’40 before 40′ lists are ubiquitous on the web, and I’ve often wondered why. I mean, I get the idea, but what’s the rush? And why 40? And what does that mean for the yawning stretch of years that will come after 40 if we are so fortunate? This isn’t the kind of post that you’d normally find on this blog, but given its tagline (‘what would happen if’), I think it’s entirely in keeping.
I’ll come completely clean and share that I celebrated 42 just last month. Turning 40 a couple of years ago was strange and nothing like what I expected. It was both a non-event and life altering in subtle ways. We happened to make a very big change at the time I hit the big 4-0: having decided to leave the city for the country, we had just found and purchased our new patch of land and were in the process of designing the new home we’d build on it. We completed that process and moved into our new home just before I turned 41. So 40 was a big year and a busy one and it went by in something of a blur. Forty-one found me much more pensive after the upheaval of 40, and 42 is something I’d been anticipating for a long time.
In case you didn’t know, 42 is the answer to life and the universe and everything, The Ultimate Answer, according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I wouldn’t know this myself unless I was married to the man I chose to spend my life with; I did read The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams as a young woman (at the urging of a close male friend), but I’m pretty confident in saying that I’d never have read anything else by Adams and would have continued on in entirely blissful ignorance of The Ultimate Answer. But as it happens, I know that it’s 42, and so I have high hopes for this year.
Don’t get me wrong; I too chased the notion of 40 before 40, mostly in my 30s as I stopped to consider what I had accomplished thus far and what I thought I should perhaps have accomplished by the time I hit the end of my fourth decade on this earth. But it always irked me somehow. Not the bucket list side of the whole notion of 40 before 40 (which I can take or leave), but the whole notion of ‘success’ and what success looked like for the youthful, under-40 crowd. Part of me craved success that never could be mine, because I had clearly chosen motherhood over my career (though I was still very much a working parent who was juggling ‘homework’ and professional work), a small life with small home-based aspirations over something larger and more significant or noteworthy.
I guess what really bothered me was that no one celebrates mothers or fathers who stay home-based to be there for their children, or indeed anyone who chooses or finds themselves occupying a ‘small life’. But at the same time, I knew that I and many others like me were not doing anything extraordinary and that I should stop feeling sorry for myself (which I only did for a nanosecond or two each year, as I’m just not someone who can stop to dwell on self-pity for very long).
For me, 40 before 40 was a nonsense that I never gave much thought to for two reasons:
1. If you look at the bucket-list side of 40 before 40 wishlists, I think they become exercises in disappointment for anyone parenting (and really wanting to be very available to their children). From 28 to 38 I was so immersed in parenting my two children that I barely paused to check my own pulse, never mind consider the list of things that I’d most like to be doing after I’d fed everyone and put them to bed. Having such a list would only have been frustrating and soul-destroying. This isn’t to say that I didn’t keep an eye on other dreams that I had for my life, but I had firmly relegated them to the backseat of my life for that time period (and was at peace with that decision).
2. That whole success thing, which I tried to describe above. Having enjoyed feeling like I was really on my way professionally in my 20s, my 30s were then spent trying to hold it all together and keep chaos at bay (having introduced children to the mix).
Now that my children are getting older (9 and 14, this coming spring), I’m finding that I’m naturally turning to the dreams that I had parked previously. I’m feeling a bit more restless, in a good way, and ready to try some things that have been lying fairly dormant for me. I don’t have much free time in which to do these things, once work and family life are considered, but it gets better all the time with older children on the premises.
I will pause to say that I’m totally in awe of people who achieve amazing things by this time of their lives, especially when they are also raising a family, but I do believe there is a difference in priority, as well as skills and drive. My biggest goal as a parent was – and continues to be – to be as central as possible to my children’s lives (without driving them nuts!), while also trying to demonstrate some good things through how I and my husband lead our lives. Raising children who will (hopefully) grow up to be responsible, interesting and contributing adults is the most important job I can think of and one that appeals to me.
Parenting is an endlessly hard and unpredictable job, of course, and can swing from providing tremendous highs to pavement-scraping lows. On days like the ones below, which come along from time to time, I feel as though we’re doing a reasonably good job:
Of course there are lots of time when I feel like we’re failing miserably and then I question whether our approach to parenting even matters. And then I remind myself that this is silly, and that this too shall pass, because keeping a hand on your guiding philosophy is important. Sometimes getting through a day without putting a particularly challenging and obstinate child up for adoption (or at least out at the curb with a ‘free’ sign) is achievement enough.
So, all this is perhaps leading to me considering my own list, which I would define as 40 after 40, or a wishlist/dreams/priorities that I may stand a reasonable chance of getting to now that my children aren’t hanging off my skirts 24/7.
My 40 after 40
Actually, how about just the first three; I think there are lots of subsets of these main points that I will be fleshing out in the months and years to come.
1. To make the most of the big change we made in moving here, to this piece of land, and to keep on top of our goals for what we want to do here. That’s a whole other list in itself. In the winter months, when our relationship to the land outside is necessarily quite different, I find it harder to stay connected and on top of those goals, so I need to be more mindful and work in a more concentrated way at it now.
2. To write my way into writing regularly and into writing bigger things (this sounds awfully vague, but I do have some fairly specific goals).
3. To embark on a new adventure with my family, as yet undefined, that will push us and help us engage even more with the world. Our move here is a long term adventure, but I’m drawn to doing something ambitious (for us, that is) that will challenge us physically as well as in a variety of other ways. We all loved our year living car-free and the side adventures that went with that year, and want to find our next ‘Everest’. I know that I want us to do something that matters, and that the rest of my family is likely to be game.
There has been talk at our house of turning this blog into more of group effort, with everyone under our roof posting. I have to say I like the idea. I’m also feeling like I need another blog of my own for some of these meatier topics that don’t entirely fit here; there are things I hold back on here as I’m concerned it’s not the right place, and I don’t want to be holding back.