This weekend a friend of mine turned 40 (many happy returns of the day, Miker!). At his party I was talking to RheostaticsFan about the fact that many in our circle of friends will hit the big 4-0 this year. It seems so surreal; I can’t believe four decades have gone by in my life. I always thought there’d be more when I got here.
It’s not just that I thought I’d have done more, although there is that. I still feel like I’m floundering about, trying to make my mark on the world. I like being a stay-at-home mom, but someday I’ll have to be more than that, and heaven knows I don’t know what “more than that” is. Every time I hear about some 25-year-old getting their first novel published, or some 30-year-old starting up a major philanthropic organization, or some 35-year-old working on his third major internet invention that will make him a multi-multi-multi-millionaire — I cringe. Have I been wasting myself? Why don’t I have more to show for my 40 years?
And it’s not just that I thought I’d have mastered more skills, although it is that too. I thought I’d be able to make a great pie by now (working on it). I thought I’d know how to grow a garden, get the best deal on a new car, decorate my house like an adult, dress myself like a professional instead of a university student. I thought I’d know how to how to break up with a friend leaving no hard feelings, how to comfort someone who has lost a loved one, how to make small talk with strangers at a wedding without babbling like an idiot.
I thought I’d be more skilled. More well-rounded. More accomplished.
But more than anything, what makes me shocked to be be 40 is that I don’t approach life with the confidence that I thought would come with adulthood, especially 40-year-old adulthood. I’m not always sure of what I want or need, and how to get it. I can’t always figure out which choice is the best one. I’m not often sure that I’m doing the right thing.
When I think back to my childhood, my parents and grandparents seemed to know it all. Their few moments of weakness were terrifying — I needed them to be strong, tough, in control. Looking back now, I’m sure they felt just as lost and confused as I do now, like they were figuring it all out as they went along. But I grew up thinking that they had some sort of secret handbook of life, that they knew all the answers, and that by the time I was old (i.e. 40), I’d be in on the secret club, too.
My kids probably think of me that way, and surely it’s my job to shepherd them through this life. To fight for them, to be powerful for them, to know all, do all, be all. I can hardly believe anyone could think of me that way, however. Me, as a tower of strength? Me, who isn’t sure if these beige socks really go with the khaki pants I’m wearing? Me, who still nods when a waiter asks me if “everything is okay,” even when my food is burned and he forgot to bring the bread?
I think I actually was a lot more self-confident in my early 20s than I am now, approaching 40. Back then, I’d get up in the morning and have a plan. I’d attack my to-do list with vigour, sure I could figure out how to do everything on it to my satisfation. I’d know the answers to my university tests, or at the very least, I’d have a good idea of whether I’d pass or fail. My first full-time job paid me enough that I got a place of my own, strutted down the street in my new fancy work clothes — oh man, I felt like hot stuff then. I didn’t always know where life was headed, but I knew it was going to be awesome. I was going to do stuff. I was going to be someone. I was going to know it all.
Not that I’m unhappy, or particularly fretful about the future or anything. Life is good. I just keep waiting for the day when I’ll wake up and feel like an actual adult. The magic day when I’ll feel like, oh yes, this is how we do this thing called life. This is how we run the show. This is how we deal with it all.
Maybe on my 40th birthday, it’ll all become clear. Not too long to wait now.