I’ve written a few new year blog posts over the years, in different styles.
As the year ticked over from 2014 to 2015 I remember thinking that my 2015 should be about authenticity. I should try to do things my way. I’ve come a long way as me so I must be doing something right. I didn’t blog much but I’ve tried to keep it in mind.
This post is different, I’ve written this over the last month, with my birthday in my sights. This year is the year I turn 40.
In just a few days I tip definitively into what I used to think of as “middle-aged”.
This post is both an indulgence and an invitation. I will share my conclusions so far, and perhaps you will tell me your most challenging lessons learnt. I’m writing this for people I know well and for people I’d like to know better. I’ve enjoyed reading other women’s confessional pieces and I hope you enjoy reading this. Comments are welcome, but don’t feel obligated.
There are some very personal confessions in here, so I don’t mind if, having read this far, you’d rather not read any further.
By way of introduction I should tell you that I spent many years thinking that anything popular was beneath me. I revelled in liking obscure music and books. People with 2.4 children and a white picket fence were living inauthentic, lazy lives. I expected a lonely but unique lifepath.
This was my favourite poem:
“Moonsoaked, she emitted a cold radiance, which made all who loved her turn away. As well they might. For hers was the single silver track, upmountain to the moon”.
Poetic. Serious. Pretentious.
I was a pretty serious teenager. I was very into politics, and fundamentally I am still very political, with a small p and a big P. I was alert to false consciousness and mindless consumerism. I was suspicious of being pacified by the trappings of life, of being sedated into normality. I still did drinking and dancing and boys, and I did have fun, both cerebral and less so. I went off to university to do philosophy and literature, and life started to fill up with people and responsibilities, and I graduated from teenager to adult.
The Downs and Ups
I never expected marriage, kids, a detached house on a newish estate paid for by a fairly secure professional job. And yet here I am. And I like it. And believe me, I know how lucky I am, on every measure.
My rock is my husband Tim. An amazing man that I met through work when I was 25. He ticks all the boxes on my shopping list, and more. He does more than half the house chores, he’s good at DIY, cooking and enabling me to buy stuff. We talk about everything and anything. He makes me happy and supported and solid. I’m lucky, but also I take some credit, because I chose well.
The biggest surprise of my life has been motherhood. I am that lucky woman who has had two straightforward pregnancies, and I loved the feeling of that life growing inside me. The first labour was 3 hours 45 minutes, gas & air, pethidine, healthy mum and baby. The second was 2 hours, gas & air, again fine. I took to breastfeeding after the steep learning curve. I loved both my baby boys. My body surged with oxytocin. I was exhausted and had my share of days when I climbed into bed feeling incompetent. I hallucinated out of tiredness, I feared falling down stairs with babe in arms. But I had a feeling of contentment and purpose. My mum and sister commented they’d never seen me so chilled out.
Something you might not know about me is that from the age of 13 I have had several bouts of depression/anxiety. Everyone has reasons to feel bad, whether a legacy from childhood or cirumstance of adult life or the cocktail of chemicals and hormones that nature injects us with to keep life varied. I have, in many respects, a charmed life. So I can only explain my low episodes as a legacy of a slightly troubled childhood, perhaps compounded by a genetic predisposition towards depression inherited from my bipolar father, now estranged. At several points I have sought help through counselling, self-help and an anxiety support group.
In my mid thirties, I hit a low. This time, with a husband and two kids, the stakes were higher. Looking back, it was when the oxytocin dropped, a few months after finishing breastfeeding my 10 month old, that I hit a wall. I was back at work, teeming with anxiety and guilt, concentrating on trying to be competent at work and home, and frequently failing. Things were challenging at work and my identity felt vulnerable. I lashed out at family a few times. I was full of anger and difficult to live with.
In desperation to find some kind of stability I started taking citalopram and that helped a lot. I started a new job and after 8 months of the meds I stopped them. I honestly think that the trigger for my episode was the drop in oxytocin, but citalopram helped me past it. I wish I’d taken them months earlier.
Which is all an unnecessary overshare. I think I’m saying this to illustrate that I am not a shiny happy person, or a stepford wife, or a smug married yummy mummy. My flaws include: lazy, disorganised, forgetful, easily distracted, overcritical and judgemental. And against any rationality, I often read my horoscopes. I’m as flawed as the next person.
Perhaps I’m saying all this in a big double bluff of self-deprecation to make you like me. I hear that hitting 40 means that I will stop caring so much what you all think. I look forward to that.
Good Things (I Made A List)
Here comes a list of some things I love, dated New Year 2015/6. Some of these things I’ve discovered I like even though lots of other people like them too. I feel that embracing the common things in life feels positively correlated to being happier. The me of my late teens to early twenties was, to be frank, quite hard work to like. I like myself more now, and I think I’m easier to like. Though still not everyone’s cup of tea. And that’s fine.
