At the end of this month, I turn the much-fussed-about 40. As a child of 1980, I get the bonus of beginning each new decade with what Hallmark labels a “milestone birthday.” This means I not only get to ponder on the closure of a decade, but I also get to ruminate on that number that is loaded with a negative connotation. While I don’t see as many black “Over the Hill” mylar balloons today as I did when previous generations hit this age, I still hear many of my peers lament the approaching birthday with angst. I’ve had older relatives warn me that I will almost immediately notice my body deteriorating; I’ve had friends honestly state their belief that “It’s all downhill from here.” These well-meaning mentor figures talk as if turning 40 is like flipping a switch, riding a pendulum swing from youth to old age overnight. As my day of crossing over into the Underworld rapidly approaches, I’m thinking a lot about where these pessimistic notions come from and why we are so quick to embrace them.
Even as our kids enjoy the innocent simplicity of childhood, adults are already teaching them that aging is undesirable. I think about how often I’ve told one of my boys to “stop growing so fast” or that I want to “freeze time” and make them “stay little.” While these are natural parental comments uttered with affection, they are still inadvertently imparting a negative subtext that to grow older is an unwanted reality. Furthermore, our children listen as we hesitate to confess our age in mixed company and make self-conscious statements about how much younger “those other parents” are. As they get older and gain even more social awareness, they notice us coloring our gray hair and buying wrinkle cream, further perpetuating the maxim that age is a worthy opponent to battle.
While I have certainly been guilty of falling into these common socially-imposed outlooks on aging in the past, I’ve found myself feeling surprisingly different as my days of “39” dwindle. At the end of December 2019, I welcomed the approaching new year by completing a year of breast cancer treatment. After going through such a personal awakening to my own mortality, I have a completely different vantage point on aging. When I see an elderly woman pushing a walker through the streets of my neighborhood on her daily jaunt for exercise and fresh air, I make a vow to one day see those same wrinkles on my face and feel those same aches in my knees. And honestly, when I look at my sweet little boys every day, my singular silent prayer is that I will be able to know the men they will become. While this unwanted journey through cancer has certainly made me more apt to live in the present, it has also made me even hungrier for the future. All I want to is age and savor the passage of time. I would like to think that I could have come to this more forward-looking outlook on aging without this experience, but nevertheless, I do view it as one of the most valuable silver linings to emerge from the storm cloud.
Since 39 was not my best year, I am actually incredibly excited about the number 40. Five years ago, I celebrated “35” by snow skiing down a mountain for the first time. It was terrifying but exhilarating, and ever since then, I have tried to celebrate my birthday by learning something new. Another year, I celebrated by trying out indoor rock-climbing for the first time and this year, I had the opportunity to give kiteboarding a try on a January vacation. While it may not always be extreme sports, I hope to continue the practice of celebrating my “bigger number” by challenging my mind and body with new experiences. I hope to model for my boys that “another year older” equals excitement and opportunity, not a cause for oppressive levels of nostalgia or despair. To celebrate a birthday is to celebrate a year of living fully that has passed and one full of unknown surprises that lie ahead. Let’s all light our cakes on fire!