Lifestyle

Our 40s Weren't Some Blissful Utopia Before COVID-19 -- They're Even Less So Now

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Woman asleep on sofa with pet dog
Scary Mommy and Justin Paget/Getty

Contrary to popular belief, your 40s are not some blissful utopia.

Sure, there’s the much-lauded IDGAF attitude, which isn’t so much an IDGAF attitude as it is a “IDGAF about bullshit” attitude. Because, the truth is, you actually do give a fuck about things that matter, lots of things. Your 40s can be confusing and liberating and terrifying and exhausting and emotional – all at the same time.

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Until recently, it seemed that those of us in our 40s weren’t entirely comfortable talking about how utterly baffling this stage of life can be. We don’t talk about the trials and tribulations of our relationships because they aren’t our stories to share, at least not entirely anyway. These stories involve our kids – or maybe our parents or our spouses – and we have their privacy to protect. Not to mention there is something far more intimate about a teen’s heartbreak at not making the basketball team than a preschooler’s speech delay or the most embarrassing middle-of-Target tantrum.

But just because we don’t talk about it doesn’t mean this shift isn’t happening. It’s like the ground underneath us is moving, and we feel the need to adjust and move to safer ground, but we aren’t really sure where that is.

Friendships feel different now that we aren’t tethered to our children’s social calendar. Our parents need how-to lessons on syncing the new remote control with the cable box or a refresher on social media etiquette. Our kids, while more independent, need us just as much as ever, but their challenges seem to carry more weight, and there is the constant fear that we’re fucking this all up.

So yes, we 40-something-year-olds were already feeling the strain before the pandemic, and hooboy, are we feeling it even more now.

As S. Mitra Kalita wrote on CNN, “Long before the coronavirus pandemic, Generation X women — defined as those born between 1965 and 1980 — were already fraying.”

Even though I don’t completely identify with the Gen X crowd –I’m more of a Xennial – I certainly identify with that fraying sensation.

Those of us in our 40s might not feel the physical weight of parenthood and life that we felt in our 30s when children were literally attached to our body, but we feel the emotional weight of life more than ever. In fact, most days I’m so in my feelings that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry or scream (or all three at the same time).

Much of the confusion of this stage of life comes from feeling pulled in a million different directions — between work obligations and kids and aging parents and evolving friendships and maybe a marriage that needs some TLC. This stage of life is often referred to as the “Sandwich Generation,” because we’re sandwiched between kids and parents. But this analogy never quite rang true for me. Unlike the lunch meat in the sandwich, I didn’t feel smooshed or squeezed. Rather, I feel more like peanut butter that’s spread too thin, that desperately wants to reach into every nook and cranny and soak it all up but can’t because there just isn’t enough to go around.

A while back, I aired some of my grievances with our tendency to put a shiny veneer over our 40s, writing:

“Does everyone else feel like they’re failing at everything? Like they’re doing nothing well? Is anyone else confused and too exhausted to even think about why? Who knows, because we’re either too busy or too scared to talk about it…Our late-30s and 40s bring a lot of changes too…You’re excited and thrilled about the new opportunities, but also feel low-key terrified all the time…

The physical demands of motherhood are fewer but the emotional demands are enough to nearly break you. You stay up late drying tears, and you wonder about what drama is going on in your kid’s life because they are very clearly upset but won’t tell you why and you need to respect their privacy but — man, oh man — is it hard to not make it better for them.

And then there’s the anger. Where the hell did this anger come from? Because you’re so fucking pissed sometimes that you think your head might literally explode. Or you might crumble into the fetal position and sob for hours. Either one.

All those concerns and confusing emotions – those frayed edges, so to speak — are still there, and the coronavirus pandemic has multiplied and exacerbated them. Journalist and author Ana Calhoun, who wrote the bestselling book “Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis,” told CNN, “This virus may be the anvil that broke the camel’s back. A lot of women in this country were trying to keep a whole lot of plates in the air. All of it has come crashing down, and now there are also more plates falling from the sky, like crockery-hail.”

While I don’t agree with the generalization that the struggles of women in our 40s are the result of the proverbial midlife crisis (as the title of her book suggests), Calhoun does make an interesting point.

“When I was working on the book, some women told me they sort of wanted to blow it all up — their schedules, the dynamics of their marriages, their career path — and start over,” she told CNN. “This is not how anyone would have ever wanted something like that to happen, but I wonder if some of those women now are in a position where they will need to rebuild from scratch: to find a new distribution of work at home, to figure out a new career path, to change their expectations for themselves. Although, of course, that’s also a lot of pressure when it’s hard enough right now to just, like, toast frozen waffles.”

Personally, I had sort of “blown it all up” before the coronavirus quarantine, only to find now that the life I was trying to create for myself isn’t possible – at least not in the way I had envisioned. Shortly before the coronavirus pandemic descended on us, I had made some fairly significant changes to my life so that I could be involved with my family, including my extended family who lives in a neighboring state. My dad has Alzheimer’s disease and I hoped to spend some time with him and give my mom a bit of a break in the process. I had also resolved to nurture those IRL friendships I’d neglected in recent years, and my husband and I were hoping to embark on some travel adventures. But this new life I had hoped to create for myself isn’t possible right now, not in the way I had planned.

The real irony of it all is that the confusion that so many of us 40-somethings were (are?) feeling made us want to shed our old skin and set fire to our lives so we could tie up those frayed edges. We might have been considering job changes or relocations to be near aging parents. We might have been rekindling old friendships or embarking on new ones. We might have been getting more comfortable with our kids’ burgeoning independence – and, as a result, our own.

All of that has been flipped on its head now. We are literally stuck in limbo. Not only can we not check up on our aging parents, maybe lend a helping hand or just enjoy some time together doing nothing, now we can’t even be in the same room as them. While we were scared of something happening to them before, now we are downright terrified. Instead of helping them with their WiFi connection, we’re nagging them not to leave their house.

Those job changes we were so excited about have vanished into thin air. Heck, we’re lucky if we even have a paying job, and if we do, we’re trying to manage it with our new unpaid job (for which most of have absolutely no training whatsoever) of part-time homeschool teacher.

Those tender friendships that we were building organically now look like scheduled and often-awkward video chats.

Our kids? Well, that budding independence has vanished into thin air as we all share the same 1,500 square feet 24/7.

But as Calhoun notes, we can either hold tight to the high expectations we had for ourselves or be honest about what we are able to do and what we need.

For me, that means accepting that some days I will be a powerhouse of productivity – cleaning the windows for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-many years, getting in a full day’s work, and finishing a puzzle with my kids – and other days, it will take all my energy just to get in the shower. It means getting used to crying nearly every single day. It means tending to a few close friendships and letting go of the “shoulds” when it comes to all the Zoom happy hours and virtual game nights. It means FaceTiming with my parents instead of sitting in their living room.

This isn’t to say that the struggles of we 40-somethings is any more or less than the struggles others are facing. It is an absolute privilege to have so many people, relationships and opportunities in your life that you feel spread too thin. It is an absolute gift. And we know it.

But because this stage of life brings with it the acute awareness of just how much a gift all of it is, we want to gobble it all up – and we can’t do that right now, at least not physically, or in the way we had imagined.

Xennial and Gen-X friends, however you are coping with this current crisis is okay. Whatever you’re feeling, you’re not alone. If you’re confused and angry and weepy and terrified, believe me, so am I. But friends, don’t forget: we’re still setting fire to our lives, even if it is with some low-burning embers rather than a burst of flames.

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