Note: This post originally appeared on Sarah’s sporadically-updated personal blog, but we are re-posting it here because we thought some of you may relate to what she says below.
A few weeks ago, I celebrated a significant birthday. 40. The big FOUR-OHHH. Over the hill. Middle age. The 20th anniversary of my 20th birthday. Yep. I am 40.
And you know what? I’m fine. I have never really understood women who are cagey about their age or coyly accept another birthday cake labeled “Happy 25th!” long after the joke is over. I’ve decided: I am 40 years old and I’m owning it. As Owner and COO of Sarah Jane Unlimited, and I’d like to be recognized for my 40 years of loyal service. Bring on the gold plated fountain pen.
Turning 40 is a strange cultural milestone. For women especially, it has come to signify our inevitable slide toward crinkled decrepitude and undesirability or, if we dare assert our right to remain desirable in some capacity, cougardom. It is creepy and weird. I’m not decrepit (yet) and I’m not a cougar. I’m just me, with a little bit more sense than I had when I first became an adult. So far, the weirdest part has been how others have responded to the news. I have heard a number of variations on “you don’t look 40″ in the last few weeks. Was I supposed to wake up with a hunched back or dentures or something? I think I look 40 and don’t feel terribly discouraged by it. A friend suggested that people say this because they need something to say. It’s just a placeholder in the conversation. I’m sure he is right. But I am intrigued that 40 is the point at which people feel like they need to have a response to finding out your age. Nobody says these things to a 32 year old. Forty is a cultural precipice and I’ve just stepped off the ledge.
Regardless, I’m hoping that I’ve still got a few good years in me, so in recent weeks I’ve been trying to take stock and consider what I’d like to do with the next 40. (In short: a lot. I am far from finished here.) It has also made me a bit philosophical about the years that brought me to this point. Here is what I know now:
- You could not pay me to be 20 again. The only thing I want from my 20 year old self is to tell her to wear more sunscreen and a hat, and to do the damn knee exercises that the physical therapist recommended. I mean it. I would not trade the beauty of my youth for the wisdom of middle age. I still make poor choices, but not with the naïveté or regularity I once did. No amount of dewy skin and limitless energy beats dodging the freight train of your own stupidity barreling down upon you.
- It is not that I don’t care how I look anymore (though I do care less), but these days I know better than to compare myself to an airbrushed, made up girl half my age. Or to a celebrity who has a staff of cooks and cleaners and nannies, and access to expensive creams and dermatologists and trainers and plastic surgeons.
- More importantly, I understand this: what I look like is the least valuable part of me. Time has revealed that people who are smart and funny and caring and loyal will chose to love me and be my friend even if I am small breasted, increasingly crinkly, and not wafer thin. They value who I am, not what I look like. So my energy is better spent working on being a good friend/sister/daughter/mother than looking perfect.
- Exercise is no longer about how I look, either. It is 98% about how I feel. (I allow myself a 2% margin of error for vanity.) It is about feeling capable–of training for a 13 mile race, of repeatedly carrying two children up the stairs, of not waiting until someone stronger comes along to lift the heavy box for me. It is about my health–keeping my heart and my mind strong enough to withstand the stresses of life and to (hopefully) ensure a long one.
Perhaps the most vital shift in my perspective is how I measure my own beauty and worth these days. I think for many of us, the refrain of adolescence, “Am I loved? Am I loved? Am I loved?” echoes on far too long. As a woman, the second chorus is, “Am I beautiful?” When I was younger, what this voice was really asking was “Do THEY think I am beautiful?” The answer to this one matters less to me now too. The great gift of outgrowing the fashion industry’s ideal of coltish, unlined beauty is that I have been freed up to focus on the things that I always suspected mattered more anyway.
When I look in the mirror now, I check for moles changing shape and eyebrows in need of maintenance. I may notice the dark circles and wonder if those will go away once my children learn to sleep. But I don’t judge what I see. Because, as my college friend Tucker used to say about bodies, “it’s a container.” It might be pretty (or not), but it isn’t where the value lies. So here are the questions I ask at 40:
- Am I a good friend?
- Do I know how to show up for people
- Do I make and keep good friends?
- Have I learned to laugh at myself?
- Am I kind?
- Do I know how to forgive?
- Do I know how to ask for forgiveness?
- Have I learned to stop worrying about the opinions of people who do not matter to me?
- Have I learned how to speak up when something is important?
- Have I learned to say no to things?
- Do I know the difference between stubbornness and tenacity?
- Have I learned how to choose my battles carefully?
- Have I mastered the art of keeping my mouth shut?
- Have I learned that being disappointed over unspoken expectations is my fault for not saying them, not yours for not knowing them?
- Do I always scoop my dog’s poop, even when nobody is watching?
- Do I know my children’s needs and fight for them?
- Do I apologize to my kids when I screw up?
- Do I give good hugs?
- Am I trustworthy?
- Am I a soft place to land?
- Am I a truth teller?
- Am I an encourager?
- Am I curious?
- Do I love with abandon?
- Have I learned to be kind to others (and myself) with no caveats?
I’ll admit: It is a long list. I still have so much to work on. But I have time.
I’m only 40, after all.