This coming Sunday I shall be forty. In some parts of the world it is old; spent. People in the UK can think it 'used' to be old here. But I'm not so sure. My grandmother had her seventh child at 40; a few weeks before her husband died. I have not experienced the need for a child. I think it's because I was the oldest girl in a family of seven kids! 'Mummy's little helper'. It was a role I was sometimes ok with. But also one that I often deeply resented. Being an older sibling in a large family can mean missing out on your own childhood; it also meant, for me, that I had never harboured any illusions or romance about the desperately hard work bringing up a child involves. And then there's the fact that I spent my thirties indulging myself in education and juggling work to help pay for it of course. And dealing with my own parents' premature deaths. My Mum would sometimes say 'wait till you have your own kids!' And then in the next breath 'there's more to life than having kids!' My Da never said anything. He never once dictated to us what our lives should be or contain. Having left Ireland at sixteen to fend for himself, his reasoning was that once one reaches a certain age, your life is your own. The only value he instilled in us was to never be lazy or a 'layabout'. He valued work above all else, just for the sake of it; he certainly didn't benefit financially from it.
My twenties were, for the most part, a mess; a chaos of low self-esteem and a crippling self-doubt. Wanting answers - and looking to people to provide them. It was in my thirties that I fully realised that no one person has 'the answers'. I learnt to trust myself more. I had to try and overcome the fear of being strong, which I still often grapple with, although it's not something that most would guess. Learning to see oneself means I can now see more - identify with - more in others. But it's never 'done'. Life is a work-in-progress and always will be. Pain and regrets have never disappeared, but have faded, almost in proportion to the time spent learning new things, being in new situations, meeting new people; being in the world. I've learnt that it's not so bad to be angry, although I don't enter rage as much as I used to. My thirties were an awakening on so many levels. Not sudden and at once, but gradually. Growing into oneself. I read more than I did during any other decade. In my thirties I earned a BA, an MA, and a PhD. I had my first book published. I wrote a lot on a range of issues. I reviewed books. I revelled in becoming an auntie. I realised that the stronger I became the fewer men there seemed to be. Men have their fears too, of course, but whilst I can be perceptive and empathic, I can't do what used to turn me inside out during my twenties and try and be what they wanted or thought I should be. I became an atheist in my thirties through a long and weird and winding process. I also took up cycling, which I always feel good about. I also realise that I'm neither fully anything; left nor right. Although I have values.
So what do I hope for my forties?
To have greater periods of time being grounded would be nice. Balance can often be the thing we glimpse as we swing from one extreme to the other. But these periods have grown. To continue writing, because the voice I found in my thirties needs more space. And because I have many stories to tell. About where I'm from; who my parents were; just because. To achieve more. I have always been achievement focussed. And I like it. To learn more; to question more. To listen more. To jut be.
Forty is cool. Besides, what's the alternative?