About the 40s...
An established author and New York Times Op/Ed contributor wrote an opinion piece in the NYT a few days ago titled “What You Learn in Your 40s.” That’s all well and good, and I’m certain a lot of people read it (what with it being by a best-selling author, and, you know, being in the NYT…). But I had a tiny problem with the fact that she wrote it on the eve of her 44th birthday; I really have to believe (or HOPE to believe) that she has NOT yet learned all that she will learn in her 40s.
So, I thought about it, and tossed together some of my own discoveries from that decade, ones I’ve experienced myself and/or shared with my friends and contemporaries, all of who, like me, are freshly arrived on the other side of our 40s. What we say about that: truth. Or as my slightly-more-badass friend Maria says: church.
This is the decade where your parents might get hit with some bad news about their health. If not your parents, then the parent or parents of your friends. Your parent, or parents, or those of your friends, may die. Suddenly, it becomes a priority to get your business in order, square up your relationships if they are not there already, visit more, drop what you’re doing and get there. I think the 40s taught me a lot about the fine art of showing the hell up.
You may have a peer get hit with a tough medical diagnosis. Or it might be you who is on the receiving end of some real bad news. You may bury your college roommate. But before that, when she calls to tell you the cancer is back and she’s entering hospice, you and all your other college roommates fly across the country, shipping Wisconsin custard to arrive there at the same time, and spend an unforgettable weekend in the mountains, eating too much, staying up too late, laughing til you weep. You don’t hesitate, and you show the hell up. Later, about six months after her death, you all fly again to the other side of the country to walk/run as a team in a national event for the Cure. And when you’re done doing that, you sit-and-drink-by-the-pool-for-a-Cure, and call that an event, too.
You get to conflict with your kids. In order to not have an ulcer, you decide that year (or two) that you butted heads over politics or policy with your teen-who-knows-everything is in fact your opportunity to teach about disagreeing respectfully, about listening to both sides, about not strong-arming anyone into an opinion. Then much later, when that same son studies abroad for a semester, maybe you’ll receive the best Mother’s Day email ever, that says in part, “if I could go back and do one thing over, I would kick high-school-me in the ass.” It’s lonely on the high road, but when the sunrise comes, it’s pretty stunning…it’ll blow your hair back.
Listen to music your kids like, and have them listen to yours. Maybe then when your son and his buddies form a band and are playing out live somewhere, he’ll introduce a Warren Zevon cover with, “I learned this from my mom.” And maybe one day, someone will play you a song on the guitar, from deep in the archives, and tell you, “this makes me think of you”, and that may also blow your hair back. It’s important to be loved, but it’s profound to be understood. Also, watch movies your kids like, and have them watch something you like. That’s how your kids will know that “Chicken Run” is the same story as “The Great Escape.” If you’re exceptionally lucky, one of your favorite movies (“The Intouchables”) will be thanks to a recommendation from your own child.
Teach your kids to man up, to lead not follow, and to care for and include others. They may find they like that role, and you may find yourself in an all-school assembly where your 17-year-old son is the speaker, and talks eloquently about how when both of his parents were diagnosed with cancer, others picked us up and carried our family, and that he now believes our role as members of a community is to create a Body of Christ, by accepting help that is offered to us and by in turn offering a helping hand to others. That’s his definition of purpose, but you can adopt it as your own. In your 40s, you may learn from those you’ve taught.
You don’t get much vacation time, but take a week to chaperone a teen service trip to Appalachia. You might learn to attach underpinning to a tornado-damaged mobile home. Or, you may get to watch your daughter’s face as she sees a man in a wheelchair use the ramp she and her team built to enter the home he hadn’t been able to live in since a storm ripped his old ramp away. You can talk about the importance of giving, or you can walk the walk. Maybe your daughter’s friend (the one who has vacationed with your family, and been like a bonus sister-daughter to your family) will ask you to be her Confirmation sponsor because she likes the way you try to live a message of service.
Make new traditions. You might have to. Both your parents could die a year apart, and your childhood home is sold, and you have no physical connection to your hometown. You have no one there to spend Christmas with, and nowhere to stay. So your sister finds a rental house in the rural area near your hometown, and you all go there and build a new idea of holiday. And when you put up the tree that first year in this new unfamiliar place, and there is no tree-topper, your daughter and nephews fashion one out of cardboard and duct-tape, and that too becomes part of your new tradition.
You can learn something new, and you should. You might change careers, because you want to, or because you have to. You might find that it is indeed possible to pursue a Masters of Arts in a field you love, even if that pursuit includes 700 daunting hours of supervised clinicals in addition to working full time, raising a family, and having a home life. You get a lot of street cred when you tell your kids to buckle down and do school-work, while you are doing your own. Even better if you put your phone away while you do it; that resonates with them. But when you walk across the stage, in cap and gown, the last month of your 40s, to receive your degree, hearing “YEAH MOM!” shouted from the balcony is pretty awesome.
You may end up getting a dog. Even if it loves your husband best, you may witness that dog’s ability to make him a better man (as dogs are wont to do), and bring out the best in him. Or the dog may love you best, and you may learn a whole new chapter of the meaning of companionship.
Give books 30 pages to pull you in, even if you’re a voracious reader. Life is short and there are unanticipated struggles; there’s no need to struggle through a book.
Get fit. You realize this is the body that’s going to take you the distance. Honor it with real care. You might find out you really like lacing up your running shoes and getting out for a few miles at sun-up.
Figure out you don’t need ‘things’ as gifts. The best gifts are time together, a sweet note, lying in bed watching ‘CBS Sunday Morning’, sharing coffee, or a gift-card for a session with a personal trainer, or a voucher for airfare to go see your sister. Get rid of the things you don’t need.
Talk to the ones a generation ahead of you. Get those family stories written down; archive your story or have your talented sister self-publish the narrative that is your history. Have your mom teach you how to make those popovers; but if she’s gone too soon, and you still don’t know how to do it because you never asked, let that be your only regret. Those were some damn good popovers she made.
Donate the jeans that are too small. Buy the comfortable boots. Bring flip-flops to wedding receptions so you don’t have dance in killer heels. Eat pancakes for dinner. Cultivate friendships with your girlfriends; you know you’d be lost without them – tell them so. Sing along to “Brave” or “Countdown” even when your daughter’s friends are over.
Tell people you love them, even if you’ve never said it before, or you haven’t said it in a while, or maybe you just haven’t said it yet today. Hug the ones you love, leave nothing unsaid, and enjoy every sandwich. I’m no longer in my 40s, but I’ve learned a lot, and plan to learn a lot more.
|Sister-extraordinaire, Maureen McCarthy Lewis|