Standing on the precipice, 39 in a few days time. Next stop. 40. Life seems to be passing quickly, like the tube trains hurtling by my window. It barely seems moments since I left home at 18, yet now I’m surging head long towards mid life.
Suddenly, I feel aware of it. What was once blurred and in the distance is now in sharp relief on the horizon.
Silver strands of hair gleam like morning frost in a thatch of honey brown; clues that that the autumn of life is approaching. Wearied from having children in my later years I am not as vigilant as I once was in disguising the evident signs of age. My colouring is changing too, my skin a lighter shade of pale than it once was. Slowly, in the tiniest increments, I am changing, day by day. Creeping towards invisibility.
My face, with skin once plump and smooth, now shows lines and creases that cannot be blamed on pillows. Collagen infused face creams go some way to fill the gap, yet there is a limit to their problem solving abilities. The dark circles underneath my eyes show the strain of four and a half years of broken sleep. I look at my reflection in the mirror and I find it hard to accept the attrition I see before me. Mirrors have become a catalyst, drilling deeper than the surface of my skin. Frequently these days I find myself in a spiral of self doubt. Where is the young, vibrant woman I once was? Who am I now?
In the past five years, life has changed completely. Two small people are now dependent on me for their happiness and well being. Lie in’s are a distant memory, I can’t remember the last time I was up all night was to party; these days it’s merely to return my night visitors to their own beds.
Weekends are spent attending 5 year old birthday parties by day and 40th parties by night. In some ways, they are not dissimilar. The common thread, I’ve noticed, that girls like to get very dressed up. Princesses are not so different, at 5 or at 40. Most forty year old women with young children don’t get out much, a party, with canapes and champagne (paid for by someone else) is an excuse to don sparkles and heels, forget the mummy jeans with the elasticated waistband and to feel like the belle of the ball for an evening.
At a few of the parties I have been to, there have been speeches; a few poignant words, reflecting on life’s journey to date. Forty seems to be a time when people hold a mirror up to their life, reflect, evaluate. Measure milestones, achievements, career success, worth and wealth.
For every celebratory smile that is genuine, there are others that mask sadness or disappointment. I look around and I see; single friends who never dreamt they would be on their own, friends whose marriages are struggling under the strain of money worries, stressful jobs, ill children, or just coping with the roller coaster journey that is life with small children. Friends struggling to conceive post 40; battling with the barren winter of infertility in later life, undergoing multiple rounds of IVF and the tsunami of emotions that come with it. Worst of all, the injustice of incurable disease; the hovering black cloud of impending loss. I am struck by the randomness of it all; that life is like the rolling of a die.
There’s no denying it. Sometime between 35 and 40, I became a proper grown up. Knuckled down to the serious business of life. Became responsible. Two young people to look after, bills to pay, a roof to (renovate), a mortgage, a marriage, all of which need care and consideration, the investment of time and energy. I am now a world away from the halcyon days of eighteen. And sometimes I find, being a grown up is harder than it looks.
My friends and I slide along the timeline of life together, some of us faring better than others. Facebook photos tell only half a story, the real picture is painted over wine (or tea and cake). Sharing other people’s pain isn’t easy. Sometimes I wish I could step into a time machine for just a day or two, take them with me, that we could suspend reality and return to the carefree days of our twenties.
‘Forty is not old’, I tell myself, not even ‘middle aged’ in this world of ever increasing nonagenarians. I still feel ‘young’. My hopes, my dreams are as alive as they ever were. I’m like a clock; still keeping perfect time on the inside, but with a few scuff marks and the patina of wear on it’s outer. And occasionally, the responsibility of keeping everything and everyone ticking over does feel like a weighty pendulum.
The most recent fortieth birthday celebrations took us to a central London venue. With a ringmaster, circus acts, cocktails, in a bijou cabaret setting. I dragged some vintage sequins from the wardrobe, some heels, rescued my only lipstick from the bottom of my bag, forced myself to make the effort. The place was full of beautiful, young people. At midnight, plates were cleared and the huge communal table at the front of the restaurant became an elevated dance floor. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have to be cajoled up onto the table top, yet the wine helped me find my rhythm. I was tipping towards the upper end of the age scale, but I think I pulled it off. And I had a great time. Felt fantastic. Dancing with friends I’ve known for years, people to treasure, who’ve been there through thick and thin and hopefully always will be.
We talked about it for the next week (or two); what fun we’d had. How good it was to forget the pressures of the day to day and live only in the moment - for that evening. We concluded we all felt better for it.
Life might feel serious sometimes, but a little light relief can go a long way. The best medicine for cold feet is dancing - especially if it’s on a table.