This Is Not a Celebratory Forties Post

Lilies - half fresh, half aged, in a glass vase.
I remember how very old I felt approaching 30. And, with hindsight, I’m sure 42 will come to seem equally young, equally naive. Yet, like adolescence, early middle age is a difficult time. Because ageing is real, it hits you, and it sucks.

I don’t feel old, you see. I was mildly surprised to find myself quite puffed climbing to the lookout for Mount Bromo last week with a couple of 20-somethings – for “quite puffed” read chuffing like a steam train and terrifying the poor kids into pausing for fear of heart attack. Young people don’t seem like a separate species to me yet and I’d entirely neglected to notice that these two were roughly half my age.

Thanks to sundry affordable enhancements – I went back to blonde after finding one too many grey hairs, occasionally nuke my wrinkles and am seriously considering doing something about my smoker’s lips — I don’t even look particularly old. But I am.

And that sucks. I might be carrying on like a 20-something and, for that matter, still pass for one in a sufficiently darkened room, but my body, in particular my withering ovaries, continues to deteriorate.

Quite frankly, I imagine that watching friends and family pop off this mortal coil has quite the reverse effect.

It is around this age, of course, that one discovers the fear of death. I’d like to think that this gets easier with, ahem, maturity, but quite frankly, I imagine that watching friends and family pop off this mortal coil has quite the reverse effect.

In early middle age, the immortality and invulnerability of youth is replaced by the hideous revelation that half a life has passed in the blink of an eye and the other half will rush by even faster. I have realised I’m going to die with a shocking and awful clarity, and every so often it fills me with tremors of absolute horror.

It seems bitterly, bitterly unfair that we’ve only got one short life to live and can only do a handful of things with it. I’d quite like to have the certitudes of religion, the opium of the masses, that there’s something pleasant on the other side. But I’m damn sure there isn’t, and when the cells shut down, it’s game over.

This is why, dear younger readers, they call it a midlife crisis. People abandon the daily grind or their partner of many years to pursue big, bold dreams. Why? Because it’s at this kind of age that you realise you only have one life, and need to make the most of it, and often the one you have feels like a trap.

My beer gut appeared more than a decade after my baby and has absolutely fuckall to do with it.

I apologise, by the way. This is not one of those celebratory forties posts, embracing my newfound wisdom and maturity, loving my wrinkles, celebrating my muffin top and generally cheerleading for the inevitable.

You will not hear one word about how happy I am about my beer gut because it gave birth to a baby a) because my beer gut appeared more than a decade after my baby and has absolutely fuckall to do with it and b) because I would much rather be thin. Sorry!

There are many things I am grateful for at this stage of my life, but I remain absolutely fucking enraged by the sheer unfairness of middle age.

I consider myself a feminist. But I still think wrinkles suck. On both genders. Unless you’re Peter O’Toole, of course. And, despite more than five decades of feminism, I am unable to think of a female equivalent of late-period Peter O’ Toole or, indeed, of the term “roué”.

Men can grow old disgracefully, can sport lines and “silver highlights” as signs of distinction, and can procreate easily within inches of the grave. Women, well, can’t. Sorry, loves. While almost everyone looks better young than old, the veneer of youth is more critical in a woman. I’ve yet to meet a person who was actively improved by a beer gut, but straight men can get away with a lot more spare flesh than either the girls or the gays.

For, oh my god, the slowing metabolism of middle age is no fun at all. I used to be able to eat what I wanted and give off an – admittedly deceptive – impression of athleticism. Now I have to think about what I eat, refuse myself things, and still expand out of my trousers. I’ve put all the weight I lost through dengue back on – and extra. This is, like all the myriad indignities of early middle age, just the very, very top of a long and slippery slope with mediaeval horrors at the bottom.

I don’t mean the generic whines about being treated as a combined cashpoint and taxi service.

I am lucky enough to be parenting a teenager in middle age. This has its joys, as parenthood, an activity whose sole purpose is to adequately equip a child to leave you, approaches its key goal. It also has its sorrows.

I don’t mean the generic whines about being treated as a combined cashpoint and taxi service. In fact, I’m blessed with a parent-child relationship that extends beyond said functionality into intimacy.

But I have a glimmering, now, as Zac closes in on adulthood, of what a man meant when he said to me long ago, “Oh, that’s a lovely time, when your children are small and you are the centre of their world.”

