True story: When my mom turned 40, her friends threw her a big party, to which they brought black balloons with those awful clichés printed all over them—"Over the Hill," "Lordy, She's 40," "Oh, No, Say It Isn't So!" "Not the Big Four-0," and so on. Back then no one was saying "40 is the new 20"; instead, there were gifts wrapped in black paper and maybe even, or at least in my imagination, skulls and crossbones, gravestones, trappings of the macabre masquerading as hilarious. I was a kid and didn't get it and burst into tears, running from the party. Later I confronted my mom to tell her she'd had a lot of nerve to have me when she was "so old." How insensitive, that I might have to deal with the idea of her dying! Shouldn't she have planned a bit better? She was an adult, for goodness sake.
Clearly, I was a brat, but also: My mom was "so old" when she had me that she was in her early 30s, which, yes, thirty-some years ago was more the exception than the norm. In my elementary school years, my parents were the oldest, but today a look at the women and men rolling strollers around on the Upper West Side and in Park Slope and other (usually affluent) urban and suburban areas tells a much different story. A pregnancy at forty, or over 35 years old, actually, is still considered a "geriatric" one, at least among a certain set who speak of it in clinical terms (and would that that terribly unfortunate terminology would change), but it's also increasingly common, what with our ever-extending "youth" resulting in second or third careers, later marriages, later children-having, and so on. And then there's the technology that makes having kids at a later age more possible than ever, though it's not a guarantee. All of these things conspire to make 40 a far younger age than it used to be. Earlier in history, of course, 40 might have been the oldest age one could hope to reach, even in the best of conditions. Clearly that's not the case now, yet at the same time, there are conflicting views on what it means to be 40, and Kat Kinsman's recent CNN piece, "Lordy lordy, look who's 40," highlights our need to redefine what the age means at the same time that we resist being constrained by what its historical definitions have been.
As Kinsman writes, "No one under 38 really considers what 40 and beyond is going to look like for them. They plot the ambitious beginning ('I'm going to become a successful ___') and the triumphant denouement ('Then I'll retire with my beloved partner and we'll spend our well-funded free time by ___'). But they gloss over the mushy middle, where all the day-to-day doing happens." This is partly because, as she explains, "our 40s aren't demographically glamorous ... It's a decade, according to sitcoms and comedians, of slight but constant humiliations -- aches and spread and odd hairs and a fundamental cluelessness about anything cool." Especially for women. We're no longer in that beloved demographic of 18-35, in fact, we're 5 years out of it, and that round-numberness of it all, oh God, it's just too terrible to ponder. So we don't. We live and do things, mostly not thinking about what age we are, until one of those "big birthdays" comes around and, even though technically nothing has changed, suddenly it feels like everything will. As Kinsman writes, "I began to panic when I hit 39." Past 35, there is a certain sense of a ticking clock, more than ever, and it's not just biological.
Why panic, though, when our lives are in some ways just getting going, finally so much more the way we always wanted them to be? Well, for women especially, there's that kid thing weighing on us—are we too old to have kids, if we decide we want to? Will our kids, if we can have them, judge us for being old? But 40 becomes less old as soon as we stop thinking about it that way. And as Kinsman writes of her friends, "Their kids will only ever know 40 as an empowering, vital time in a person's life. If they ever forget—I am quick to remind them how incredibly cool their mothers were and forever shall be."
As the expected milestones of adulthood change perceptibly, 40 does in some ways become the new 20—but ideally, a far better 20 than the real 20. Those times of living on 33-cent boxed off-brand macaroni in a hovel shared by three or four people weren't our salad days, exactly; what we had then was youth. What we have getting older is something else; I'd call it choice. As Tim Gihring points out in a recent piece on "male spinsterhood" at 40, some of these traditional expectations of what we should have by when, and what adulthood means, continue, and some get pushed later and later. But owning houses and cars and occasion silverware; working at the same jobs for 25 or 45 years; living in the same town; marrying; having kids—these elements of life taken for granted in times past are, more than ever, up for grabs. We can do whatever we want; sort of—more successfully, of course, in certain places, surrounded by certain people, people, ideally, with whom we can choose to surround ourselves.
Of course we've all heard tale of 40-plus women who aren't considered beautiful due to their age, who aren't considered marriage material, who are overlooked in Hollywood, in the workplace, in general who are just overlooked, falling into the background and considered about as much as unremarkable wallpaper. There are standouts, yes—Kinsman mentions "Gwyneth Paltrow, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Garner, Jennie Garth and Sofia Vergara looking tight-abbed, hard-armed and wrinkle-free, despite the handicap of their birth year"—and people who manage to have their voices heard. But age discrimination most certainly does exist, so 40 is still an age looked upon with fear and anxiety by women and men; it still has a certain stigma, which is part of why we keep talking about it. (For further pop culture reference, see Judd Apatow's upcoming This is 40.) It's more than just a time to take stock, because you can do that at any age; 40 is one of those numbers that somewhere still in the backs of our minds marks a point at which we're about to start heading back down the mountain of life, "over the hill" as it were—it signifies that last ditch chance to do stuff. But there's so much time left, with hope and health, and the downward climb need never be something you "get to" anyway. As Kinsman writes, "Dare I say -- my life even got better" once she hit that number she'd been dreading. And why not, you're more you than you've ever been, not just numerically but emotionally, and probably in other ways, too—success included, even if it's "just," and this is no small thing, successfully identifying what you want and going about making that happen.
Kinsman writes, "Magazines and websites abound with lists of '40 things to do before you're 40,' and not being a person inclined to jump out of airplanes or have an affair (seriously -- some suggest that!), mine would be this: Learn what makes you happy in the kitchen, the bedroom and the library and make those things happen as frequently as possible." That's some pretty great advice at whatever age you happen to be. And though I'm not quite there yet, I'd venture to guess that the worst thing about 40—aside from your kid leaving your birthday party in tears; sorry Mom—is thinking, Oh God, I'm 40 ... I'm sooooo old. It's a phrase that, for what it's worth, I've heard 20-year-olds utter to the extensive eye-rolls of their elders.
No matter what age any of us are this very moment, we are going to age; we're always, if all goes the way we, fingers crossed, hope it will, going to be older than we are right now. That's a fact to be celebrated, not mourned.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.