Open your browser. Start typing, "40 is the new…" and what do you imagine pops up? I'll tell you. It's "30," with 87 million results, and "20," with a shocking 121 million results. Click on any number of the top articles and you'll read bloggers', columnists', and health experts' exultant claims about how and why 40 is no longer old. Of course, implicit in this argument is the perennial bias against aging, the assumption that everyone — if given the choice — would stay forever young.
I've been pondering my own 40th birthday, which arrives in a matter of days. I've talked to a number of people at all ends of the age spectrum and read dozens of articles like those I mention above. And based on this highly unscientific research, I admit that in some ways, I'm convinced: To be 40 now is certainly very different than being 40 at any other time in our history.
As a white, cisgender, more-or-less middle class American, I have the privileges of a longer life expectancy and better health outcomes than previous generations. I, like many others, have reinvented myself professionally, and to some degree even personally, more than a few times in my adult life. I have the freedom to choose my career, my spouse, and what I do with my time — a freedom most women in all of recorded history did not have. I have the benefit of access to information about nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction. I even have a little disposable income for things like moisturizer and eye cream. Taking all that into account, 40 for me feels unlike my mother's 40, or my grandmother's 40. It's certainly different from what I might have imagined as a kid.
But is it really the new 20, or 30? I'm going to have to say no. And I'm perfectly fine with that.
At 20, I cared far too much about what other people thought of me. My personal life was kind of a shambles, and my professional forays were fraught with insecurities brought on, in part, by the paralyzing expanse of wide-open possibility that characterizes youth. I was raised by well-meaning parents and educators to believe that I could do anything, and it took a long time before I realized the half-truth of that statement. There were things I loved that I would never excel at, like equestrian show jumping. And even though I thought I wanted it, my need for creature comforts and routine precluded me from ever becoming a lady Indiana Jones.
The anything-is-possible phase of my life felt both terrifying and promising in equal measure, but finding any measure of satisfaction within those parameters felt futile. I flitted from this thing to that thing through my late 20s and well into my 30s with little understanding of why it wasn't quite working out. Tutoring. Editing. Grad school. Academia. Business ownership. Yoga teaching. Homesteading. Staying home with young children.
At 30, I was hardworking and determined, but I spent far too long forging ahead in the wrong directions. I gave birth to my first child at 31, and looking back on the early years of parenting, I wish I could have somehow channeled the more experienced mother I've become in those blurred baby and toddler times. I could have stressed a lot less and probably had more fun with my kids.
At nearly 40, the future does not look like a paralyzingly wide-open expanse of possibility. I have other people to care for, meals to cook, permission slips to sign, money to earn. The body changes, inevitably. I will never shed the stretchmarks from two pregnancies, or the looser tummy. My hair will keep popping out new grays, and the faint lines on my face will deepen. I have bills. Lots and lots of bills. Thanks to moisturizer, eye cream, and hydration, my face may not quite look like it's seen 40 years on this Earth yet, but my knees sure as hell know they have.
Yet I have two incredible children and a marriage that survived really difficult times. We own a home in beautiful San Diego that I treasure, though it's arguably much too small for us. I have a cute puppy and a new, challenging career that's just getting off the ground; a lot to be happy about, a lot to look forward to. Even though my to-do list includes bucket loads more responsibility than ever before, I also have more free mental space. My head is no longer filled with needless questions, like "What do they think of me?" and "Am I doing this right?" Because I know that the answer to the first one doesn't matter all that much, and the answer to the second is both "yes," and "no," and it's okay anyway.
So, as my 40th birthday approaches, I look back on my former self with compassion, but I have no interest in reminiscing about the good old days of youth. Because, honestly, they weren't that great to begin with. Admittedly, part of me may look longingly at pictures of my fresher, younger self, but I know that there was so much inner turmoil beneath the veneer of smooth skin.
In a culture that prizes youth and beauty, it's hard to age without dye and fillers and filters. Many people have already observed this. In a culture that prioritizes money, fame, and worldly success, it's hard to step back and measure your own life and your own worth differently. But I think, if you want a dollop of satisfaction in life, you must.
So, despite what your search engine may tell you, 40 isn't the new 20 or 30. Forty is the new 40. And I'm officially alright with that.