If I’m honest, I never expected to make it to forty. I actually thought I was going to die before I was twenty-one.
This wasn’t because I was struck down with a terminal illness, or my childhood was riddled with gun-toting gangs curiously high on illegal substances. I’d just read a book called ‘Palmistry for You’ at my Mum’s house when I was nine, then convinced myself I had an exceptionally short lifeline.
Because twenty-one seemed like such an impossible age to reach back then, I told myself I wouldn’t reach it. I even wrote myself a letter to open on my twenty-first birthday, should I defy my destiny (though my letter was a bit of a disappointment when I found it and opened it up years later…all it said was “Well done! I made it!”)
Approaching the onset of a new personal decade is always momentous, but for me, the prospect of turning forty feels the most momentous of all (so far, obviously).
I think this is because forty is really the end of youth as we know it. Forty is a serious age; not mock-serious like thirty is, because at thirty the First World gateway you’re typically facing is whether you’re going to do anything with your career, or if you’re going to start a family. In essence, it’s possible that your life could still be a blank page waiting to be filled.
By contrast, at forty your life choices will probably be driven by what you ended up randomly scribbling onto that page in your thirties. If you had a family, your forties will be dominated by the kids. If you focused on your career, you’ll be judged by how well it’s going — you won’t necessarily be expected to throw it all in and start a new one. If you do then it’ll be harder, because now you’ve got history. You made a commitment to something, and to change it you’ll now have to break that commitment, and in doing so, tell the whole world that you got it wrong.
Some people turn this whole gateway thing completely on its head, which is where the whole prospect of the ‘mid-life crisis’ rears its head. And the lure of that is hard to resist, if I’m being honest. For the first time in my entire life, there’s a sense of it all being painfully finite; of time actually ticking away, along with a sense of gratitude for my good health and vitality that makes me want to extend them for as long as I possibly can.
I have to confess to Googling “how to turn forty”, because I wasn’t quite sure how to do it, and somehow it seemed especially important that this momentous thing should be handled properly. Should I celebrate with a wild party (mid-life crisis alert!) or keep it all uncharacteristically quiet (getting ‘old’ alert!)?
The advice I found in all the articles I read online were mostly lessons in how to paper over the cracks with colourful pieces of false positivity. “You have laughter lines, but you don’t care because that just means you’ve laughed a lot!” trilled one supremely annoying post.
Fuck that. I do care about laughter lines. They mean my face is changing into something I can’t control; although to be honest my feeling about those lines is similar to how I felt when I suffered from teenage spots. I scour photos of myself to see how bad they look, and then I compare them with other people’s, and then I come to the conclusion that most of us are all in the same boat. But I’m not going to pretend I like the so-called ‘laughter lines’, or the traces of jowl I look for, don’t see yet, but know I will soon. That would be mad. I simply accept them, and then I move on.
The other thing I’ve noticed about “how to turn forty” articles is that, if you’re a woman, they mainly focus on how grateful you should feel to have borne children, fighting your way through mummy-related battles every day so that you can move the next generation swiftly on to worrying about their lives and careers. If you didn’t have any kids, well hey! Your life can continue in the same hedonistic whirl it always has, can’t it?
Except it can’t, and just for the record my life has never been a hedonistic whirl. It has been way more self-centred, granted, but I don’t see that as a bad thing, as long as I can say I’m a good person with it.
It can feel a bit weird, though, turning into a middle-aged woman without the obligatory kids. Not only are they the ultimate in baggage, but if you forgot to have any then you have to accept that in essence, you haven’t followed either convention or your biological imperative. This means that people won’t quite know what to do with you all the time, especially at parties.
But the sometime-awkward conversations are balanced out by the fact that you’ll make a brilliant old-aged eccentric, and the money you earn throughout your life will be for you, to do whatever you want with. Enjoy that feeling, because to be honest, it’s bloody great.
“You know yourself better,” said one “how to turn forty” article, sagely. But do you? I like to think I do, because if I didn’t know myself after 40 years dedicated to being me, I’d feel a bit of a failure.
And yet I’ve witnessed enough shocking lapses in self-awareness from so many other over-forties, to fear that the whole “you know yourself better” trope is just something people like to tell themselves about getting older, in the same way some people will latch on to a tiny aspect of their star sign that’s “just like me!” — completely ignoring the bit where it says theirs is the most likely sign to revert to serial killing.
One totally unarguable fact about turning forty, though, is that everyone else seems impossibly young. So much so, that you can unnervingly find yourself in the role of would-be educator for the first time, as you try to impress your lifely wisdom onto youngsters in the vain hope they won’t mess things up the way you did (or is that just me?)
It’s only now I’m older myself that I recognise all those times when people tried to do this to me, way back when I was younger. “You’ll learn…” their knowing expressions said. “You’ll understand soon enough…”
And so these poor young people will. But you can’t really explain any of it before it actually happens, can you? And neither should you. I keep trying to remind myself of that, as I fail to impart my wisdom onto the smooth faces of youth…
…whilst completely forgetting for a moment that when I was 22, I treated a turning-forty work colleague horribly. I left a pot of anti-ageing moisturiser on her desk as a “little joke”, and sent her a condolences card instead of a birthday card. What japes! She probably wanted to strangle me, and to be honest, looking back I’m surprised she didn’t at least try.
So I’ll be prepared for all the “you’re forty now…getting on a bit now, aren’t we, love?” — type jokes I’ll be hearing this summer, and I’ll treat them as payback for the way I behaved when I was young and carefree.
I suppose all this is what I really should have written in that letter way back when I was nine, but I suppose I didn’t know myself all that well then, did I?