All the 40th birthday parties I’ve been to recently have been impressive. It seems there’s an unwritten rule that by the time you’ve reached your fiftieth decade you should have the funds, the time and the know-how to organise a catered dinner or a private cocktail reception or a weekend country retreat. When you’re turning 21 it’s perfectly acceptable to casually invite a bunch of people to the pub. Thirtieth birthday – you might have got it together to book a table, but 40… a Save The Date should go out a month in advance and, if there’s not an ice-cold gin and tonic and a smoked salmon blini being served by a handsome waiter young enough to be your actual son on arrival, why even bother?
Perhaps there’s a sense that we need to prove something at 40 because it’s not sexy and exciting and full of potential in the way that 30 is, and it’s not powerful and nihilistic and fun in the way 50 is. It’s the middle child desperate for attention – and reassurance. And, alas, here I am, three weeks before I creak into my oldest age yet, googling ‘pubs with private room, cheap’.
I have neglected to invite anyone or organise anything, and since coming to terms with the truth that there is no glamorous surprise being secretly planned for me – I’m at a total loss for what to do.
At least I’m OK with not knowing these days. As I usher in this new era, I’ve never felt less sure of myself and what the future holds – which is the exact opposite of what I was led to believe would be the case by now. We’re supposed to celebrate 40 as a time to finally feel fully ourselves and to be totally confident in all our life choices. But I know I’m not alone in not reaching this milestone – social construct as it may be – in quite the way I expected.
My friend Claire works for a blue-chip company and turns 40 a few weeks before I do. I ask her if she feels like she has her sh*t together in the way we always thought we would by this age. ‘On the one hand I have got a beautiful, confident daughter,’ she says. ‘I’m in a great place in my career; and financially I’m secure. However, I still have days when I want to hide under my duvet and still have completely unreasonable temper tantrums, so I think it’s probably a work in progress.’ Claire’s being modest – she’s killing it (and she’s organised a swanky birthday dinner for 20 people) – but a birthday deadline can have us uncertain of exactly where we are.
I felt much more sure of my path in my early- to mid-thirties as I pursued a linear trajectory towards goals – job, house, partner, kids. I was all control and ambition and steely determination then. I wore suits and shirts buttoned to the neck and I hosted the kind of dinner parties where it mattered what colour the napkins were. Yet, for the past year, I’ve experienced what I can only describe as a gentle unravelling and a profound questioning of my identity. Now I’m more, ‘Do we even need napkins at all?!’ and it’s no doubt a slippery slope from challenging the dinner decor to microdosing LSD at Burning Man.
This stage of the journey feels different – less of a train, stuck on one track, more of a sailboat in the middle of an ocean letting the waves take me anywhere. But if this all sounds a bit ‘u ok hun?’, it really isn’t. Instead of spiralling into an existential crisis, I’m realising how freeing it is to loosen the grip I had on brand ME. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner, author of the hit novel Fleishman Is In Trouble, put it in an essay, ‘40 is a rest stop in which you can pause to hold something in your hand and examine it from all sides.’
I pretty much figured I was cooked in my twenties. I’d made big decisions about my career, my sexuality, the kind of person I was, where I wanted to live, how I wanted to look. And give or take a few shifts into parenthood, or a new job in a different industry, I have stuck to this version of myself for two decades.
Maybe it’s the lasting side effects of living through a global pandemic that has me feeling nothing really is immutable any more. We all learned to live with change in the most traumatic of ways. And while having to adapt to a new world order was challenging, we did it. We changed the most ingrained of behaviours – going to work, taking the kids to school, seeing friends – and we survived. Some of us even thrived. An ex-colleague, Jackie, turned 40 in April. Three months prior to this, she left her husband of 12 years after realising, she tells me, ‘A different person married Paul. I have nothing in common with her any more.’ She’s working freelance and plans to travel the world. Right now, she say, she feels ‘completely untethered, which is not where I thought I’d be at 40, but I’m so much happier than I was at 30. Anything feels possible.’
