French philosopher, Charles Péguy had the right idea. He said turning “40 is a fearsome age. It is the age when we become who we are.”
“In my forties,” says author Pamela Druckerman, “I expect to finally reap the average-looking girl’s revenge. I’ve entered the stage of my life where you don’t need to be beautiful, simply by being well preserved and not obese, I would now pass for pretty.
“For a while, this strategy seems to work. Fields of micro-wrinkles appear on the faces of women who’d always been far better-looking than me. If I haven’t seen someone in a few years, I brace myself before meeting her, lest I accidentally gawk at how much she’s changed. (The French call this tendency to look the same for a long stretch, then to suddenly look much older, a coup de view, an “age blow”.)”
Writing in her best-selling book, There are No Grown-Ups, she explains how she “regards the greying roots and creased foreheads of many of my peers with a sad detachment. I am proof of the adage that everyone eventually gets the face she deserves. And what I deserve is, obviously, a permanently youthful glow. But in the course of what seems like a few months, something changes in me, too.
“Strangers no longer gush about how young I look, or seem shocked when I reveal that I have three children. People I haven’t seen in a while clock my face for a few extra beats.
“Not everyone my age is distressed by these changes, but many seem to be suffering from a kind of midlife shock. One friend says that when she walks into a party, there’s no longer a Cinderella moment when everyone turns to look at her. I’ve noticed that men only appraise me now if I’m in full hair and makeup and even then, I detect a disturbing new message in their gazes: I would sleep with her, but only if doing so required no effort whatsoever”.
As women hit this milestone many react in different ways. We spoke to a handful, on the cusp of hitting their fifth decade about what it meant to them.
Amy Steward, 41
“Do I want a party, do I not want a party? Am I embracing this or fighting it? The week I turned 40 I wanted to shout, cry, celebrate, drink a lot, and get Botox. In fact, I did none of the above, apart from the celebrating.
“I lay on a beach and decided that there are worse things than turning 40. I decided I wasn’t going to be one of those people who get annoyed by their age or who moan about their saggy bits. I am a mature, confident woman, I said to myself, I am going to own this decade, I’m going to be wise and calm and awesome. When I got home, my friends threw me a surprise party. I got horribly drunk, danced on the couches and cried about my stretch marks.
Turns out that being 40 is a lot like being 20, so I don’t mind too much anymore. I just can’t take the hangover!”
“Ten years ago I turned 30. Looking back with perspective it was the most challenging time of my life. I was in what some people call a “bad place”. On reflection, it was a combination of a number of factors; I was stuck in a job with no confidence in my ability as a professional. I was lost and lonely. I felt that all my friends were rocketing forward, paving their happiness brick by brick right there in front of my eyes while I was falling down the steps of Reynards every Saturday night. I questioned everything about myself; where I came from, who I was and what I wanted. It was like an early midlife crisis.
“Fast forward 9 years and 11 months and I really anticipated turning 40 was going to be a breeze in comparison — on a career break, with an amazing husband that I adore and three divine children. I thought it would be a month-long celebration of back-patting and ‘look how far I’ve come’ musings. However, the reality of actually turning 40 brought up a parade of emotions that ultimately, I wasn’t prepared for.
“Turning 40 is a milestone for a reason. It’s a time for reflection, a halfway point where you ask yourself where am I, what have I achieved and what’s next?
“The week I turned 40 sent me into a tizzy. My husband brought me out to dinner the Saturday night before. As we sipped champagne in the restaurant before dinner, the first ghost of my life past came to visit. I returned from the bathroom and there he was, across the room — the man I dated in my early twenties for two tumultuous years, the one I had my first real sexual connection with and the one who tore my heart out and showed it to me in all its gruesome, ugly betrayed state.
“He was all smiles, ready to exchange his “how are you, what are you up to now?” pleasantries with me. When I returned to my husband, I told him we had to leave immediately. Initially shocked at the effect this man from years past had on me, my wonderful husband is the understanding type, and we went on to have a lovely evening regardless.
“But it really got me thinking about my past and what if things, or if I, had been different? Where would I be now? Later on that week two very special friends treated me to see a play with Take That music as the backdrop.
“It is a play that centres around five school friends besotted by a boy band. Their adolescent innocence of vowing to be friends under any circumstance, until death do them part, moved me to tears of nostalgia. The ghost of friendships past. In the play, one of the teenagers dies and I found myself crying bitter tears in the dark as Gary Barlow crooned to ‘a million love songs’.
“The loss of real childhood friends in adulthood merits a special kind of grief. Friendship breakups still heart your heart, no matter the circumstances. And it hits you when you least expect it… like during a play in the Bord Gáis Theatre the week you are turning 40. For the second time in as many days, I found myself wondering, what if things had been different? Where would we be now?
“As a result of these emotional visits to the past, I have made a decision. I’ve decided that my 40s are going to be the best yet.
“I will try to minimise regrets. I will be kinder and more understanding. I will quieten my inner critic. Things have worked out pretty well for me regardless of the challenges. So whatever happens, I need to trust that things do really happen for a reason.
“I’m going to lighten up on myself and on others too — we are all just doing our best as people, mothers and friends. I’m finally understanding that these challenges make us better. I’m ready for you 40. I’m ready for 40 more years of challenges, inevitable grief and most importantly, happiness.”
“I changed careers and went back to college after I turned 40. I started when I was sitting at my desk, contemplating the fact that if I wanted my ‘real life’ to start, I was the one who needed to make changes. After I graduated, I found myself in a job where I was a senior to many younger people who had spent years practising. I was a novice. But I noticed straight away that I appeared to command more respect and authority than my younger colleagues. Of course, I could flatter myself and say that it was just because I was really good at my job, but the fact is that my age and life experience had provided me with the gravitas necessary to appear more knowledgeable than my younger peers. It was a gift, one that I knew gave me an edge. Call me ‘older’ any time. To me, it’s a badge of honor for achieving wisdom… of sorts.”
The privilege of ageing
“I remember my own mother turning 40. It seemed so grown up. She was glamorous and confident and one thing she said to me that day always stuck with me. ‘It is a privilege to age’ she said to me as she prepared for her night out with friends.
“She approached her fourth decade with an exuberance that only those who have experienced huge loss can understand. Her own parents died before she was 16 so my mother had seen how quickly things can change. She was just happy to be along for the ride – even if she had to do it with crinkly eyes.
“Facing into my own fortieth year, it’s allowed me to gain perspective on what’s come before and what’s ahead. Predictably, we freak out over our increasingly mature appearance and focus on all we haven’t achieved.
“It is the first time we really consider what’s ahead and how short life really is. However, I prefer to view it as a safe haven of a decade where many of us are finally in a place where we feel a little more self-assured. Many of my friends now have families that we’ve nurtured, careers we have tweaked and deeper relationships that we’ve cultivated. I’m lucky because my own parents are still living and I can now see them evolve into the role of doting grandparents.
“My own relationships with them has changed – I view them less harshly – I understand better their motivations, I respect better the choices they made for me growing up. At 40, illness hasn’t yet made its mark too heavily on me or my friends. I’m finally seeing glimpses of the fruits of our labour from our 20s and 30s in terms of lessons learnt, letting bygones be bygones. I’ve stopped sweating the small stuff. Of course, I’ve now a whole new set of challenges to master — ones that involve raising teenagers, cursing my slower metabolism and growing my career responsibilities, all while covering my greys. But to be honest, I’ll take this over acne, self-doubt and broken hearts, any day. I’m just getting started.”
This article was originally published in February 2022.