I Am 39 Years Old, And It's Nothing Like I Thought It Would Be

by Nicole Jankowski
Originally Published: 
A blonde woman posing with a brown haired teen girl and the same woman posing with a little boy wear...
Nicole Jankowski

I am 39 today, and I am bewildered.

39 is nothing like I thought 39 would be.

I do not know how to do things that I thought I would know how to do. I still do all sorts of things that I thought I’d have stopped doing by now.

People I meet move swiftly over this birthday, this 39, as though it is just part of a journey, not even a stop along the way. The final hurdle in a marathon race, that ends–or begins–at 40. My 39th birthday unfolds in constant, foreboding discussions of what comes next. This is the year you stop counting, my father says. It’s all downhill from here, a friend tells me, laughing. Just wait, my husband promises.

39, it seems, is just a resting space, a precipice, one final chance to make an entire decade everything it ought to have been. We mark our lives in fragments, a milestone, a year. A marriage, divorce. The birth of a child. Decades. Ten years holds something tangible to us. We might say: “when I was in my twenties” as though that shadowy sum of time encapsulated precisely who we were then and how we lived and the mouths we kissed and those we loved. What will I say, when I remember my 30’s?

39 is a collision of opposites, one big paradox.

I can still do a cartwheel, on the front lawn, in a pile of leaves with the neighbors watching.

I can reach the mailbox first, panting and giddy, if I race my nine-year-old home from the park. I should let him win. I cannot just let him win, yet.

In the mornings, my back is stiff and my body creaks across the bedroom floor. The arches of my feet ache. My hands look tired.

I think I might be as old as my parents were, when as a child, I knew they were finally, truly, old.

I will never have a baby grow inside my body again. I will never carry a tiny child in the crook of my hip, never fold a small being into my chest, just to feel their warmth and let them feel mine.

I sleep all through the night, every single night, no baby to wake me. I do not have to listen to children’s music on the radio anymore.

My teenage daughter drove herself to the store, to buy flowers for my birthday. And she put them in a vase.

I have learned to value beauty in action over beauty in face.

The love songs on the radio are no longer about me, no longer pertain to women my age.

Some nights, I want to put on clothes that make me forget that I am somebody’s mother. To go somewhere and dance too wild, electric lights glowing in my hair, to make myself remember that I am still flesh and sex, alive. Desirable. Young enough.

Most nights, I put on warm socks, and take shelter under my down comforter, stacking my feet BIG little BIG, in bed with my husband.

When the whole house is sleeping, and it is very dark, sometimes I have to leap from the doorway to the bed. The carpet is an ocean of monsters, the darkness is swarming with an irrational unseen. There are 39 savages with gnashing teeth, under my king-sized bed. They have followed me from childhood. Are only waiting, waiting—licking their chops, to devour a girl-woman, like me.

A woman who knows things, can do things, remembers things.

A woman who cares for small children and strangers, who calms and holds them when they are breaking, who has learned, through time, what to say and what to leave dangling, unsaid.

A woman who likes her 39 year old face, with it’s odd mouth and fine lines and kind eyes.

So at 39, I get to begin, again. A new year, or one last year, one decade ending and another aching to commence. It’s all downhill from here, this is what they tell me. Just wait, I hear them say.

I could stop counting this year.

But instead, I’d rather make this year count.

This is 39.

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