and I thought they were old. That means that everyone who is younger than me also thinks of 40 as old, right? So they’ll think of me as old. That’s what I can hardly bear.

Time to bust some more stereotypes

What can I do about what others’ think, though? All I can do is convince myself not to care, and perhaps to prove them wrong along the way. So much of what I’m about in my life and writing is breaking apart stereotypes: Not all Christians are like that. Not all divorces are like that. Why not add this one to the mix? Not all middle aged people are like that.

For the pep talk I need moving forward, there’s no one better to turn to than the much-loved Anne Lamott, who writes about aging with great grace and humor. In this Salon interview with Joan Walsh, Anne admits that it’s hard to get old—especially as a woman—but there’s also this truth:

…life gets so much easier. Oh my God, life has never been easier for me. The truth is, I get just as lost and anxious and frightened and egotistical and narcissistic as I ever did, but it doesn’t last nearly as long. I mean, it used to last entire years and now I get it and it can last two days. The truth is that you care so much less about most of the stuff you used to care about. It’s like you’ve thrown so much stuff out of the plane that you used to bog down in. I honestly couldn’t name a person I know who would turn back the clock.

It’s so true. I’ve been able to throw so much of what doesn’t matter overboard, leaving more room for more meaningful stuff.

I wouldn’t turn back the clock, and I don’t know a person who would. Ultimately, I think that’s because I am still me—all of the things I have always been, just exposed to more wisdom, grace and beauty as the years pass.

We are all the ages we’ve ever been

Again, Anne Lamott says it best in her book Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith:

I’m very glad to claim the crone who is coming to life within me; I just don’t want her to screech so loudly that she silences the little girl who is still around, drowns out the naughty teenager, or mutes the flirtatious middle-aged woman.

Here is my theory: I am all the ages I’ve ever been. You realize this at some point about your child—even when your kid is sixteen, you can see all the ages in him, the baby wrapped up like a burrito, the one-year-old about to walk, the four-year-old napping, the ten-year-old on a trampoline.

…So how can I be represented by a snapshot, or any one specific aging age? Isn’t the truth that this me is subsumed into all the me’s I already have been, and will be?

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  • Lorna

    So funny for you to know when your parents turned 40…my mother was 43 when I was born. I’ve come to terms with the whole age is just a number thing, and recognize it by the diversity of friends I have of all ages (even you). I especially love the Anne Lamott quote “Here is my theory: I am all the ages I’ve ever been. ” I can totally relate to that. Looking forward to celebrating another year of your life, whatever year it is!

  • Laura

    You have hit the proverbial nail on the perception issue. Society tells us that we have to be segmented by our ages. Look at magazine covers – beauty/sex/love at 20! at 30! at 40! Because we are really so different. The fact that you are “more myself and more content with my life than I have ever been” means more than any number.

  • Jim Arehart

    Enjoyed your entry today, Kristin. Seemed fitting for me at least, as I hit the big four-oh this morning. I think there’s something here, too, that you only barely touched — 40 for a woman is loads different than 40 for a man. For example, I didn’t fret, I haven’t been bothered, no pep talks needed for me. Suddenly I’m “distinguished,” viewed wiser than I really am, and am deferred to for critical decisions, opinions and plans. Much different than when my wife turned 40. I think I’m gonna like this decade. Maybe something for a future blog… In any case, I’m with you on releasing all the bizarre baggage that used to be so important. My 40-year-old back couldn’t carry it anyway!

  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    Thanks for hitting 40 first Kristin, I really appreciate it!

    Anne Lamott really says it well, so post her words of wisdom on your dashboard this week.

    Like you my life is much richer, happier (healthier) , and fuller than 10 years ago and I would never turn back not even for a half of second. Turning 40 is the most wonderful thing because with it I hit 10 years in remission, 10 extra years of life. Don’t celebrate the years, but celebrate the life you have!

    Happy birthday to you Kristin & carpe diem! (from your much younger friend for 8 more months)

  • Alli Butler

    First, I must say Kristin – you are OLDER THAN I AM. (You too, Jim!) I have a couple of months to go but am READY! My mom died two months after she turned 39 so turning 40 for me means punching some demons of mine right in the crotch and laughing as I slurp down birthday margaritas and act “not age appropriate.” Oh yes I welcome the day, I challenge the age and I spit in the face of adversity. And yes, maybe my semi-maniacal zeal doth protest a bit much but man, we’ve EARNED this, right?

    We know our bodies, ourselves, our family, our friends – we no longer feel compelled to suffer fools or BS or negativity because maybe people won’t like us. We like ourselves and we’re comfortable in sharing our knowledge and experience. We may not be wizened for a few more decades, but we’re comfy in our own skin.

    Speaking of skin, I am confident that 40 will mean that my face will finally decide between wrinkles or zits, right? Oh yeah – I do struggle with the occasional “that’s really too young for you” outfit or makeup, sometimes I don’t recognize myself in the mirror or in photos. I wish my hair would all just turn white for goodness sake and be done with it. But given the state of the world, the number of people who haven’t made it this far and the general BLESSEDNESS that I have in my life? I need to put on my granny panties and SHUT UP because baby, I got it good.

