Hello there 40. I’ve finally arrived. Not sure what my younger self expected my life to look like when I reached the point of turning 40, but I feel enormously happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
I spent the last week of my 30s trying to focus more on what I’d experienced in the past decade rather than on what lies ahead. Thought it was best to take the time to look back and say goodbye rather than speculate about the future. I knew I needed a lot of wise women around me at this time, so I organised a call every day with a fabulous friend in their 30s or 40s to talk through everything that was on my mind. So thank you to my big sister Gabriel and my brilliant friends Katie, Cindy, Erin, Lucy and Vanessa. I felt so held and supported by you all. What a lovely way to say goodbye to an era of my life as I embark on this new one.
So, how do I feel about turning 40? There are a few key things that have come up a lot when I have thought about this new decade, which I have written about below. Hilariously, I tried to write how I feel about ageing, only to realise that’s still quite a way off and I should just enjoy being as youthful as I am now. Turns out, 40 really isn’t that old.
2022 UPDATE: I no longer identify as a woman but as genderqueer.
“I think (my psychic age) is early 40s, because that was the time in which I feel like I finally came into the life I was meant to live and stopped trying to live the life I was expected to have.”
– Gloria Steinem
It isn’t lost on me that the feeling I have right now is a pretty universal one. Turning 40 is often seen as a juncture where life has taught you enough hard truths that you start doing what you genuinely want to do with your life, rather than trying to fit yourself into the box society has told you is your allocated space.
Apparently, it surprises some people that I feel this way – I know this from a few lovely messages I received after publishing the lessons from my 30s blog last week. Yes, I give the impression that I’m always confident and determined with zero f*cks to give. Like many of us, that’s the armour I put on to go out in public most days. But all that front doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing half the time. Like everyone, I’ve been on a long and arduous journey to reach this point in life.
This was drummed home to me in August when I listened to journalist Elizabeth Day interview Gloria Steinem on season 8 of the How To Fail podcast. This icon of women’s empowerment discussed many incredible things about her journey, including how it wasn’t until her early 40s that she began to live life on her own terms (as quoted above). Well, I thought, if it took Steinem this long, then I am doing ok!
Of course, Steinem grew up in a different era with challenges I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Born in the 1930s (yes, nearly a century ago), she went on to become a journalist plus a pioneering leader and a spokeswoman for the American feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like many of her contemporaries, including the phenomenal civil rights attorney Florynce Kennedy, Steinem had to blaze one hell of a trail. The above photo of these two powerhouse women was taken at the National Women’s Political Caucus (as seen in Mrs America) in early March 1974 – only a few weeks before Steinem’s 40th birthday. Only seven years before I was born.
I recently made this photo the wallpaper on my computer, it’s come to mean that much to me. I love both their body language. The looks on their faces. The way neither is giving the photographer any of their energy, but holding it for themselves. I love that Steinem is about to turn 40 and become the person she would later consider as who she was meant to be. And I love that at age 58, Kennedy is oozing such goddamn swagger in her signature cowboy hat. These are the images of women I need to see. These are the reminders that it’s ok if I feel like life is just getting started.
Anyone who has spoken to me in the past 12 months knows there’s one subject I won’t shut up about right now: the big M. This is mainly because the lack of cultural references or general knowledge about menopause meant that I had no idea that this was even something I could possibly expect to experience in my 40s. Hell, some people even go through in their 30s. Others don’t experience it until their 50s. Either way, it affects anyone who menstruates yet we talk about it very little.
Due to my genetics and the fact that I’ve opted not to have children, I’m statistically likely to reach perimenopause in the next couple of years. How do I feel about this? Well, I was a little freaked at first. After all, I have no idea what it’s like to be an adult without my menstrual cycle. My flow shapes so much of my life: what I eat, how I communicate, how I have sex. What will I be like without it?
By all reports, not having to deal with a menstrual cycle (because anyone who has one knows it’s so much more than just getting your period) is pretty liberating. So, I’m looking forward to that. The biggest unknown is what going through menopause will feel like. It can be accompanied by a huge range of symptoms – but everyone’s experience is different. No doubt, I’ll be writing about it when it does arrive, so you can stay tuned for that fun.
One of the funniest pieces of research I’ve read about menopause is a study published by the Royal Society Open Science, which found that cis women who regularly had sex were less likely to go through menopause than those who didn’t. This led to their conclusion that regular sex could somehow delay the onset of perimenopause – kind of like a ‘use it or lose it’ mentality. All I can say to that is: babes, challenge accepted.
Last summer, when talking with friends about a potential relationship break-up, I found myself whining “but that could mean I’ll be single when I turn 40.” It took me by surprise to hear a statement like that come out of my mouth. After everything I had endured in my relationships, why did I care about something so trivial?
Too often, we use certain dates in our calendars to signify if our lives are prosperous or not. Are you spending Christmas on your own or happen to be single on Valentine’s Day? Well, clearly you aren’t getting this life thing right. We see it as somehow better to have a relationship – any relationship, no matter how toxic or tedious – when these annual events come around rather than be *gasp* alone.
Milestone birthdays have a similar vibe. It’s like we’re expecting Hello! magazine to turn up on our doorstep and capture this one day of our lives. God forbid we don’t have the perfect relationship to show the dear readers how well we’re doing at life. It’s like we see it as better to have someone there for the photo opportunity, even if you’re quietly dying inside, rather than to be happy by yourself.
So yeah, here I am, bursting through the door of my 40s today and right at this very moment, I’m not in a committed romantic relationship. What I was most afraid of last summer is how that would make me feel. Turns out, after twelve years of overlapping relationships, the past six months have been a gigantic gift. A chance to completely embrace my role as primary partner in my solo polyamory practice. An opportunity to stop giving my energy and love away but instead, give it to myself. It was the reset button I wasn’t aware I needed to hit but I’m so glad that I did.
Moving forward into a new decade of my life, I’ve finally begun to understand something quite important: no one is coming to save me. Sorry Bonnie Tyler, I’m no longer holding out for a (gender non-conforming) hero. Possibly the most harmful story we’re told by our mononormative society is that one day the perfect person will finally arrive in our lives and save us from… loneliness? Boredom? Sitting next to a stranger on a budget airline? Ourselves? Whatever it’s supposed to be, I’ve looked around at everyone I know and can safely tell you, this doesn’t happen – thankfully. The cavalry isn’t coming; it’s up to you to make your life great.
This recent realisation reminded me of my favourite picture book from when I was little. The Paper Bag Princess is the tale of a badass babe who risks everything to save her prince from a scary dragon, only for this douche bag to reject her for not being beautifully presented when she finally frees him (yes, she rocks up wearing a paper bag). Yet, how does that make the princess feel? Liberated. So, as a reminder that not only is no one coming to save me but that I also shouldn’t try and save anyone else, I’ve bought the 40th-anniversary edition of this much-loved book as a celebratory gift. Happy birthday to me. I finally made it.
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