Remember the thrill of reaching the halfway mark in the year as a kid, when you could finally add “…and a half” to your age? When’s the last time you did that?
I turned 40 two years ago, and I was fine with it. Actually, I was more than fine with it. Like many at midlife, I tried to grab it by the throat. I took up running as a gift to myself, and I won’t subject you to pace times and distances, but I beat my expectations. I started therapy, digging in as I hadn’t before. I even got my first tattoo.
I tried to do it publicly, too. “Lordy, Lordy…” I posted on the big day, as required by Facebook custom, and I spent the day soaking up the deluge of well wishes. I wasn’t squeamish, at least not as much as popular culture told me I was supposed to be. I didn’t feel old, whatever that means, and I didn’t look old either.
In fact, as I scrolled through the real-time update of former high school pals and college friends, I started to realize something: Very few of us looked old (not all of us, sorry guys, but very few of us, which is still pretty great). They looked, well, as they should look. That’s when I decided that my generation is redefining middle age. Screw the 40 mindset of misery, with its black balloons and “Over the Hill” banners. “Forty is the new 30,” a friend said that day, and I believed it.
Then, throughout the following year, I began to notice something. My peers had started quietly removing traces of their true ages from social media. Gone were specific birthdates. Hidden were the references to graduation years. Their #tbt posts went from “Can you believe this was 19 years ago?” to “Can you believe this happened at some unspecified time in the past?” Suddenly, it felt like we were sliding through some invisible door between “sufficiently young” and “disquietingly old,” and I couldn’t figure out why.
“We are vibrant and successful and funny and good-looking!” I chirped silently (and sometimes out loud) to my friends list. Forty is the new 30! I insisted to fight off a vague but growing sense of dread. It didn’t help that I live in a college town, which means I continue to get older while the bulk of the population stays in the exact same youthful age range year after year after unforgiving year.
Why, at 40, are we suddenly supposed to be embarrassed about our age, whispering it like a confession instead of declaring it like a badge of honor? The following year, when my friends and I turned 41, no one made reference to the number. “We’re aging backwards now, right?” people joked in vague birthday posts or while sharing bullshit memes about how “Age is an attitude, not a number.”
The thing is, age actually is a number. But what that number represents is worthy of pride, not sheepishness or shame. This heart of mine, once just a speck of a flutter on an ultrasound, has been beating for more than four decades. In that time, I’ve survived labor and delivery twice (three times, if you count my own), junior high, a couple of hurricanes, bad perms, a prom outfit akin to what Little Bo Peep was wearing when she lost her sheep, reckless college stunts, loved ones in hospitals, the decision to stay home with my kids, 17 moves and crippling heartache. I’ve lived through a childhood devoid of car seats, childproof locks and bike helmets. I’ve remained upright despite two car accidents, unsupervised overseas travel as a teenager, surviving two kids in diapers and getting two kids out of diapers. Hell, I’ve even eaten Pop Rocks and washed them down with Pepsi.
I have friends who scaled mountains, wrote bestsellers, overcame abuse, climbed corporate ladders, raised exceptional children, saved souls and started their own nonprofits. Do you know what it takes to do those things, besides a hell of a lot of energy, ambition and heart? It takes time. Years. Decades, even. The proof is right there on their driver’s licenses, not that they’d show you.
I can’t claim to be infallible about this. Sometime last year, caving to peer pressure, I fabricated myself. I hid my own birthdate on Facebook out of fear of being the only public 41-year-old left there. But there was something unsettling about deleting that “1973.” Was I ashamed to have been born then? No. Did I wish I could erase a few years? Not really. Would I choose to go back to my 30s if I could? Hell, no.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not thrilled with some of what comes with aging. My carefree days of infrequent dye jobs are waning, and I don’t particularly like these deepening laugh lines, either. But thank God they’re here, and getting deeper.Those laugh lines have been carefully carved by living and laughing, messing up and apologizing, growing and discovering, crying and dancing and loving, for 42 years. Well, 42 and a half years.
So here’s to saying how old we are, loud and proud, complete with faded Polaroids of bad perms as proof.