So I turned 40 this month. I know!! And it feels like a significant milestone. If I’m very lucky, this is the middle of my life. Yes, it’s just another year in some ways, but I do feel it’s a moment in my life that sparks reflection.
I know that many of you are here or hereabouts too (yes 80s babies, or “geriatric millennials”) and so I recently asked you on Instagram what being 40 means to you.
This blog post is about some of the themes you described, and our shared reflections. See if they resonate for you.
1. Feeling like you should be sorted by now
When I was younger, I had a sense that being 40 was very “grown up” and 40 year olds knew “what they were doing”. My mum was turning 40 as I started my A Levels for goodness sake! My own children are barely in school. But looking back now, I’m pretty sure she didn’t feel like she had it “all together”.
Society seems to give the impression that by the time we’re 40 we should have most of our ducks in a row (or at least in the same pond). Decided on the path we want our life to take. Taking sensible steps in that direction. Career, family, friends, identity, mental health… all “sorted”. Maybe when we look around it seems everyone else has.
Yet 100% (!!) of you who responded to my poll felt that this isn’t the case for you, so we are not alone! Maybe it’s that you just don’t know what you want. Maybe what you hope for changes all the time. Maybe you haven’t had chance to achieve what you wanted yet, or maybe things didn’t go to plan. Maybe there are just too many pressures for our age group nowadays. And to be honest, what would it even mean to have life “figured out”? Is it even possible?
What would it even mean to have life “figured out”? Is it even possible?
If there’s one thing I know by now it’s that you can have all the plans you like but they often bare no resemblance to how things actually pan out.
Parenting in particular brings us face to face with unpredictability, the unexpected, the uncontrollable. Our path following a different route to other people’s. These are things I have had to adjust to myself, on my journey towards parenthood as well as afterwards. I help other parents to navigate this rollercoaster too, with a sense of flexibility, acceptance, and self-compassion, rather than self-blame, comparison and anxiety. And it’s an ongoing process for all of us.
Maybe turning 40 is about realising that parenting - and life - isn’t a series of checkboxes. It’s about creating our own compass direction by focusing on what really matters to us and to our family, and just plodding on in that general direction as best we can. Filtering out the noise and embracing the ride.
2. Everything hurts
My hip and my knee hurt. I get a bad neck if I change pillows. Sometimes I just creak for no reason. Right?! From my poll on social media, it seems like 82% of you have aches and pains too.
Other blogs might say things like “Each ache carries a story, consider them badges of honour”. I say absolutely not to that. Wrinkles on my face? Yes, they’re the consequence of having an expressive face - I’m happy with that. (Quite possibly my choice of career has played a role too - especially in the last few years I have had to work harder with my face to convey empathy via Zoom!) But pain that stops me doing things that I enjoy and that boosts my mental health (long walks in the mountains; kneeling on the floor with my kids)… no thank you.
Of course, it makes me grateful for my health, and more mindful of how my health is the foundation of everything. It gives me a small insight into the experience of those around me who struggle with severe pain or disability. It makes me more aware of how important it is to take action to stay healthy for the future and that I can’t take anything for granted. These are Good Things.
There is a sense of grief for the past, as well as hope for the future.
But it also brings me - 82% of us - face to face with our mortality to some extent, and that can be tough. Facing this is almost too complex to describe in a blog post, but there is a sense of grief for the past, as well as hope for the future. I’m trying to navigate these feelings with curiosity. But I’m still not happy about my knee.
3. The Myth of Self-Care
For me, there’s something about turning 40 that feels like klaxon signaling a new era. To be really reductionist, I suppose my twenties were about fun, friends and study, my thirties were about babies, relationships and career, and so my forties are about… well, what?
As we hit our 40s, a focus on our own well-being might grow stronger. Maybe we've spent years focusing on raising children and meeting career demands, leaving little room for ourselves, so now seems a good time to change it up. If our physical or mental health is starting to crack, maybe we need to pay more attention.
The societal notion that now is the time to focus on "you" might sound appealing, but let's be real – it might actually be even more impossible now. In my poll, 62% of you felt this was the case. Turning 40 often means being sandwiched between generations – the responsibilities of caregiving for our parents whilst nurturing our children can feel overwhelming.
Turning 40 often means being sandwiched between generations.
Social media is always telling us that we must do “self-care”. We do deserve to meet our own needs, and we do need to look after ourselves. But it can become just another juggling ball we feel like we’re dropping. We need to somehow find the elusive balance of fitting that in without it being another thing to fail at.
For me, having “self-care” as another task on the to-do list tells me I’m still stuck in “doing” mode. When instead we are in “being” mode, and truly finding a way to soothe ourselves, we can feel quite different. Adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) drop, oxytocin and seratonin (soothing hormones) can rise.
One common misconception is that “being” mode means not “doing” anything.
So how can we do it? How can we “be”? One common misconception is that “being” mode means not “doing” anything. Not true. You could “do” lots of things - it’s about the feeling behind it. Do you feel soothed and in a state of flow (being)? Or do you feel like you must complete something (doing)? It’s about going back to basics and really figuring out what recharges YOU. Not necessarily what others think is self-care. Not what you’re “supposed to do”, but what really soothes YOU.
So what makes you feel like you? Where is the person who used to draw, sing, run, create, travel, dance? Things are different now, but can you bring a flavour of this back, weave in a small manageable nugget of it? Most importantly, how can you give yourself permission to “be” this part of you?
One thing that always recharges me (aside from organising my kids clothes - don’t judge my weirdness!) is my friends. And while our 30s has thrown all kinds of curve-balls at us, we all prioritise efforts to keep our friendships going. In my poll, 83% of you hoped your 40s would be less of a rollercoaster than your 30s and, although it’s been exciting, I hope for that too… I hope that this decade will be a time where we all have more mental and physical space to connect with each other, and with ourselves.
So, here's to 40 in 2023.
I’m terribly glad to have this opportunity to hobble headlong into another chapter of my life. I’m here to embrace the unpredictable, navigate some balance, sort out my knee, organise some clothes, and see where else it takes me - and you.
If you'd like to join me and other parents navigating tricky balance, learning how to be more self-compassionate, and find our identity as parents as well as people, check out The Guilty Parent Club.
Or if you'd like to work with me 1:1, you can book a free 15 minute consultation here.