Emma Cullinan is an integrative psychotherapist. She says a crisis of self at 40 can be because ‘we are often led by societal and family expectations and, as we go through our twenties and thirties, we may realise that we are following someone else’s plan for us and aren’t living in tune with who we really are.’
What’s inspired me to raise the anchor on my self is the fact that, as a culture, over the past few years we have become less rigid in our discourse around identity. Unlike Jackie, who feels like a completely different person at 40, for me, there now exists a lexicon for a way of being that I have always probably been.
In my working life, I feel freer than I ever have. I was on a ladder upwards for so long that swinging a bit looser in what I do and how I define it feels good
I came out as a lesbian when I was 17. Back then, there was a pressure to align yourself with a single community. At that time the word ‘queer’ was an insult. Now it’s used to express the multitudes inherent within a sexual identity. I feel much more comfortable with the space ‘queer’ holds for exploration. Sometimes, though, I also feel too old to be entertaining such thoughts. ‘Leave it to Gen Z to have all the fun exploring their sexuality, you’re married to a woman, don’t waste your time with such questioning,’ a voice in my head says. But I’m choosing to ignore it and have been enjoying conversations with 40-something friends where we break down the barriers of what’s expected of us ‘by our age’.
Likewise, when it comes to gender identity, a word now exists for a way I’ve always felt. Still, there must be a reason Janelle Monáe is one of the few famous over-35s to have come out as non-binary – perhaps we’ve lived too long with our pronouns to want to bother changing them now. Although I’m trying to challenge this instinct to diminish my feelings, it’s hard to allow myself, at 40, the validation that using the term ‘non-binary’ could offer if I embraced it. (‘I hope you’re not considering changing your pronouns,’ the little voice negs me again. ‘Think of the grammar!’)
Nonetheless, in my 40th year, I’m reckoning with every aspect of my identity – including my style. Most people feel they’re finally comfortable with their fashion sense by this age, but not me. I was sorted in my look from the moment I got my first job. I wore shirts, suits and brogues. As I earned more money, the labels may have changed, but the style didn’t. Then lockdown happened and I discovered the joy of a good tracksuit – the casual co-ord equivalent of a suit but oh so much more comfy. Meanwhile, over the past two years, my body has changed as a result of trying to conceive with IVF (and also a 5 o’clock lockdown crisp habit). None of my old clothes fit, so I’ve had to build a wardrobe from scratch and it’s all over the place.
I love my Pangaia hoodie and sweatpants so much that I’ll wear them to business meetings, members’ clubs and nights out. But occasionally I’ll look at myself in the mirror and wonder, ‘Who is this person?’ And more importantly, are they too old for a tracksuit? The other strange thing that’s happened to my fashion sense over the past two years is that I’m now wearing dresses. It feels less important to ‘present’ my gender in any particular way now I’m 40. I’m no longer bothered by how feminine I might look. I’m leaning into a wild uncertainty about my fashion sense and creating the most eclectic collection of clothes I’ve ever owned. But I’m fine with not knowing exactly who my sartorial self is any more.
In my working life, too, I feel freer than I ever have. I was on a ladder upwards for so long that swinging a bit looser in what I do and how I define it feels good. After years of saying, ‘I work for a magazine,’ I now revel in the melange of my professional life; I’m not one thing or the other and I’m far more comfortable existing in this liminal space.
Likewise Tunde, turning 40 in December and retraining as a teacher after a 20-year career in marketing, says, ‘All my friends are at the top of their game, but I couldn’t go into my forties hating my job. I’m not sure teaching is for me, but I’m not looking for a forever career any more. I want options. That’s what 40 needs to be about for me – beautiful, endless possibilities.’
Not being young and not being old, allows us to enjoy the fertile void in-between. And if we do finally recognise that we don’t need to put the clay in the kiln and set ourselves solidly as one thing? Perhaps that’s the secret to enjoying the next 40 years.