Forty is the New Forty: A Love Letter to Women of a “Certain Age"
I am turning forty in a few short weeks (side-note: please direct all celebratory cards and gifts directly to my home address c/o Mike Bensi, thanks in advance). As I stare down that milestone birthday, I find myself telling everyone around me how old I am. Maybe I’m unusual, but I have been awaiting this birthday since I was a teenager. As a kid, I would look at the women of a “certain age” around me, take in their confidence and unapologetic opinion-sharing, and think, Yes. This is when it gets good. Contrasted with my awkward, shoulder-slouching, nervous-giggling teenage self, these women may as well have been from another planet. They seemed Amazonian to me.
This belief that something magical happens after forty most likely stems from the rich conglomeration of women that surrounded me as I grew up. My mother is a teacher and therefore I grew up encircled by her incredibly warm and kind female friends and colleagues. My extended family is large and close so there was always a family get-together going on; the women would gather in warm, fragrant kitchens to prepare meals and swap stories. The women at church always had a hug and a genuine, face-searching “How are you?” for me before each service. My friends’ moms were loving and treated each of us girls like their own daughters. My teachers were engaged and remarkably “all-in,” intuitively knowing when to praise and when to nudge us forward.
In my young mind, these women represented something significant. They seemed polished and poised compared to girls my age, sure, but there was more to it than that; I felt something powerful running beneath the surface like an electrical current when I was around them. An unspoken energy zipped around the room, so even while these women bustled around preparing a meal together or sat laughing and reminiscing, you could feel how quickly they would close ranks in solidarity if needed. You could sense their strength, their solid steel backbones, their unity, and their secret shared insights.
To be loved and included by these groups of women felt like being handed a membership to an exclusive club. How kind they were to me! Each always seemed glad to see me, inviting me into their conversations, allowing me to join in on book clubs and evenings out. My successes were their successes; my heartaches were theirs to share. I felt enveloped and loved by these women and I couldn’t wait to be like them.
I would write in my journal things like, “I just can’t wait to be older…to have been around long enough to have an opinion that doesn’t sound ridiculous…to stop caring what every single person thinks.” Even now, I empathize with that younger version of myself; I can so easily put myself back in her too-large-for-her-body shoes. When I was younger, I walked around apologetically, painfully aware of every perceived imperfection. Like most adolescents, I was extraordinarily hard on myself. I loathed how easily I blushed and how every body part seemed to be too big or too small and the whole thing fit together like some awkward jigsaw puzzle. I grew up in the era of big hair and dark tans and I had neither. Eew, I would think as I looked in the mirror.
Women in their forties and beyond seemed to have the answer though; they walked with a confident stride, heads erect, making full eye-contact. Their bodies didn’t seem to fight against them anymore. They didn’t seem preoccupied with their hair or makeup. They seemed to have so much more to think about, so much more to do and to say. This, I thought, is the motherland for women.
So, here I am on the eve of this promised land. And yet when I proudly brag about my age, I receive, shall we say, interesting reactions. Rather than congratulatory high-fives, I notice looks of pity, winces, and out-right gasps as people cluck their tongues sympathetically and ask, “How are you handling it?” Ominous warnings like, “This is when it all falls apart!” are thrown about as knowing nods are exchanged. Ummm…what am I missing here?
I have not changed my mind. I still think women over forty have been let in on some sort of secret. I’m thrilled to join the ranks of women who walk around unabashedly in their imperfectly perfect bodies. I love laugh lines. I love snowy white hair because it reminds me of my grandma. I even love that little furrow between the eyebrows because it means you have cared so deeply in your lifetime that you etched your worries on your own face; I feel safe with women who have that furrow.
These women rock their bathing suits without looking like they’re trying to fold in half to cover their mid-sections. They stride toward conflict without lowering their eyes or turning their heads. They tell the truth. They have seen enough and survived enough to live out their beliefs and to express their opinions. They laugh with abandon and smile showing their teeth and actually know themselves well enough to seek out joy. These women aren’t constantly seeking validation or looking over their shoulders. Many of them have survived the worst and celebrated the best that life has to offer and they are still standing. Take that, twenties!
As life hurtles onward, I watch my own daughter as she is drawn to the women in my life. She sidles close to them at gatherings, observing them, then peppering me with questions about them later. She is fascinated by the way they carry themselves, how they spend their time, and what they meant by this or that seemingly insignificant comment. She is learning how to be a grown woman herself one day and I am eternally grateful that she will have the same sort of tribe around her that I once had.
Here’s to the women who embrace those coming up behind them. Know that your love emboldens the next generation, so that as we grow into ourselves and leave the nest we feel you with us like a loving army of support. I hear a lot about women over forty becoming invisible; not true, I say. The eyes that matter most are upon you.
Forty is the new twenty? Nah, not for me. For me, forty is the new…well, forty. What could be better than that?