    This is what 40 looks like.

  • Roxanne

    Ahhh, 40. It was awesome turning 40. I really felt like I’d finally grown into myself, and I finally could see the beauty in me, which I failed to see at 20 or even 30. I used to tell myself that I’d cut my hair short (it is waist-length and has been for years) when I reached 40, somehow thinking of 40 as “old.” Of course, that’s ain’t gonna happen. I made it thru 40 to 41. Having a blast, knowing i’m only as young as i feel.

    Wishing you a wonderful 40th birthday. And many more to come!

  • Violet

    I thought of this post last night when my best friend called to tell me that Edith Bunker was 45 when All in the Family premiered. REALLY??? I just turned 45 a couple of weeks ago. I am SO much younger than Edith Bunker ever was!

    Perception is everything but I do think that, in general, people are younger than we used to be. Does that make sense? 50 really is the new 40.

    Turning 45 bothered me a little bit – because I don’t *feel* 45 so I can’t wrap my head around the fact that I *am* 45.

    Not sure if my comments are really relevant to the conversation, but there you have it. And Alli? I want to party with you, girl!

    Happy, happy birthday, Kristin – enjoy every minute of it!

  • Kathleen Quiring

    First of all: holy crap. You’re almost 40? My parents are in their early 40′s. I honestly assumed you were in your early 30′s. Goes to show how little I know.

    This news is comforting on two levels. First, that a person can be so cool at 40. I started dreading middle-age after I got married and learned that, contrary to my prior assumptions, life didn’t end after marriage. In fact, it got better. I assumed, then, that life must end at mid-life. All the middle-aged people I knew seemed to be living dull half-lives. But to hear you and Anne Lamott and all these commentors talk about how awesome life is at 40 is so inspiring. And you are all so totally rad! Why are we fed this idea (in movies and on TV) that life is only fun and exciting and meaningful in early adulthood? It’s totally demoralizing.

    The second reason this news is comforting is that it means I still have time to become as cool as you. I admit, I am envious of people like you who make a living off of writing. I get discouraged about my lack of success thus far (I’m 24 already, for goodness sakes!) and sigh wistfully when I read terrific books and blogs from successful writers like yourself. It’s encouraging to hear that I still have a couple of decades to catch up. I’m finding that almost all my favourite writers have years and years more experience. I still have time. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Meredith

    I really latched on to your thoughts about perception – we think of certain ages as “young” and “old” because of perceptions and when it comes down to it, I think it’s all about perception.

    When I was a teen, people who met me thought one of two things: if they saw me first, I was perceived as younger than my actual age. If they spoke with me before seeing me, I was perceived as older than my actual age. (Strangely, no one ever thought I was my actual age). We all assume we “know” what it means to be a certain age and in reality, we’re almost always wrong.

    In my entirely online dialogues with you, I would have never guessed 40 – and in fact, I never did until you wrote this post. So I hope your birthday is a happy one and though it might be a cliche, I offer the reminder that age is nothing but a number.

  • Nicola

    Happy Birthday, Kristin! It’s hard to believe I’ve know you for 40 years! Welcome to the club!

    Everyone struggles with perception and age! When I was in my 20′s, it drove me crazy that everyone thought I was younger! 30′s were pretty great in terms of my feelings of my place in the world as a woman. 40 is pretty great, but kind of surreal. It just seems so, MATURE, to be 40. Am I really “grown up” enough to be this age? According to what my dad tells me, this will be our reality until we finally get sick and/or old enough to feel it!

    On the flip side, I, too, have actually let go of so many things that aren’t important. I feel a much greater sense of contentment in my life and with my self. I feel grateful to BE alive, having lost some people in my life who didn’t make it to 40. I also have this really hard to describe sense of the rest of my life unfolding – like I can see all through the next stages. It makes me really aware of how time is flying by, but in a good way. Like I should really focus on what matters to me.

    Your 40th year will be as wonderful as you make it!


  • Kristin T.

    Lorna, the fact that some women have kids at 18 (or younger) and others (like your mom) have them at 43 is proof to me that age is just a number! (I think I was probably about 15 when my mom turned 40, so I remember it well.) Thanks for being a friend who doesn’t think twice about age!

    Laura, you’re right about society and magazines. The perceptions are only getting more complicated because of plastic surgery and other treatments that are supposed to trick the perceptions of others. There’s not much we can do about the state of society now, but I do think it’s our job to show/teach our daughters a different way—one that’s based on loving themselves for who they are.

    Jim, I hope you had a great birthday! It’s good to hear a guy chime in—especially one who recognizes the extra challenges women face as they age. “Distinguished” is a word that isn’t applied to women nearly as often as it should be.

    Elaine, I am thinking I’ll need to get some Anne Lamott tattooed on my forearm! I think I’m going to need it! I’m thankful for her, and for friends like you who remind me of the things in life that really matter.