I don’t want to be the centre of my son’s universe, of course. That would be warped. It’s good that his friends are the focus now. But, still, I do very much miss the days when I was the mother of a young child. I’m not yet ready to give up that stage of life.

And I suspect that this desire to cleave to your children even as they grow further and further from you is something that persists and intensifies lifelong, and that like so much else in middle age, it just gets worse with age.

So what I want to know is this. What’s the secret?

So what I want to know is this. What’s the secret?

Is there some magic bullet by which one accepts ageing, comes to terms with one’s own mortality, acknowledges one’s children leaving and embraces the myriad physical transformations of middle age? Or is this a suite of problems that you drag around with you until the day you die, occasionally ignoring it but never really overcoming it?

Time heals all things of course. But time is also the mechanism of ageing, so I don’t see that one working out at all.

I’ll write something about travel next week, I promise. I’ve done enough of it of lately and there’s more coming up.

And, yes, like so many middle-aged clichés, especially on Bali, I’ll go back to doing yoga. It can only, one assumes, improve my mood.

Image credit: Dying Lilies – Experimental Ageing by Scott Wylie on Flickr’s Creative Commons.

13 Responses

  1. Michael Linden says:

    Oh, for God’s sake, you’re not really middle-aged until you’re sixty, and then some. Yes, yoga would be a good thing but, otherwise, carry on regardless. You’re going to die anyway.

  2. Sarah says:

    Thank you, thank you. At 47, as the mother of two as yet still teenagers, I ask myself this question every day. I’m sorry I can’t help you- I don’t know the secret. All I can say is, you’re not alone (like that really makes you feel better), and I’ll be watching this post like a hawk for that sage who brings us the answer. =)

  3. gaz regan says:

    Oh, dear! My dear T, I could lecture you for hours and hours about how wrong you are, but I think there’s a chance that you might not listen, so instead, I’ll offer a few words of encouragement: You may have only another 40-, 50-, or 60-years left here on God’s Green Earth, but take heart my dear, at least you’ve found a way to spend that time being absolutely miserable . . . (with lotsa love from your friend, gaz)

  4. Antonia says:

    At 42, I can commiserate – aging sucks, and my ovaries seem determined to make me miserable (I like to think it’s a fit of pique on their part, as I refused to use them for their designed purpose when young, and now am getting too old for it – menopause is a bitch).
    After an accident 3 months ago, I’m suddenly aware of my own mortality (and the fragility of our meat homes) far more than I ever was when young. I see young people doing slightly risky things, and I want to rush up to them and warn them, cementing my status as the neighbourhood’s crazy old lady, without even the enjoyment of having lots of cats (I’m allergic).
    None of the various indignities and weaknesses that age has in store for us all are fun, and I don’t think there’s a secret to accepting it. I don’t think you ever really do – in our minds we’re eternally 21. My parents are in their mid-70s, and mum’s still 21. Dad’s 6.
    But at least we have one benefit of getting older – less fucks to give. When i was very young, I used to worry endlessly about what other people thought of me: was I smart enough? Was I popular enough? Did the boys think I was pretty enough? Were my clothes stylish enough and were other people judging me for being too fat? (I was always cursed with a slow metabolism, even in youth.)
    Now I’ll go for a walk in my pajamas if I feel like it, and I don’t really give a fig what other think. I fully intend to wear purple, with a red hat.
    Be well.

  5. Having just turned 49, and with 16 year old twins getting ready to leave the nest, I’m feeling a lot of this. I remember when I was younger thinking my 40s would be great – I would be a boss, I would be able to afford great clothes and a personal trainer to keep me fit, and I wouldn’t care what anyone thinks. It hasn’t been quite like that, of course. I am my own boss, and I can’t even get myself to do the stuff I’m supposed to do; my clothes come from Target and thrift stores, which is quite fine except for the child labor that probably goes into the Target clothes; and my weight is stuck at a number too high for my liking. I am more comfortable with the invisibility cloak I discovered when I turned 40, though. It means I almost have to be outrageous and loud to be noticed in a crowd of youngsters, which is not a thing that comes naturally to me, but it’s kinda fun. I guess that’s my version of “no f&cks to give.” I still feel 27 inside, though, and it is sometimes a shock when silver-haired men are flirty. What’s weird is that I’ve never ever imagined anything – positive or negative – about the years 50 and beyond. I’m thinking that means I get to write the script from scratch. And it will be good.

