On Turning 40

Last month I turned 40. I can’t really say that I ever thought on that age with dread, but it does seem strange to have reached it. Can I be at that point already? Did my thirties fly by so quickly? Am I really twice the age I was when I walked that college campus, just beginning to get to know adulthood?

I wonder if the age of my children makes the whole thing seem more incongruous to me. I didn’t meet my husband until my late twenties and we didn’t marry until our early thirties, so I reached 40 with an oldest child of eight years and a youngest of one. When my mother turned 40, her children were 17 and 15.

Yes, 40 feels strange. But it’s not unwelcome. It’s even kind of exciting.

Lately I’ve been thinking on the arc of my life and looking back to how I felt on the cusp of my twenties and thirties.

At twenty, I didn’t have any idea what lay ahead. Where would I live? What would I do for work? Would I marry? Travel? Have children? Twenty was thrilling and terrifying.

Photo of Julie in college

(College photo shamelessly stolen from a friend. I’m in the white.)

My twenties, thankfully, ended up being quite good. I did interesting, fulfilling work. I traveled to seven countries and twenty states. I lived in fun, walkable, urban areas with coffee shops and ethnic restaurants a-plenty. But the decade was also hard. Oh, was I lonely. I spent those supposedly “best time of your life” twenties pining for a husband and children. I couldn’t enjoy where I was because I was worried I’d be stuck there forever.

Then lo and behold, at thirty I married the husband. Which was also thrilling and terrifying. What would marriage be like? Would we be happy? Could we have children? Where would we settle?

Wedding photo

That decade, too, turned out to be good. I welcomed healthy, happy children. We bought a big, beautiful Victorian. I stayed home and kept house and cooked from scratch. But my thirties were also hard. Wonderful and beautiful and hard. Three months into them I married and two months after that I became pregnant with our first child. Thus began a decade of morning sickness and sleepless nights, of frayed nerves and aching joints. A decade of change and acclimation and learning to put others’ needs before my own. Indeed, a decade of learning that my life is bigger than me.

And oh, was I down. I spent my “don’t blink or you’ll miss it” thirties pining for freedom, for quiet, for physical autonomy. I couldn’t enjoy where I was because I was worried I’d be stuck there forever.

It’s only in the past year, as I’ve nudged up against 40, that my vision has cleared and my attitude has brightened. A whole series of small realizations have unburdened me of baggage I didn’t even know I was carrying. And I’m finally feeling the gratitude that my mind has acknowledged all along.

I am so privileged. I was born into a wonderful family and I am raising a (new) wonderful family with a wonderful man. I have had a string of beautiful, life-giving experiences and I have had opportunities and successes that I did not deserve.

And yet for years, I’ve focused more on what I did not have than what I did.

I know how obnoxious that sounds. I apologize for being that person. I am sorry for my gloom, for my pining, for wasting chances to be, and to do, good.

At this point all I can do is thank the good Lord that something has shifted within me, and move forward.

Forty is not thrilling and terrifying. It’s a sort of hopeful-joyful excitement. At forty, I know what my adult life looks like. I know that it’s centered on a family of five noisy, inquisitive, passionate kids and a blessedly patient husband. I know that it involves an exhausting, never-ending amount of work, but that it also comes with the most precious of rewards.

Photo of Julie's children

I know that my quiet moments are becoming less rare and more fruitful, and I’m hopeful that in my forties I can forge the divide that defined my previous two decades. In one I focused on career and longed for family, in the other I focused on family and longed for career. This decade will undoubtedly bring its own challenges. (You never know what life has in store for you!) But I am hopeful that this will be a decade without pining — one in which gratitude is keenly felt, and one in which I can be both wife and mother and… something else. What else exactly? I don’t know. But I’m excited to figure it out.

Photo of Julie

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Thirty-nine for the First Time

Today I turn 39. My mother quipped that this will be the first and only time I’ll be able to say that it’s my 39th birthday and mean it.

Mom wanted to know if I can believe I’m getting so close to 40. A couple of years ago I might have waffled on that answer, but now I don’t hesitate: I can absolutely believe it.