    Alli, I clearly remember when your mom died. Were our moms really that young then? It’s hard to believe. I really admire your attitude. Embrace that “semi-maniacal zeal” and punch those demons! You *have* earned that right, and you *do* have it good.

  • Ed Cyzewski

    Nothing like celebrating a birthday with St. Anne… ;)

    I think the best part about aging is that all of your friends age with you… It’s like you have this tribe that has all of the same reference points and similar experiences. So now that we live in a college town and I’m often reminded of my age, it’s comforting to reconnect with my friends, to appreciate where we’ve been, and to gripe about young people today…

  • Dave Thurston

    You know there is a lot of stuff that I just didn’t get when I was 20 or 30, so 40 or more. I look back at 30 and go, “Gosh, did I really think/say/do that?! I can’t believe that I did that.” And I know that when I get to the beginning of my sixth decade (at age 50), I’ll look back at 40 and think the same thing about Dave-minus-10.

    But to know today that I’m pretty darn happy regardless of the chronological age of my body makes me darn happy. Sounds like you and many of the commenters are in the same boat – pretty darn good place to be.

    A kind of aside, but along the same lines: With the stuff that parents are going through at any time in their life, I find it comforting to know that even though they might be in their 80s, they are going through this portion of their life for the first time too/still.

  • Kristin T.

    Roxanne, I love hearing from people who loved turning 40. :) I think the truly beautiful 40-something women *are* the ones who have fully embraced the beauty within them, because it radiates, of course (and it’s not something you see radiating from many 20-somethings). Thanks for your good wishes!

    Violet, that is SO funny. In my mind today, I would have guessed Edith Bunker was close to 60. And yes, I agree—50 is the new 40. I wonder if the fact that many women are waiting longer to have kids has played a part in that shift? I also think our generation’s awareness of health and fitness has bumped up a few notches, which can only help.

    Kathleen, your comment got a full-out laugh from me—the “holy crap” part, not the part that insinuates I’m old enough to be your mom. :) Luckily, you sent so many compliments my way, I could hardly become disgruntled. I was really glad to see a comment from a Generation Y-er, because I was curious what their take would be this look at aging. When I was in my mid-20s, I think I was in denial about ever getting *really* old. I avoided the thought all together. And regarding your writing career, some time I’ll write you an email and tell you what I was doing at 24, and how many hours and hours of practice it took to get to where I am now. I don’t say that to be discouraging, but just to say that the entire process—the writing process and living process—is enriching and important and worthwhile. Enjoy it. You do indeed have lots of time.

    Meredith, two Gen-Y friends in a row! Yay! Your story about people’s perceptions of you is really interesting. I think in my teens and especially 20s, I struggled more with MY perception of other people’s perceptions of me. Does that make sense? In my mind, I was seen as some insignificant, silly kid, and I wanted so badly to be taken seriously. As I’ve gotten older, my concerns have flipped, of course. Now I don’t want to be taken TOO seriously. I want to be seen as the fun, with-it person I think I am. (Luckily, until I went and broadcast my age, most people who know me would have guessed I was 8 years younger than I am. I won’t complain!)

    Nicola, it really is amazing that we’ve known each other 40 years! I can definitely relate to this funny question you posed: “Am I really ‘grown up’ enough to be this age?” And your dad’s perspective was funny to hear, because our dads will NEVER really grow up—they will eventually be 20-year-olds in 80-year-old bodies.

    Ed, somehow my friends don’t seem to age with me—I seem to keep making younger and younger friends! I live in a college town, too, and most of the friends I’ve made here are 5-10 years younger than me. It might make me *feel* old sometimes, but it probably helps keep me young. :)

    Dave, it’s so good to hear from you! The scenario you’re describing is exactly how I always feel about my writing. When I was in NYC a couple weeks ago, at my friend’s house, she had copies of a magazine she used to work for and I used to write essays for, from time to time. I wrote the pieces almost 15 years ago, and I’m sure it’s easily been a decade since I’ve look at them. It was so fascinating to see so many hints of who I am, but to also be cringing and laughing at my ideas and writing style. Ten years from now, will I cringe and laugh at what I’m writing today? (Ha! Just realized fashion is a lot like this, too.)

  • Joi T.

    I just have to say that a few days ago when I was at the park with our dog, the snow was perfect for packing, and I couldn’t resist making a snowball. Then I suddenly had to make a snowman — a very nice snowman about 4 feet tall with long pine needles for hair sticking out under a snow hat, and pine cones for eyes and nose and a curvy pine bough for a mouth. It was great fun, and there were no children anywhere around to inspire me to this. And I’m 65!

  • Raquel

    Our fabulous Interim Minister (UU) Rev. Kathy – used that story in a service this year and it resounds. Thank you for bring it back into my field of attention.

    Happy B-day!

  • Kristin T.

    Joi, I will make that one of my goals—to be the sort of person who makes a snowman when I’m 65! I’m sure your example impacts and inspires me to live joyfully in so many ways.

    Raquel, yes, I think being all the ages I’ve ever been is a wonderful way to think about the wonderfully complex way God created each of us. (Btw, I would love to hear what topic your interim minister was teaching on.)

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