“Don’t blink,” every stranger in Starbucks, Target, and Costco tells me as she eyes my cart full of children. “It goes so fast.”
“Just wait,” others tut, sensing that my last nerve left the building hours ago.
After almost 13 years of parenting, I am used to those comments, almost jaded to the warnings of how quickly my children’s legs will stretch out in front of them, how fast I will find myself on the doorstep of puberty with them one by one, how I will miss these days of Legos and dollhouses and diapers and training wheels.
Yes, the strangers are right. Yes, the years are heartbreakingly short, even though they are built of the longest of days. I already know how it feels to look back at pictures of chubby-cheeked toddlers and wonder how they became these full-grown people who require adult-sized (and -priced) dinners and Nikes and who, most alarmingly, understand the sexual innuendo in TV shows. I’ve cried over elementary school graduations and the arrival of huge, adult Chiclet teeth that change their little smiles forever. And yet watching my children grow up is what I expected to do. It makes sense. When I am surprised by the fact that my 12-year-old can now look me squarely in the eye, I am also thrilled, because yes, that’s supposed to happen eventually, if I am doing this right.
What really gets to me these days, though, is how fast I am growing up.
I feel utterly underprepared for it. No woman in the Target checkout line has ever touched my arm and solemnly said, “It goes so fast,” and meant my life. But I kind of wish someone had, back when I was in my 20s and my adult life seemed to lie before me like a vast blank page I could never possibly fill. Somehow, while working and marrying and planning and changing and making tiny humans over and over again, I have written a larger part of my story than I ever imagined I could so fast. There’s still plenty of story left to write, but the margins are filling up. I can see where the ending might be, where I could not before.
I’m 40. I have a prescription for a mammogram in my purse to prove it. The movies I grew up on—the movies that taught me about life—are having 30th anniversaries. My music is on the oldies station. I know that I am supposed to acknowledge how fantastic 40 is, how I am learning to be myself and how I don’t care about what anyone thinks anymore and how great it is to be in the prime of life. All those things are true. There are benefits to having survived the roller coaster of adolescence, the uncertainty of my 20s—which ended with 9/11 and a war—and the tough realities of my 30s (marriage, parenthood, a pretty devastating economic recession, more war).
But there have been times lately when I am doing something completely ordinary—driving down the streets of my suburban neighborhood in my minivan, a few kids buckled into the backseat, maybe, and I lose my breath—because it’s all gone so fast and how is it possible that I am the middle-aged mom in this scenario? Of course, I know how it happened; I was there. But I still feel like a teenager playing the part of a grown-up, despite all the trappings of actual adulthood that I possess, like that mammogram prescription and our mortgage. I thought that by this age, I would know more. I would understand more. And most of the time, I’m still the girl who sported a full rack of braces and rocked the Outback Red henley with her chambray prairie skirt in seventh grade and who made mix tapes off the radio on a lavender boom box on the floor of my bedroom. I can’t possibly be this old already.
“I’m not ready,” I whisper, out loud. “I’m not ready.”
I’m not ready.
I don’t want to go back and relive any of those years. Lord knows I was an awkward enough teenager the first time. It’s not that I was happier then, or that I’m not happy with where I have ended up or with whom. It’s just that it is going so fast. And somehow, while I have been watching my babies grow up into little people and now young adults, I wasn’t paying as much attention to myself. I didn’t have time to blow my hair dry, much less realize how all those days were adding up to so much of my life, so fast.
Before you say it, I know. I know that 40 is not that old, not in this day and age. I know there’s a lot left if I continue to be lucky, and I know it will be wonderful. I’ve lost people to accidents and illness already, and I feel nothing but gratitude about aging. I’m looking forward to it. This is what I have worked for: to get to this place in my life, in my parenting, in my work, and in my marriage.
But, for the record, I’m still not ready. Maybe we never are.