Why are the Forties the New Forties?


When I was a thirty-something divorced woman, redoing my twenties as if my married decade had never happened, I believed that I could reclaim the lost time. I think many divorcees get the same idea—that they’d pushed a “rewind” button and placed themselves back at the start of a blank tape, one that had been filled already with first-time decisions and their awkward results. Since my ex and I didn’t share children or any significant assets, I was able to start my redo at the very beginning. I moved into a studio apartment in a vibrant neighborhood filled with eccentrics living the eternal single life. I made friends with my neighbors, most in their twenties. I went out after work with the unfettered colleagues, the ones who didn’t have kids or marriages to attend to, the ones in their twenties.

Occasionally, I recognized that I was the oldest in my peer group (my reference to cassette tapes above solidly places me in that demographic), but when you walk away from an old identity—when you finally kick a habit or leave a husband with whom you’ve lived for almost a decade—you tend to pick up life where you’d left off, rather than where you “should” be. I had some good times—pursued new interests with new friends, enjoyed having some disposable income. Basically, I lived like a twenty-something for whom the professional life and a salary is still novel, like a young person who still isn’t ready to plan ahead, the bald fact being that I was in the same place as my younger friends and colleagues: financially insecure, professionally inexperienced, unprepared for many decisions that already should have been made.

And so I spent my thirties in relative oblivion, looking and acting young, but being old, proclaiming my unfettered lifestyle as a sign of the times—the thirties were the new twenties.

Then I turned forty. There was no abrupt shift or single epiphany that can explain the change in perspective that began. Rather, a series of incidents that has no end began and continues to serve as my reminder that things are indisputably different now:

There was the time a fellow graduate from my writing program sent out a request for submissions to a new ezine she’d created, a travel writing journal for “twenty and thirty somethings.” At the time, I felt the sting of discrimination, that four in front of the zero squeezing me out of a publication for which I could contribute (except I hadn’t traveled anywhere of note since I was, well, in my twenties). That small act put me, unwillingly, back where I belonged.

Also, I had acquired instant family drama. I fell in love with a warm and wonderful man who came with two small children and an estranged and bitter wife. I was thrown into a form of parenthood and its companion responsibility at the onset of war as my future husband’s wife plotted to move out of town with the children and resettle with a father replacement she’d selected to raise them. Nothing says, “Hey, welcome to your forties!” like parenthood, custody disputes, and compromise. I spent year forty completely pissed off.

Then there was the inevitable truth—I was at least ten years closer to retirement than any of my younger friends. I actually began to think about retirement, its remote possibility symbolic of a successful journey through the decades. The end of that journey wasn’t just an idea anymore—I was looking directly at it, its faint outlines winking at me from the edge of the horizon. If decades can pass as quickly as my last ten years had, I’d be there shortly. Leave a light on.

As I write this, I run my hand across my chin and favor the long whisker I discovered earlier tonight and forgot to pluck.   I find another chip in my brittle teeth and wonder if should see a new dentist. I think about after-school activities and aging parents and resale values in the neighborhood. I’ve finally caught up with myself. The tasks ahead remind me that there is no turning back the clock.

But recognizing the present, I believe, is a better way to stay young than surrounding myself with younger people. This is something I know now that I didn’t know then. I know a lot of things now that I didn’t know then, which is—I believe—what the forties are made of. New thirties, my ass. Who needs them?

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