This is Forty

Diane Vanaskie Mulligan
Jun 24 · 5 min read

Last week I turned forty. I still do not know how I feel about that. I don’t know if I feel forty, because I don’t know what forty feels like. Most people tell me I don’t look forty, which is nice. I don’t know what it means to act like a forty-year-old, so I can’t say if I do, but my husband and I tend to live like overgrown children, so probably I don’t act forty most of the time.

#ThisIs40 — The author celebrating on a camping trip in Western Massachusetts.

The last time I had a birthday where I could identify with my age was twenty-one. Twenty-one felt like freedom and independence, and even though I was only slightly more free than I had been before turning twenty-one and not very independent (mom and dad were footing my college tuition bill, after all), I felt twenty-one. I had no trouble believing I was twenty-one. I have had some trouble believing I was every number since.

I’m twenty-two? What’s twenty-two? It’s a nothing birthday. I’m twenty-five? Get out of here! I can’t be twenty-five? When I was twenty-one, twenty-five sounded so old! Thirty? That must be a mistake. I can’t possibly be thirty. I still feel like I’m twenty-one! Thirty-three? No. I can’t be older than Bridget Jones.

My forever-twenty-one mindset has nothing to do with a love of partying or anything like that. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. On my twenty-first birthday, I celebrated by having one beer at home with my dad and then going out to a bar with a friend. After the fun of letting the bartender see my license and say happy birthday and drinking one beer, I went home. My ability to understand myself as twenty-one was not a booze thing.

Twenty-one is the dividing line between adolescence and adulthood for college-going American kids. Eighteen, the right to vote, the age at which you can begin to serve your country in the armed forces, legal adulthood, doesn’t mean much when it’s generally assumed that you’ll finish high school and go to college, and, if you enter the military, it’ll be through ROTC or a military academy. Twenty-one, the legal right drink, even for those of us who aren’t big drinkers, that’s the actual start of grown-up life.

Funnily enough, ever since I turned twenty-one and experienced that fleeting moment of believing I was so grown up (Look at me, so mature, ordering Midori Sours at bars, so sophisticated!) I’ve felt like an imposter at adulthood. I eat chicken nuggets and tater tots for dinner in front of the television on a regular basis. I can’t possibly be an adult.

I’ve grown up enough to know that only a child would order a Midori Sour, but most of the time, I still feel like I’m the same person I was at twenty-one, still bewildered by things like compound interest and or how anyone affords to buy a house unless they have a trust fund, still a far-left idealist, still prone to sticking my foot in my mouth at dinner parties.

Intellectually, I know that I’ve actually changed in both big and small ways, but unless I force myself to stop and consider the facts of my life, I don’t feel like I’ve changed. My habits, attitudes, and perceptions have evolved gradually, over a long period of time, like the erosion of a rock wall or like a tree growing. If you look at it every day, you can’t see much difference, but if you had a twenty-year time lapse, you’d see the changes.

One way I’ve changed is that I am more comfortable in my skin — both literally and figuratively — than I ever was before. I no longer feel, as I often did in my teens and twenties, that I need to change my looks, my tendencies, and my opinions. I haven’t dieted in years. I rarely bother with makeup. I stopped fighting with my hair every morning and got a wash-and-wear cut that I love, and I don’t care if other people think it’s too short. I speak up in meetings at work, and if my colleagues don’t like my opinions, that’s fine, but I know my views come from a place of experience and authenticity, and I don’t need to be shy about them or apologize for them. I have no desire at all to return to the numerous insecurities of youth, so I guess, in that sense, I’m happy to be forty, even if my body is a little slower, a little stiffer, a little thicker than it used to be, even if sometimes I pee a little when I sneeze now.

I am also financially comfortable in ways I couldn’t have imagined twenty years ago. I don’t live a lavish lifestyle, but I can afford the things and experiences I want without having to go into debt for them. I am still often amazed when I realize I can just go out and buy a pair of hundred-dollar shoes if I want them. Twenty-years ago, the idea of hundred-dollar shoes would have meant budgeting and saving and second-guessing. So there’s another reason I don’t pine for youth.

When my high school and college friends began turning forty just about a year ago now, my Instagram feed was full of pictures of over-the-top celebrations with the hashtag “ThisIs40.” Honestly, I was baffled. Celebrating your birthday by flying with your friends to Cabo or Vegas or Cancun and dancing on bars like you’re turning twenty-one, instead of forty — what is that about?

My husband and I joked that for my #ThisIs40, we’d get a picture of me falling on a rock climb. Climbing in a relatively new hobby for me, and I’m not especially good at it, but I like it, and, well, it makes me feel young. How funny would it be, we thought, to make a #ThisIs40 post where the implied text was, “Look at me, trying to look young and fit and cool and inevitably falling, because — let’s face it — it’s all downhill from here?”

It’s been too rainy to climb outdoors this spring, so the opportunity didn’t come up to get any good videos, and that’s fine, too. I’ve learned (oh, the wisdom of age) that trying to be clever on social media usually backfires on me.

Anyway, now that I’ve turned forty, I understand the impulse to celebrate this big birthday like you’re turning twenty-one. At forty, my friends can afford to throw themselves the parties they would have died for a twenty-one. At forty, my friends feel good about their bodies and their lives and they want the world to know they aren’t entering a phase of mourning because they’re another year older.

Sure, some of the social media posts are mostly for show, putting a rosy filter things that don’t feel rosy. Maybe some people are crying into their Midori Sours at the end of the night, and nobody’s posting that picture. But I think most of us, on turning forty, have discovered that, no matter how old forty sounds, we don’t feel old, and if we’ve only got this one life, we’d better go out and live it.

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