Saturday, February 4, 2023

So This Is 40. Am I Doing It Right? Is Anyone??

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So, Alice is turning 40. It comes during quite a wild time in her life, which somehow got her thinking about Sex and the City, again.

Most of the time I try to block out the fact that the Sex and the City movies ever existed. But there’s one part of it, in the first, terrible (but not quite as terrible as the second) movie, that somehow really got stuck in my mind.

It’s the part where Carrie takes her assistant out for drinks (I can’t and won’t even get into the issues with their characters here) and as they’re propped up at the bar, about to order a last round, Carrie says to her, “Enjoy yourself! That’s what your twenties are for. Your thirties are to learn the lessons. Your forties are to pay for the drinks.”

I was 26 when I first saw it at the movies and the words completely washed over me. But for some reason (I used to be quite the sucker for punishment) I decided to re-watch it again, just before I headed off to watch the sequel at the theatre, and this time they had a totally different effect. By this time, I was 28 and can distinctively remember hearing those lines and suddenly feeling a sense of growing dread rising through my spine. I (thankfully) barely remember the second movie because my mind was still reeling.

If this decade was all about enjoying myself… gulp… was I? Was I having enough fun for a decade that was supposed to be entirely defined by it? Was I even… happy? I felt dizzy.

It’s a disappointment to me that it was the Sex and the City movie that made me have such a moment of self-evaluation, but it was the first time I’d really thought about life in terms of what I was “supposed” to achieve or be doing in each decade of my life.

Suddenly my 29th birthday seemed so close and THIRTY seemed like an out-of-control steam train, hurtling towards me. My mind raced – before long I’d be 29 and then I only had ONE YEAR until I hit 30. That was nothing! I had to be on the “right” path by 30. What the hell was I doing with my life??

Fortunately, in that tailspin year of anxiety that followed, I got the guts to haul myself out of a (truly pretty horrendous) relationship that I’d been in for all my twenties and made some serious changes. I was ready to go into a new decade, single, in debt, rebuilding a self-esteem that was pretty in tatters, but feeling like I was on a better path. I deserved more from my life. I decided, screw Carrie’s words, and announced to my friends that I was calling 30 my ‘Year of Fun’.

But then, all these messages started pouring in that yes, that’s all very well, but that really wasn’t quite where I was “supposed” to be, either.

Yes, my twenties were supposed to have been all about having fun, but, apparently, at the same time as having all that fun I was also meant to finish the decade out by settling down. As I stared down 30 I “should” have had the boyfriend ready to marry, kids on the horizon, be buying that house – that is, if I hadn’t checked off those milestones already.

What, had I been having so much fun that I hadn’t sorted the big stuff out? But what if I hadn’t really been having much fun anyway?? It felt like turning 30 was game of musical chairs and now the music had stopped but I’d forgotten to even seek out a chair.

Sometimes the off-hand comments about 30 came from people around my own age, but more often, they came from older women in my life. Really, on reflection I can see now that their comments were a lot more about them justifying their own life decisions and circumstances than they ever were about me and my life choices, but at the time they stung.

I remember my boss saying, “Oh, you remind me of myself at 30 – realising that I probably wasn’t going to have the option of having children anymore.” Yikes.

An even bigger clanger came when I sat down at a work drinks next to a woman a decade older than me who I knew pretty well. Context is very important here – because, bizarrely I was at the time wearing an exact replica of Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. She and Wills had married that week, and after having a few glasses of cheap bubbles at Friday night work drinks I decided it would be an excellent idea to try on the dress that was hanging in the office. (This is the kind of batshit situation you can really only find yourself in if you work in magazines).

It was then that this (rather drunk) woman sighed and said, “I can’t believe you broke up with your boyfriend. Aren’t you worried you made a huge mistake? Aren’t you worried you’ll never have children? I mean, you might die alone now.” WHILE I WAS WEARING A WEDDING DRESS.

Thankfully, I managed to laugh out loud, but there was also a raw nerve there that it struck. Was I making a complete hash of what I was supposed to be doing with the timeline of my life?

I’d let 30 become a huge deal in my life, but it seemed like everyone around me was also determined to make it an even bigger deal. How could one birthday bring about so much scrutiny and pressure? It was insane.

But, mercifully, things were about to get infinitely better.

Turns out, that quote from Carrie did end up making a fair bit of sense. My 30s were the decade for learning lessons – and my god did I learn some lessons. One of the best ones was learning that there is no such thing as a “right” timeline to plot your life along. Because there really are no milestones you should have to hit at a certain time – or ever – in order to be living your life the “right” way.

Life just isn’t quite like that – and if you do try to force and mold your life into fitting a cookie-cutter shape of perfection, it’s about then that the universe has a good laugh at your expense. They don’t say ‘man plans, god laughs’ for nothing – people get sick, people fall out of love, tragedies happen, epiphanies happen.

Anyone who sits you down and tries to tell you how you should be living your life and that you NEED to buy a house, or get married or have children – and at the right time! – to be happy, is really just projecting a whollllllle bunch of their own hang-ups/doubts/anxiety/trauma onto you. It’s not about you and your life choices at all. It’s more that paying attention to how you’re doing things means these other people have to examine their own choices – or the cards they’ve been dealt – and sometimes that’s a confronting exercise.

One of the greatest gifts that came during my thirties was that despite the panic that came in getting to 30, I never again seriously fretted about my “timeline” or whether I was doing things right. I stopped comparing myself to what everyone else was doing and instead just started trying to live a good life that made me happy. As a result, turning 35 didn’t faze me, and I didn’t flinch when I turned 39. They just became numbers.

Instead of worrying what everyone else thought I should be doing, I started paying attention to what I thought. And sometimes my thoughts weren’t actually that helpful. What I really needed was to be kinder to myself, and then, to start expecting more kindness from others. And then… well… things really started falling into place.

I wasn’t sure anymore if I’d hit those big milestones of buying houses, getting married or having kids – I mean, I felt like they would be really nice things to add to my life – but they didn’t need to happen for me to be happy or complete, I was already there.

Late last month I turned the big 4-0. Turning 40 wasn’t quite the celebration I’d imagined – definitely not because I was trying to avoid acknowledging the milestone – but because staying safe during a Covid outbreak meant it felt wiser to eat pizza in the car rather than meeting up with friends for bubbles.

And plus, I was 37 weeks pregnant.

As I write this – my belly getting in the way of everything – I’m getting ready to meet my son. And that fact that I’m 40, with a fiancé who was more than worth the wait, makes me feel like I’ve actually timed my life just right.

(Plus, as an added bonus – if Carrie got it right, this is also going to be the decade I have a financial windfall. Maybe turning 40 really ain’t that bad!)

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