I had a birthday last week, my 39th. I remember when I turned 29 and then 30, I had this sort of desperate feel to my life. At 29, I was three weeks away from getting married. At 30, I had an almost-two-month-old. These were monumental, life-goal type of events, and I remember feeling like once I hit 30, that was it. Life was over. I was officially old.
Almost 10 years later, I laugh at my younger thoughts. At 29, I wanted to cling to my 20s, or the thought of them. They were full of fun and friends and discovery and adventure. For a few years, I would not admit to my real age. I was 29 plus one or something like that.
Now that my 30s are almost behind me, I’m mostly relieved to have survived them. Motherhood to two kids 20 months apart might have been the thing that broke me all on its own but the last decade also saw our marriage crack straight to the center and we’ve spent years repairing the rift. There was grad school (for my husband) and the letting go of what we thought our life might be. There was financial struggle and a move. And while I wouldn’t call our life stable yet (will it ever be?) I don’t feel the same kind of desperation I did back then.
Bear in mind, my life is not really what I thought it would be at 39. I thought we would have our own house by now. I thought I would be some kind of “success” or that as a couple at least one of us would be working in a profession for which we earned degrees. I thought I would feel more like I had it all together. I thought the feeling of desperation, of clinging to the past, to the life I once had, would overwhelm me. I thought maybe I’d have some kind of mid-life crisis. I thought life would be more like the middle-class American dream.
And it’s not that my life doesn’t bear some resemblance to some of those things, but if I told my 29-year-old self what the 39-year-old version of herself would be, she have laughed and dismissed me as a lunatic.
At 39, I know better who I am and what I want, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m not longing for the good old days of my 30s because they weren’t all that good. I know I’ll have challenges in the next 10 years (by the time I’m 49, my oldest could be in college–what?!) but all I feel is free and sure and accepting. Yes, there are times I still wish we had a house of our own, that we could measure our success by our professional lives, that our life didn’t sometimes look like failure when compared to others our age.
But I’m not sorry for who I am now, even if I do feel a bit like a late bloomer. At 39, I feel rich in the things that matter most: friends and family, purpose and passion. I ran 1.8 miles on my 39th birthday and I’m prepping for a 5K with my daughter. It is one evidence of health. If you could see inside my mind, there would be a change there, too.
I no longer fear 40. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, but I want to make a sort of wish list for my next decade: the things I’d like to do, see, experience, become. Not a bucket list, necessarily, but something that gives some intentionality to my 40s. I feel like my 30s happened to me and I spent a lot of time reacting and playing catchup. I want to set the tone for my 40s. I know I can’t control everything that will happen to me in the next decade and that’s not exactly what I mean. It’s just that I feel more capable of saying ahead of time: This is how I’m going to be, this is the direction I’m going to keep moving, no matter what happens.
My 30s felt like clawing my way up a hill I desperately wanted to climb only to find myself back at the bottom. The last 10 years drained me mentally, emotionally, physically and at times, I didn’t want to attempt the climb again.
Not so now. In my 40s, I don’t want to see falling as failure, setbacks as stop signs. I want to dig deep and find the grit I know I’ve got inside of me. To give myself grace when things don’t work out like I planned. To look around at the beauty of the moment, even if I’m stuck on a proverbial hillside and the top seems so far away.
Life doesn’t feel as much like a race anymore. It’s more like a stroll. I want to fill my days with beauty and meaning, even if I’m doing things I don’t like. (I’m looking at you housework.)
In my 30s, I thought I had to accomplish a lot of stuff to matter in the world.
Now, I see that my very existence matters in the world, and I want my life to reflect that. I don’t have to get somewhere in life to make a difference. I can make a difference right here, right now. (And making a difference might not look like much. Maybe no one will even notice.)
And I could be wrong about all of it. Maybe my 40s won’t be what I thought. Still, I feel more prepared than ever to face the uncertainties and maybe even welcome the surprises.