This morning I looked down at the four-month-old in my arms, all fat and soft and rosy, and I thanked God for these little lives in my care. They’re each incredible blessings in their own right, but they do something else for this almost-40 mama: They trick me into thinking I’m young. For a moment, at least. Until I go to rise out of the rocker and my hip screams at me. Until my back muscles object at lifting a child. Until my knees ever-so-reluctantly haul me up the stairs.

It’s been a hard few months. We pushed through the first month or so of baby’s life in decently good health, thank goodness. We made it through Christmas. But the following week we were each hit with bugs, one falling after the next.

Then on New Year’s Day I stepped out of the shower and experienced such intense pain that I could barely walk. My old problem joint, the one at the base of my spine, between my hips (my sacrum), felt like it would crumble to pieces. My husband stayed home from work for a few days; I couldn’t sit up in bed without his help, let alone lift the baby. But after some ibuprofen and physical therapy and lidocaine patches and time, the pain faded. Soon my hobbling turned to limping, and then that went away too.

But my cough — the one I’d started the week after Christmas — it did not fade. It got worse and my exhaustion grew and one night I experienced a stabbing pain in my neck. The next day there was a rash at the spot, and soon I was diagnosed with shingles. And bronchitis. Weeks of coughing and pain and exhaustion followed. I got two more respiratory viruses on top of the one I couldn’t kick. And to top it all off, I got a stomach bug.

It was a very Lent-ish beginning to Lent.

March was quieter. The cough went away; my energy increased. My pain was spotty and weak. I began to hurry up stairs and walk around the yard. I tried on health and hoped it would fit for a while.

But now April has struck. The day after Easter I bent over to put away a child’s boot and the muscles around my sacrum clenched in pain. Not as badly as on New Year’s, thank goodness, but badly enough to keep me from lifting the baby. Badly enough to force me back into my old-lady hobble.

Today the joint feels bruised and my back muscles feel strained from compensating for it. My shingles pain is flaring up. And I’m coughing again. A new virus seems to have settled into my lungs; their crackling sounds have me worried about another bout of bronchitis.

It’s as if my body wants to be very clear: You’re at the point, lady, where birthdays begin to chart your decline.

Or maybe the message is: You have to be careful with yourself. You’re not as resilient as you used to be.

I haven’t posted much about these woes because I didn’t want to complain. (Or to be seen as complaining — take your pick.) But at this point I’m just past caring. This is what my life has been lately, and so I want to write about it.

I feel like my body — or maybe the Holy Spirit — has grabbed me by my shoulders, spun me around, and pointed me at the next decade of my life.

These Walls - Thirty-nine for the First Time - 1

I spent my twenties as a young professional — working, traveling, reading, listening to music, eating whatever I wanted for dinner, and pining after a family of my own.

I’ve spent my thirties as a stay-at-home mother — caring for children, making a home, listening to NPR, eating dinner in spurts between refilling little plates, and pining after a professional life that I’ve missed more than I expected to.

I daydream about my forties being a marriage of the two: Maybe I’ll get to do some meaningful work from home while the kids are in school during the day and then I’ll get to be fully present to them in the evenings. Maybe I’ll finally get my calendar and my household chores under control. Maybe I’ll have everything running like clockwork so I can have empty hours in which to pursue my creative interests. Maybe I won’t have to pine after anything at all.

I feel like the past few months have been a reality check on those daydreams. A big, fat “HA” from my body or the Holy Spirit or whatever. These months have reminded me that even when life is good, it is not without suffering.

I am getting older. My body is weaker than I’d like. And even if I can ease it back into better health and shape (which I would love to do), I will still be at the mercy of age and genetics and real life. There will always be something to trip me up.

So I stand here (a little askew because of the pain in my sacrum) and stare down the road toward 40. I want to start gearing up for my next decade. I want to work to heal my body so it doesn’t stop me short. I want to be realistic enough about my time and abilities to know that my home life will never run like clockwork, but I also want to stop letting my struggles and imperfections keep me from pursuing work that makes me feel alive.

Today I’m 39. My forties will be here before I know it; I want to be ready for them.

 

These Walls - Thirty-nine for the First Time