‘Turning 40 prompts a reckoning – sometimes a painful one – between our aspirational and actual lives’
Adulthood is a mysterious beast. Just when you think you’ve cracked it, the goalposts shift again. As Amanda Cassidy faces down her 40s, she asks what being a grown-up is really all about.
In the last few years, something has permanently shifted within me. Something that has happened a little too quickly for me to digest – I look and sound like a real-life grown. The issue is that my mind hasn’t yet caught up.
On paper I realise that I am well into ‘woman’ territory – I have three children bobbing along in the school system, I have a house, pay insurance and make a point of never looking into the front mirror of the car in the mornings. In many ways, I feel like I’ve cracked the code in some aspects of my life – the issue is that I don’t feel quite like I imagine a grown-up should.
Top of the list of what real adults do is being super decisive. (Yes, I’ll take that car. No, you can’t marry my son.) My inability to decide is my kryptonite. Recently, I spent an embarrassingly long time surveying the rainbow of nail varnishes at my salon, wondering if bright pink is a little too inappropriate for me now.
I caught the look on the beautician’s face – polite but disapproving. Not being able to make up my mind is not very adult of me. Grown-ups should know exactly what they want, correct? Hesitation equals immaturity, frivolity and impulsiveness that is usually reserved for the yoof.
But maybe it is just a 40s thing – I am within touching distance. Perhaps it is the fulcrum of life, the transitional period when you cross from things like dating, having kids, and doing shots on the beach on some Greek Island, to making sure you are home for the babysitter, knowing how to French plait, and exactly what colour nails you should want at any given time.
Pamela Druckerman writes about her experience of mid-life coming of age in her most recent book, ‘There Are No Grown-ups’. She is also the author of the No 1. Sunday Times bestseller, ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food.’ Druckerman writes about her experience as an American mum living and raising her children in Paris.
She points out that forties are a particularly disorientating time. “Each new birthday brings some vertigo – you are always the oldest you’ve ever been – the forties are like a decade without a narrative. They are not just a new number; they feel like a new atmospheric zone. And there is still something undeniably transitional about age forty.
You’ve only ever known yourself as a certified young person, now you’ve left one stage of life, but you haven’t quite entered the next. The Frenchman Victor Hugo supposedly called forty the ‘old age of youth’. Druckerman also describes how once you enter this new world of official adulthood, there are new rules.
‘When I act adorably naïve now, people aren’t charmed anymore, they’re baffled. Cluelessness no longer goes with my face. I’m expected to wait in the correct line at airports and to show up on time for my appointments.
I also feel older on the inside too – Names and facts don’t just pop into my mind anymore and I can no longer wing it through a day on coffee and seven hours of sleep. Friends describe similar – in fact, we notice at a dinner party that each of us has a sport that our doctor forbids us to play. There’s nervous laughter when someone points out, that under American law, we’re now old enough to claim age discrimination.”
Age might be a state of mind but we live in a world where we are obsessed with appearances. Despite my best efforts, my face now tells the world that I am not 21 or 35 anymore, and there are consequences to that.
Previously, when I was consulted for my advice on an issue – I’d watch friends take it and usually do the opposite. Now, my age offers me an illusion of wisdom that results in people not only taking my advice but following it through and then coming back for more. Am I finally one of those elusive grownups that are supposed to fix all the things?
It is a shock to the system to realise that I might now be one of those. Is this imposter system a symptom of middle age? Not exactly, according to the economist, Andrew School who wrote that technically Forty isn’t considered middle aged anymore – someone who is now forty has a 50 per cent chance of living to the age of ninety-five.
A now-or-never mood
But what have we aged into? Druckman says we may still be capable of action, change and 10k races, but there is a new immediacy to becoming a grown up. “Our possibilities suddenly feel more finite. All choices now seem to exclude others.
A there’s a now-or-never mood. If we were planning to do something ‘one day’ to finally change careers, read Dostoyevsky or learn how to cook leeks – we should probably get moving on it. It is a time that prompts a reckoning – sometimes a painful one – between our aspirational and actual lives. False things we’ve been saying for years start to sound hollow.”
And I can see this myself all around. Friends retraining and taking up the career they’ve always dreamed of doing no longer seems silly.
I now finally understand why people say time is a great healer. Ok, so people may not act shocked anymore when I tell them I have three children, but there are upsides too. I can finally make apple pie, I no longer care about what people think of me, I have mastered (most) of my neurotic tendencies and I can (mostly) manage my finances on a scale that doesn’t include divvying everything up into plain brown envelopes.
I am also an expert secret eye-roller which came in handy recently when a former colleague shrieked ‘Oh. My. Gawd. I can’t believe I’m turning 23, I feel so OLD’.
Yes, I may feel sometimes like I’ve been promoted beyond my competence, but perhaps my fine lines do hold the secret to what’s what. My children still look at me like I’m their personal oracle, and I’ve learned the dark art of how to say no – something I’ve struggled with for most of my life.
If being a fully fledged grown-up means I can bleed a radiator, enjoy going around garden centres and carry a spare shopping bag then here I am.
I may be considered a bonafide adult, but I’m never not going to wear bright pink nail varnish, no matter how grown-up I get.