I was in the final month of my 30s, just about to slip quietly under the ‘turning 40’ radar, when a mini existential crisis hit.
Which surprised me. Milestone birthdays had never troubled me before.
Maybe because turning 18 and 21 were all about having fun and experimenting with being a real, legal grown up. While turning 30 was the abandonment of the insecurity of my 20s – a chance to really figure out my place in the world.
But 40? That was different.
‘I should be more wealthy/successful/enlightened by now.’
‘I’m not skinny/smart/sophisticated enough.’
‘I should be a better wife/mother/friend/writer.’
In the absence of a clear or positive image of what 40 represented, it seemed I’d fabricated two extreme versions of what 40 means for a woman. You were either:
Kicking massive, public career goals while maintaining the face and body of a 24-year-old, or
Sliding headlong towards the irrelevance and invisibility of middle age.
I couldn’t live up to one, and I didn’t want to be the other.
After several days of internalising my angst, I broached the topic with a few of my 40-something friends. And, as it turned out, I wasn’t alone in my existential angst.
“I totally understand,” said Jacquie, 42. “I wasn’t where I thought I’d be by the time I turned 40. And in fact I was quite a way off. So I just wasn’t ready for it.”
Another friend, Julie, had witnessed a few friends make the transition in a messy way. Her advice? “May I politely suggest having a serious distraction to see you through the turbulence? I threw myself into an MBA. Other friends have gone crazy with their fitness and climbed mountains.”
Perhaps the most beautifully raw, yet surprising response came from Sam, a friend who’d faced down breast cancer at the age of 39.
Our text conversation went like this:
Me: What were you feeling two to three weeks out from your 40th birthday?
A few minutes later she followed up.
“Yup, seriously, I felt absolutely f*cked. And not only did I feel f*cked about turning 40, I felt guilty about it. Because I’d ‘beaten cancer’, surely I should have been some bastion of redemption and lover of life.”
Instead, Sam came down with hives, her psoriasis flared up, she got increasingly irritable about her birthday party and was prone to tantrums in a way she had never been before.
I found this so interesting, because I had been trying to channel some gratitude by thinking of women who tragically didn’t make it to 40. And as much as I could say the words, “I’m so lucky – there are lots of women who would have given anything to make it to 40”, I was struggling to really feel it.
Most likely because it’s hard to feel fortunate when you’re busy beating yourself up.
In the two years since her turbulent experience of turning 40, Sam reflected on what it was all about. Her conclusion flipped my turmoil on its head.
“Looking back, it was part of a process of shedding a skin towards a journey of … wait for it … self-compassion and self-love. And true self-compassion and self-love, not just ‘I’ll book a massage each fortnight and start a gratitude diary’ bullsh*t,” she said.
I’ve shed enough skins in my life now to know that although it sucks donkey balls while the skin is coming off, what emerges at the other side is always a new and improved model of what existed before.
Viewing what I’d been feeling through the lens of transformation rather than crisis blew away the negativity in my head and cleared a space to envisage how I wanted life as a 40-year old woman to look. It tuned me into the beauty of those 40+ women who have been through the process and emerged knowing who they are and what they stand for.
And there’s a glow in that confidence that nothing else can emulate, no matter how powerful your six-week course of anti-ageing facials might be.
This article first appeared on Mamamia.com.au