Stuff That Comes With Age

My age is showing. Sure, there are physical signs. I have more gray hair, fine lines, and a growing midsection. But all that can be changed with dye, a better moisturizer, and some Pilates. That is, if I care to change any of it. I’ve always thought a woman with some age on her was sexy. Also, my hair and skin are more fabulous than ever.

What concerns me is something I foolishly thought I’d escape: the what-ifs that come with turning forty.

The other day I was listening to a podcast about “Things That Make Sense When You’re Older.” And I listened with the ear of a woman of some years—not many, but some.

The show told stories of teens, young adults, and someone middle-aged. I nodded in the sanctimonious way that someone approaching forty does when listening to younguns.

When it came to the story from the perspective of the middle-aged, the storyteller was in her thirties. “Bullshit!” I exclaimed. Thirty is not old. She then introduced Ira Glass to discuss his life. I felt better. At fifty-seven, Glass is acceptably middle-aged.

I listened. I wanted to absorb the wisdom of someone who had the perspective that age bestows. He went on to say that he’d worked tirelessly throughout his twenties and thirties and now that he was in his fifties, he was going to try out the “friend thing.” Sure he’d had friends before, but now he was actually setting aside time to see them.

Glass is an accomplished writer and producer, and there was something in that discussion that jolted me like a live wire: his stamina. He had an immense body of work to stand on. As I listened, I felt the absence of what lies beneath my feet.

I officially left the workforce when I got pregnant with my second child. I am a dropout. It’s a common story for women in America.

That’s not to say I didn’t find things to do with my time. Between nursing a baby, potty training a toddler, volunteering at a preschool, and cooking dinner, I started a company during the momtrepreneur boom of the late 2000s. When that ended I became a marginally successful blogger writing for large family brands like Disney, PBS, etc. I branched out into video. I became a writer, producer, and host of a web series for PBS. I accomplished all of this while raising two kids.

But I feel like all of it has faded away.

I listened to Glass and the storyteller talk. The storyteller mentioned that she questions how much time she should spend working, and Glass said, “Well, it’s different for you. You have kids.” 

Yeah. Kids.

When I was younger, I thought I would create a large body of work. That I would be more successful. But it hasn’t turned out that way, and now I worry that it never will. And I worry that I’ll never be okay with that.

These days I feel like I don’t spend enough time producing “real work.” By “real work,” I mean the kind that pays.

My kids are at school and I am free, yet I find myself endlessly tangled in parenting responsibilities that never allow me to concentrate fully on one task. There’s an e-mail to the school’s principal, a conference with my son’s teacher, scheduling a tutor, making sure everyone eats well and takes their vitamins. Sure, I could leave a ten- and thirteen-year-old to their own devices, but I suspect there’s a reason the latchkey generation of the 1980s led to the rise of helicopter parenting: no one likes to be left alone. We’re social animals.

Some months back, in an attempt to stay relevant, I went to a meetup for female creative freelancers. I noted the ages of everyone around me. Everyone was younger. While it showed in their faces, it was clearer in their energy and optimism.

Youth has you believe if you just work hard enough, you can have it all. Age teaches you that no matter how hard you work, you can’t.

The conversation turned to kids—how to juggle having them with having a career. I looked at these young women with the same look older women had given me when I was their age. It felt wrong, but I couldn’t help it. Youth has you believe if you just work hard enough, you can have it all. Age teaches you that no matter how hard you work, you can’t.

Most days, I fear my mind has unraveled, and I don’t know if I can wind it back. I fear that what I’ll leave behind me is an unspooled trail of what could have been, but never was.

These feelings are not unique to me. No generation has solved the problem of juggling career and family. If they had, women would be paid equal salaries, there would be some form of payment/support/break for parents who stay home to raise their children, and I wouldn’t be writing this now.

I know my kids will ask themselves the same questions if they choose to have children of their own one day. I want them to know it’s natural if they find themselves, at some point, looking back on their career choices and wondering if they were the right ones.

I’ve read studies that say forty-six is the age—regardless of race, religion, or culture—at which you reach peak unhappiness. After that, you question less. I’m not there yet. I’m definitely not unhappy. My life is pretty amazing. But I am contemplative. Some days I feel I’ve made peace with my decisions, other days I don’t. I wonder how much of my feelings are wrapped up in society and how much is coming from within. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s all one and the same.

I can say that at this stage of my life I finally understand and accept that there are no easy answers. And for now, that will have to satisfy me.