So last week I hit the big one. 4-0. Life begins, so they say (which leaves me wondering what exactly I’ve been doing for 39 years and 364 days).
And as much as I tried to tell myself a birthday is just a day, an arbitrary measurement really, just another revolution of this little green planet around a big fiery orb, it did feel like a milestone.
So why exactly is 40 such a big deal? In a happy coincidence, while I was planning this blog, this weekend’s Observer ran a piece by Miranda Sawyer on her own ‘mid-life crisis’. In it, she talks about ‘death maths’: ‘if you were born in the UK between the late 60s and late 70s, and you’re a man, then all the research says that your life expectancy is 80. If you’re a woman, it’s 83.’
That’s it, then, isn’t it? 40 is a roughly-midway point. And people are prone to ‘crisis’ at this point because it just doesn’t seem long enough, does it? I mean, I don’t even remember the first few years, which seems a bit of a jip, to be honest. Quite a bit of my teens and twenties is now a blur (damn you, Diamond White).
So I thought I’d review just the last decade, and see what I’ve been up to; where I was at 30, and where I am now. (As Ferris Bueller said, life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.) Turns out quite a bit has gone on.
In the last 10 years, I’ve: got married, got divorced, had a baby, moved 240 miles south, left my sales career, had a novel published, started studying, and lost a parent. Phew. No wonder I’m tired. The last decade has really been about change, not all of it anticipated, or wanted.
If I’m to focus on any one change, the pivotal event of my thirties was becoming a mother. And becoming a mother was – still is – about adjusting.
Adjusting to the massive and immediate wake-up call of those life-changing blue lines.
Adjusting to being a new mother amid the reality that it didn’t ‘come naturally’ as so many people said it would; that in fact, in those first few months especially, it was exhausting, frustrating and sometimes (whisper it) boring. That it was a role that would tap into my Fear Of Failure more deeply than any other activity imaginable (even skiing), and that this terror would never, ever let up.
Next, adjusting to being a single mum and well and truly learning what it means to put your child’s happiness and wellbeing ahead of your own.
And more recently, adjusting to being a mum who works a little bit less and in a more flexible, but less secure, way, and consequently earns a lot less and worries more about the future, the trade-off being more time with my son (that time being already a scarce commodity, see divorce, above; his dad and I have what I call ‘shared ownership’).
Becoming a mother has been the highlight of the last decade, for me, no doubt about that. But it’s not everything, and it’s important more people say that out loud. Being a mother has (hopefully) made me more sensitive to the choices and lack of choices that other women make and have. I respect those who maybe could have children but choose not to, I sympathise with those who would love to have children but cannot, but above all, I recognise that it’s none of my damn business to pass comment on it either way.
In some of the conventional (mostly materialistic) ways we measure success in our society, I suppose I’ve gone backwards in the last ten years. 30-year-old me had her own house and drove a swanky BMW; 40-year-old me is firmly in the rental market with no foreseeable way out and drives a Ford Focus. Ten years ago I was engaged and planning a wedding; today I’m on my own and can’t quite decide whether I really like it (when I make a list of reasons it would be nice to have a boyfriend, ‘someone to put the bin out on a Monday night’ is disturbingly high up) or am just too bruised by experience to let someone in.
But I’m also proud of some of the changes I’ve made, and the way I’ve handled those changes that were somewhat forced upon me. Forgive the clichés but I find that these days I genuinely care more about people, but less about what people think of me. I’m confident in my own views but (I hope) not so intransigent that I can’t listen to others. I accept my wrinkles and wobbly bits and am grateful for good health.
And while I honestly plan to do more ‘adulting’ from now on (early nights, drink more water, take my makeup off and hang up my clothes before bed), I happily saw out the first week of my 40s jumping up and down to the Stone Roses at the Ethiad back in Manchester. Right before this joyful 90-minute regression to my youth, The Courteeners, one of the support acts, reminded us ‘You’re not nineteen forever’.
My mental response? Exactly 50/50 between ‘That’s what you think! Just watch me drink vodka and scream my lungs out to ‘Waterfall’!’ and ‘Well, thank the flying spaghetti monster for that’.
Which I think is a perfectly appropriate reaction for a 40-year-old.