Until recently, I was loath to confess I was a “forty-something.” I preferred that people make their own assumptions of how old I was based on how old I looked which, I’ve been told enough to believe, is probably a decade younger than I am. Perhaps this email is an example of that “go-with-the-flow” and “I don’t-care-what-people-think” attitude those who’ve gone before me promised was one of the benefits of entering this decade.
In many respects, my life is more similar to younger women in that I am unmarried with no children. This means I can take vacations whenever I want, spend my money how I please, sleep in on the weekends or stay out all night, date anyone I want or no one at all etc. and it’s no one’s decision but my own. But while my life might resemble a twenty-somethings on the outside, below are a few issues with which I never concerned myself back then, but do now Ad Nauseum:
The impending “change of life”
In my twenties and thirties, “menopause” never entered into conversation unless we were talking about our mothers. My mother was in her fifties when she went through it, and my older sister is a couple years shy of fifty and still gets her period. Since I generally have regular cycles myself and am still closer to my thirties than my fifties, menopause was one of the few things I didn’t fret over when I turned forty. Yet, women only a year or two older (and even younger) than me talk about “the change” as if it’s going to happen next month. They throw around the phrase “perimenopause” (another word I never heard until turning forty) around the way we said “happy hour” in our twenties. Now, if my cycle is a couple of days early or my PMS worse/better than the month before, I freak out, wondering if it’s perimenopause. These same fluctuations never bothered me before.
In my early-mid-twenties, I had a flirtation with a thirty-year-old man and remember thinking he was so old—way too old for me. And in my late twenties, when one of my friends dated a guy who was pushing forty, we thought she was crazy. I remember thinking “no way!” when “older men” sent me emails on dating sites. Even now, my first impulse when a man of fifty approaches me is to grimace and think, “He’s too old!” I’m struggling with the realization that fifty is not too old because I’m not as young as I used to be! Part of it is that I look younger than my age while most of the available single men I’ve met of fifty look fifty (or older). It makes me feel like I’m dating my dad. (None look as good as the cute guy on the Our Time commercial or Fitz on Scandal!) But another part of it is denial that I’m actually not in my twenties or thirties anymore. Being in my forties doesn’t mean I can’t date men in their thirties, but it probably means I should at least be open to meeting a man in his early fifties, too.
I used to blow off small ailments on the assumption they would pass quickly. When I told my hair stylist I had to stop for a snack on my way to my appointment because I was experiencing hypoglycemia, he urged me to check it out with a doctor because as we get older, we can’t take minor things lightly anymore. I told him I’d been experiencing occasional episodes of hypoglycemia for years so it wasn’t age. “Still,” he said. ”We’re no spring chickens anymore!” (He’s a few years older than me.) I replied defensively, “I’m not old either!” But it did strike a nerve. Between my many friends, someone is almost always experiencing some sort of health ailment. When we’re out to dinner, sharing great food and wine, the conversation will often turn to health problems and I’ll think, “There is no way we’d be having this conversation ten years ago!”
I was inspired to write my fourth novel How Do You Know? as a result of my own feelings and fears about turning forty. I wanted to show it from the perspective of a single, never-been-married woman rather than the usual married, separated, or divorced standpoint. Most people loved the book, but several commented (rather passionately) that at thirty-nine (“almost forty!”), Maggie was way too old to be having such insecurities about her relationship and should be more mature and settled. They said they didn’t know anyone who would act that way at thirty-nine (“almost forty!”). Well, despite the fact that most of my friends found me very similar in personality to Stephanie from Just Friends With Benefits, the character of Maggie was closer to me in mindset than any other character I’ve ever written and I was about her age when I wrote the book. I know I’m not supposed to take it personally, but I did feel judged for not being more settled, for wanting to find my own happy ever after, and for choosing my happiness over settling with someone because it better fit societal norms. This kind of judgment is not something I experienced in my twenties or most of my thirties. I want to believe my five nieces and nephews think I’m “cool Aunt Meri” but I do fear they think of me as their spinster aunt even though I have a great social life, including relationships with men, and I don’t own a cat. I could absolutely be in a serious relationship if I wanted it badly enough (I get offers…), but at this point in my life, I hold my happiness above all other things and unless I’m more content with the guy I’m dating than I am without him, I’d rather keep enjoying the freedom. I do hope I meet someone who fits the above criteria and I haven’t given up hope of it happening, but in the meantime, I’m okay.
I’m sure I can come up with additional subject matter that clogs my brain space now that never even entered it ten to fifteen years ago, but I don’t want to depress anyone! Rest assured, some aspects of this decade are actually better. And while I often yearn for my thirties (my favorite decade so far), I actually look better now than I did in my twenties, and am a more interesting and strong person by far.
Maybe for next time, I’ll list things I used to think about in my twenties that no longer cross my mind at all. I’m sure there are plenty and I’m not so old or far removed that I can’t remember them :)