  6. Not sure it will be at all comforting to you, but I’d say 40-55 was less fun than 55-62 has been. Probably, a lot has to do with that ovary thing to which you alluded.

    • Theodora says:

      That’s highly comforting, actually. I think it’s the ovary thing that’s at the heart of it. It just seems so goddamn unfair.

  7. Mariyam says:

    Absolutely love this post, have no sage solutions. I am turning 40 tomorrow, so the whole middle age crisis has been on my mind. I find myself swearing a lot the last few days. Fucking forties!!!!

  8. SHARYN VINALL says:

    OMFG..are u crazy! 42! you are at your peak woman…enjoy everything…you are young….i think you live in the sticks…i live near London, 42,,is like..hell yeah, is soooo good for u at this age, the best ever!n Live it!

  9. Brandy says:

    Happy Birthday! I turned 50 yesterday and spent most of the last few days crying. Fragging hormones. Now, with a Queen for A Day hangover, I feel less weepy(ha). I start Yoga this week!

  10. Rosita says:

    Happy bday, Thea! 42 yrs isn’t bad, even thought it might sound hypocritical from a Caribbean teenage, but, trust me, it isn’t. Yuh’re with plenty of vigor and mental (as well as physical) strength to make such as crazy, adventurous trips around Asian southwest, as well as other continents. Wish y’all plenty of loving travels, as well as fascinating, interesting stories. I wish I knew yuh and Z irl. Y’all seem so determined; so loving! 💋 Someday, yuh can go there to Brasil & Latin America in general 😉 I’m pretty sure this will extend yuh trip journal for more a while. Consider coming here someday. And, remember, 42’s isn’t the end, ’cause yuh still have an entire life to enjoy! Just remember how intensely yuh lived when yuh faced the “will I die now or not?” crisis, after Winnie’s illness and try live with the same intensity. This advice isn’t just for yuh, but yah to Z too. 😄 Y’all should engage on more loving trips, and maybe consider voluntourism, ya know, be a tourist AND a volunteer at same time. It can be done everywhere, even on Bali. Try donating a bit of the love and time that the isle gave y’all ❤️ Age doesn’t matter, but love yah. And our adventures too. Try doing more loving trips, as well as some volunteering, if y’all wanna, and yuh will see age isn’t more than a f***ing rotule, as those seen in beer cans. Love y’all!

  11. Rosita says:

    And, PS: if u miss having a child after yuh ovaries stop producing ovums, plz consider adopting/sponsoring one 🙂 Asian southwest has a huge problem with homeless/abused children, and I’m sure this will be a loving company to Z too, and, no need for being sad when he leaves to university, ’cause yuh’ll know u did yuh main task as a mommy: raised a son on an open-minded, loving and adventurous way. Oh, BTW, feel free to trying put him into any university in Indonesia, or another southwest Asian country, if yuh wanna. I’m pretty sure that Singapore and Malaysia might have plenty of good universities 😊 Give it a try! And plz consider the option of adopting/sponsoring another child too. Yuh WON’T be substituting Z, under none circumstance, just having another company and feeling less “I wish Z hadn’t grew up never”, if yuh understand wha’ I’m saying. Sorry if that sounds mean, but I only have 2 recommendations for yuh: enjoy life to the maximum, ’cause 42’s isn’t the end of yuh life, love! ❤️️ Carpe diem, y’all! OK, this was my first recommendation. My second one is: try spending a bit more in Bali & adopt/sponsor a Balinese child, or do some volunteering there, if yuh wanna. Try giving a bit for the blessed isle who received y’all with open arms. It’s called karma 😉 In yuh case, NOT a bad one, but in fact a VERY GOOD one! Try doing any of the things I suggested u at this comment and the one I put here at the other day 🙂 Well, sweetie, I hope this might help u. And congrats for 42’s bday!
    Yuh Caribbean friend

  12. Tina says:

    Age is simply a function of biology and time … if you have a young spirit, you find a way to keep doing young things (within the limitations of your aging meat suit). Nothing wrong with being an old soul either, but whatever you are, you need to make peace with who you are.