Contrary to what I imagined, and definitely against most that I’ve been told, turning forty is not so monumental at all. Over the past three or four years, I’ve actually grown accustomed to being “almost forty” and “around forty,” so there’s even a sense of relief, as though I’ve finally been let in to somewhere I have to be, after waiting at the gate way too long.
What is shocking seems elusive and lodged in my memory: a sense I once had of the weight of such an age a whole generation ago, back when I was on the brink of adulthood. How strange that so many of the things I associated with full-on maturity have now zoomed past me, like a highway sign or missed exit ramp: discovering what to do in life, finding that someone, naming those children. What used to denote grown-up life now smacks of youth. Adulthood, in turn, keeps redefining itself, and for me it has remained something that’s just about to begin for a solid twenty years. It is only now that this sense of being on the brink of life is finally lifting. This is a welcome development—hence the relief, hence a sense of quiet pride and cause for calm celebration.
At forty I am grateful to have had my son, unexpectedly satisfied to be raising him on my own, and relieved to know a lot more than I used to about the math of my emotions. I feel no shame with regard to my age, but quite a bit about what I’ve said and done in the past (especially during that awkward time between my ninth and thirty-third birthdays). Unlike the songs and motivational quotes that claim the opposite—I regret things I did way more than those I didn’t do, though luckily most of the sharp edges are gone and whatever guilt I carry is softened by nostalgia.
My dreams have shifted, too. Now what I want most for my birthday is not ecstatic gain but clean absence: no illness, few worries about my loved ones, no legal troubles, no unwanted gifts. If that seems unambitious or austere, keep in mind that the people I keep close, the work I do, the home I’ve made, and the things I do for pleasure: these beget ecstasy enough. In fact, if I squint and recall what I might have wished upon my forty-year old self two decades ago, I can make out the contours of a life that doesn’t even compare with the one I am living.
And that, I concede, is a monumental conclusion to come to on one’s otherwise quiet fortieth birthday.