I had one of those big birthdays recently—the one that I recall friends' parents "celebrating" with black balloons and cards featuring tired jokes about going over some hill.
I know many people make a big deal out of milestone birthdays, but mine came and went with a nice dinner and a cake (or two cakes, actually). Now that it's over I feel bittersweet about my decision to pass on a party. Because who doesn't like a good party?
I am really looking forward to celebrating belatedly with a couple of dear old friends on a mini-vacation later this spring.
Aside to said friends: this one did not/will not bear any resemblance to my 25th birthday festivities, which we celebrated together in Marbella, Spain. I promise I will not smoke anything, dance on top of any restaurant furniture or fixtures, or lose track of any foundation garments.
One thing surprised me about turning forty: a shocking number of women friends and acquaintances have asked me how I feel about it. When I say it's all good, they blink at me as if I've given a wrong answer. "I'm dreading it," yet another woman confided just this weekend.
To which I responded, "It beats the alternative."
Aging has its negatives, of course. I have wrinkles on my forehead that drive doctors to recommend Botox, and I have a really bad knee. I miss the stamina my 25-year-old self took for granted. I also miss the metabolic rate my 30-year-old self took for granted. But all told, I'm lucky and healthy.
When I said turning forty beats the alternative, I was thinking of fellow writer Lisa Bonchek Adams. She's living every mom's nightmare: she will not live to see her little kids become big kids, and she writes a compelling, must read blog about her day to day struggle against metastasized breast cancer and the brutal chemo regimen that is buying her time, one week at a time.
Forty isn't a bad age. When you're forty, you're indisputably an adult in everyone's eyes. Fifty maybe the new thirty and all that, but forty has always remained forty. Persons in their forties possess a certain amount of innate gravitas. Other, older adults listen to your opinions and take you seriously, not because you're saying anything different than you did a year or two ago, but because you have, in society's view, earned your stripes. In career terms, you no longer need to drag along someone with gray hair to meetings to be sure your older audience will listen. You've earned your own gray hairs, whether or not the rest of the world can see them.
I suspect this point about gravitas is true even in career sectors such as technology, where youth is prized. What's the first thing that happens when a big investor buys into a hot start up founded by college kids? S/he brings in an adult to run (or at least help run) the show.
Forty is also the age at which I've noticed strangers and casual acquaintances stop badgering women about family size. Of course women in their forties have babies all the time, but the absolute prime baby making years are past and the risks of complications are higher. Most people are smart enough to understand that when a woman in her forties claims her family is done, she means it.
This is categorically untrue when it comes to strangers questioning the family planning decisions of the thirty-something set. I'm still stunned by how many people told me I was "brave" to admit to wanting only one child, and by how many others swore I'd change my mind.
Forty is traditionally a major milestone, because in actuarial terms, most of us are slightly more than half done at forty. I see the fortieth birthday as a kind of New Year's on steroids: It's a time people take stock, revise bucket lists, set goals. This birthday isn't an occasion to mourn, but rather a reminder to seize the day.