aging, changes

on being 38.75% of 40

It occurred to me yesterday that I’ve less than six months to go before I turn 40. I remember only the mildest of details about turning 30, which leads me to believe that by the time I’m 50 (should I last that long) today’s concerns will be long forgotten. I do, though, remember being afraid of turning 40 for most of my early 30s. (Remember that scene in When Harry Met Sally when Meg Ryan says “…and I’m turning 40!” and it turns out that’s eight years away? That was me.) And when I turned 38, the realization that I could no longer honestly say I was in my “mid-30s” threw me into a bit of a panic. But now that “the big 4-0” (could there be any worse phrase?) looms on the horizon, I’m not as horrified at the prospect as I thought I’d be. And, actually, I’m relieved.

I know when a woman in her 40s or older comments on how things get better with age, teenage girls and 20/30-somethings everywhere roll their eyes. What could be better than unwrinkled skin, makeup that needs no primer, a distinct lack of bifocals, and breasts that support themselves? Well. A lot, actually.

I heard once that women are in their sexual prime in their late 30s to early 40s for two reasons. One: biology, the fact that soon their ovaries will be shriveled and unfit for human production. Two: experience, the cumulative affect of having sex with one or more (sometimes many more) partners and learning, over time, how to get the pleasure you need and want (and deserve). So it’s not just biology that makes on-the-cusp-of-middle-age women horny; it’s also the fact that they’ve figured out, more or less, what turns them on as well as how to ask for (and get) it.

This isn’t to say that younger women don’t know how to do this. Probably our culture is so saturated by sex that even sixteen-year-old girls know how to bring themselves to orgasm. But as someone who didn’t even have her first orgasm until she had already had a child and was 24 years old, that’s not the case for all younger women. It’s probably the case for the majority of 50-year-old women though, I’d guess.

This sort of confidence and asking/getting what you want goes beyond sex, though. Speaking only from my personal experience — which may or may not translate into yours — I also find myself more sure of what I like and don’t like. I spent so much time in my teens and 20s listening to bands that my boyfriends liked, cooking their favorite meals, and seeing action movies just because they wanted to. And then I spent a lot of time hating all of those things — those were their choices, not mine! — before I realized I could like a few Phish songs without falling back in love with my first husband or criticize certain aspects of postmodern feminism without having to move back in with The Philosopher. In short, I was able to develop a mechanism by which I could make my own values, judgments, and decisions — independently of whether someone I loved agreed with them. (This ultimately led me to a place in which I could fall in love with Jack, who definitely was very different from me on many levels.)

Confidence comes in many forms, too: going out to dinner alone or seeing a movie by yourself without feeling like a sad sack (and sometimes actually preferring to do those things alone). Traveling by yourself. Staying out late and walking forty blocks instead of taking the subway just so you can be alone with your thoughts. Making bold decisions, like moving to a different city with no job, no money, and no place to live. Or less bold decisions, like trying a new hairstyle, knowing that hair always — always — grows back.

When I was in my mid-30s, I thought that I’d be happy if I could get my body back to how it was when I was 22. I’d look at teenage girls at the beach and think to myself “they won’t know until they’re my age all that they’ve squandered.” At almost-forty, I’ve still got weight to lose and my breasts are saggy and I’ve accepted that things may get pretty damn good again regarding my body but I won’t ever be like I was when I was 22. More than that acceptance, though, I really don’t give a damn. I mean, I care what I look like, but I don’t care anymore that it’s not what it was before. This is me. This is what almost-40 looks like.

Maybe things would be more difficult if I looked older. At a social event earlier this week I mentioned I had a 15-year-old son. A man I’ve known since I moved to New York City asked if he’d heard correctly. Turns out he’d thought I was in my late 20s. That happens a lot, maybe because of the tattoos and maybe because my mother aged well and I seem to be doing that, too. (I think it’s the Italian skin I inherited.) But I’d like to think that even if I had more wrinkles, I’d still be okay with where I’m at. I have no desire to get Botox (though I am tempted by Juvederm commercials, if only because my mouth increasingly reminds me of my mother’s), and I don’t dye my hair, even though it’s progressively graying.

Early in sobriety, I was told that it’s not anyone’s business what someone else thinks of you — just keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing, and if you’re on the right path you’ll be secure with that knowledge itself. If others want to judge or comment or criticize, listen to them but take it with a grain of salt. There are some people you’ll never please or win over. That’s just the way it is. And so it goes with aging — to teenagers and 20somethings, I’ll soon be officially old, but that doesn’t mean the perspective is the same on this side of the street. In many ways, I feel as though my life is just beginning, as though there are so many secrets in life that only begin to materialize as you get older. I really believe that, and I’m not just saying it to make myself feel better. My only regret is that I didn’t realize the beauty in getting older until I actually got older myself, but I suppose that isn’t unusual. 40? Not scary at all.