As is often the case, my birthday wound up to be a perfect reflection of where I am right now.
So 40 was all about my real life.
A couple of weeks before my birthday, I shared a photograph of what I was reading on Instagram. The pile included magazines, Reviving Ophelia and Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A friend commented that those two books revealed that I was in the “panini years” (a great expression—pressed between the generations).
And oh yes, I am. These are the in-between years, the thick, hot heart of life’s grand pageant, busy and rich and exhausting, overflowing with demands, responsibilities and love.
Life is very far from perfect—there are work stresses and health questions and far too many logistics to coordinate—but it is wonderful. I was ambivalent about turning 40, I’ll be honest. Some of that had to do with vain and not vain health reasons, but most of it was about my deep discomfort and unease with time’s relentless forward motion. Reminders of time passing do not make me happy. But here I am, on the other side, and I am so glad to be here. Life has never been more dense with feeling, more full of magic.
Forty is a time of contradiction and complexity. It is realizing in a deep way that these really are the days of miracle and wonder. It is knowing this season is finite. Forty is solemn about what is coming and grateful for what is.
Forty is toggling between John Denver and Katy Perry on the car stereo, knowing the words to both Cat Stevens and Taylor Swift songs, having strong memories associated with both CSNY and One Direction.
Forty is overseeing homework and driving to sports practices and games. It is recognizing the wisdom in the comment someone made years ago that some of the best conversations with adolescent children happen in the car.
Forty has answered many—most?—of the big questions that haunted my young adulthood. Forty is about embracing the reality that those answers have built.
Forty is being glad that my children still want goodnight hugs and the sweet-dream head rub before bed. And on the off-chance they ask to sleep in my bed when Matt is traveling, it’s always saying yes. Because this may be the last time they ask that.
Forty is more emails about sad, scary illness news or chemo than emails with baby announcements.
Forty is being absolutely fine that hockey practice is every single Friday night, which means no Friday night adult plans, ever. Forty is spending (a lot) more time with the parents of the kids my children play sports with than any other adults. And 40 is loving that.
Forty is female friendship, and knowing how essential the few women who are truly walking through life by my side are. It is taking time to nourish those friendships, to ask questions, to listen, to remember birthdays and doctor’s appointments and important dates.
Forty is knowing that the ferris wheel of life is ticking ever forward, and that this is probably the tippy-top. It is watching the decline of some in the generation ahead of us and the blooming of those in the generation behind us. It is taking a breath and looking around at this spectacular view, and loving it, and knowing that it is changing even as I admire it.
Forty is seeing my mother’s hands when I look at my own, and realizing that my daughter is much, much closer to being a college freshman than I am, and accepting that what I see in the mirror—a middle-aged woman—is who I am.
Forty is recognizing that more years lie behind us as a family all living together than lie ahead, and existing every day in the shadow of the goodbyes and departures that loom. Forty is thinking parenting just keeps getting better, but also knowing that one day—sooner than I would like—this season will come to an abrupt end.
Forty is having missed the window to start wearing red lipstick. I always felt like it was too sophisticated and I would learn how to pull that off “later.” Oops. And now it’s too late. Forty is often trying on dresses to find them too short. Forty is still wearing a bikini, but not for long.
Forty is learning to dance with the limp, as Anne Lamott says. I have a hip that’s been bothering me all summer and abdominal pain (yes, I am seeing a doctor, and no, we have no answers yet) that shifts between absent and excruciating. But I’m still running, and I’m still living my life. I refuse to let this pain, and these questions, keep me from doing so.
Forty is realizing that a birthday of chores and errands and a candlelit family dinner is exactly what I wanted. It is understanding in a new, visceral way that all I want is more of this.