Things I love, and how long I’ve enjoyed them:
Being a mum (8 years)
Playing the piano (30+ years)
Disco music (3 years)
Running (2 years)
Losing myself in a good book (30+ years)
Making lists (30+ years)
Good food (20 years)
Feeling like i’m making solid progress at work (15 years)
Being part of a network of professional peers (15 years)
Singing in a community choir (2 years)
There are many things I’d like to do more of: enjoying my kids as they discover what they love, being outdoors, being physically active, making things, seeing friends, laughing. I will try to find time for them too.
I admit it, I have googled around for advice on turning 40. Some of it seems unobtainable, at least to me. I can’t imagine myself fasting or giving up caffeine. I don’t think anyone would thank me for it. Some of the advice seems obvious. Be kinder to yourself. Prioritise what matters. Don’t sweat the small stuff. But knowing something to be true and really living with that thing in mind are qualitatively different. The best advice I’ve read so far is “how to be a moderately successful person like me” which basically advises not pretending, and failing, to be a superhero.
With that “like, duh!” in mind, here are my lessons learnt so far.
1 ) Own your own thoughts. I know as much about life as I could know, for someone who’s had my life. I’m as entitled to my opinions as anyone else. I am as flawed and irrational as anyone else. Some things that I think are things that other people disagree with, especially about politics and religion. I have been pretty consistent in my worldview since I began having opinions. I have a lot of them. They are valid as opinions. I don’t claim them to be facts. No-one’s opinions are facts, and I will not be “mansplained” by people claiming greater authority. Nor am I a relativist, or a wishy washy liberal who thinks anything goes. I like to discuss things, because I think things matter and are worth discussing. In other words, I am as entitled to my worldview as any other adult. Sit at the table, “lean in”, and join the discussion.
2) Don’t worry about what people are thinking about you because they’re probably not thinking about you anyway. I know this is true but I suspect I could live this more deeply. Because I know that everyone is secretly thinking about my stubby thumbs. Admit it.
3) Be thankful for the moments of rootedness, to family, to nature. Feeling like you belong isn’t inevitable so cherish it when it happens. I’ve known that sort of loneliness where you’re hanging in space wondering if anyone other my mum would notice if I disappeared. And the loneliness of knowing that only I will ever look out of these eyes and see what I see. Becoming a mum myself gave me a grasp of what it is to be needed, and more than anything that gives me roots. I like to imagine I’d feel that sense of rootedness if I’d been me in some other era, some other country.
4) Contentment is the aim. Joy is a bonus. Happiness is more like a warm, soft comfortable thing than like a sharp bright thing. The swell in your chest is the reward for living with your eyes and ears open to the good stuff. Big highs tend to be followed by lows. Mild highs are more sustainable.
5) I don’t have much to say about how I look and that’s probably as it should be. I’ve always been short and round, blonde with big boobs and wide bum and round tummy. If I exercise, it’s to feel better. Weight loss is a bonus. I just want to be happy in my skin, to be grateful for my moving arms and legs, my functioning lungs and heart, my operational senses. I wish I didn’t fret about my hairy chin and wobbly bits. I want to adorn my imperfect body in shimmery gold dress as a thank you for carrying me through life and nurturing two babies, and I want to take my body dancing.
6 ) Make time for the things that you can lose yourself in. For me, that’s books, piano playing, running. Single-tasking. Absorption. Flow. There are some pieces I’ve played on the piano since my early teens, and each time I play them connects me to every other time. There is something in rhythm and repetition in running and piano playing. Novels are about becoming other people.
7) If you’re feeling restless and fidgety, it might not be your mind that needs fixing. You might need to move your body. Believe me, this has been a revelation to me over the past five years or so. I always thought that restlessness required more thinking, analysis and planning. It never really occurred to me that thinking-it-through was the opposite of what I needed to do. Overthinking gives too much attention to thoughts and feelings that should be allowed to float past.
8) Finally, a lesson about who’s in charge. My life is better and bigger and happier than I’d dared to expect. My inner voice used to tell me that some things weren’t for people like me. It was sharp and bitter. “Contentment is the white picket fence that keeps you trapped in mediocrity”. “You’ll always be lonely: sociability is for people less intelligent than you”. “Your integrity will carve a difficult path for you”. Remember my favourite poem as a teenager? A lonely single silver track. I haven’t compromised anything, my integrity remains intact, I haven’t denied myself anything in the process of constructing my wonderful life. My inner voice was just wrong. I see it now as it is: a black-clothed teenager trying to define herself in opposition to the world. How easily I might have been in thrall to it and missed out on all of this. I apologise now to anyone that teenager sneered at or hit out at. I thank anyone who saw past her and decided to give me a chance anyway. You tolerated a lot of nonsense from her (me) in my teens and twenties. I think she was scared of you really. She’s still in here but she’s not in charge.
Perhaps my next lesson, waiting in the wings of my 40s, is how to appreciate my life, to be mindful and thankful, without denying the reality of so many others. So many others are in bad health, in poverty, in grief and loneliness. How to reconcile the inner and outer worlds mentally so that I can be thankful for everything good without ignoring the bad. To live well with my eyes open. I invite you, with your happiness, integrity and wisdom, to tell me how!
Happy New Year