Younger me claimed that she couldn’t wait to reach 40, the age “old enough” for my life lessons to be heeded.
Now? Anticipatory triumph blends with a subconscious dread of mortality and completely conscious fears of the inevitable decline. Everything is as it should be, I suppose.
Over the years, I’ve grown in ways I never thought were possible – personally, professionally, and spiritually. I’ve experienced failures and successes and I’ve learned valuable lessons from each.
Now, I’d like to share with the rest of the class.
And according to the arbitrary age metric of younger me, you have to listen.
I’m 40. I’m your elder now.
I’ve divided the following opus (hey, I’ve learned a lot) into six sections: Life As A Woman, Societal Musings, Parenting Hacks, The View From the Crest, and Random Hot Takes.
Life As A Woman
Living in a patriarchal society for 40 years comes with its own life lessons.
Some arrive just from living as a woman, some from existing in the patriarchy with my personality (unapologetically direct, often forceful; too smart for my own good).
The last section, while laced with my own particulars, is depressingly common. That’s a lesson in and of itself.
The Warmth Factor
Because I am a woman, I am expected to be warm. At all times and at all costs.
In all interactions, I am to lead with warmth. As a woman, I am the hostess, after all! Even in objective discussions.
But, alas, it is offensive for women to live in the objective. I’m expected to offer an empathetic “I hear you, what a worthy perspective, etc.,” when I’d much rather launch into my counterpoints, detailed in such a way to be obvious that the speaker was heard.
(Are men expected to make sure all participants are comfortable in a discussion about tax code or pop culture implications in the same way that women are expected to? No. No, they are not.)
Not performing this expected warmth is often considered rude.
They Say Rude When They Mean Neutral or Direct
I’m not sure if this comes from misogyny or Guess Culture (most likely a mix of both), but I’m often accused of rudeness when I’m being non-reactive, objective, or direct.
I push back on the assumption that a lack of warmth and direct communication is the same as rudeness. I recommend that you do the same.
It goes like this:
“Am I calling you names?” (No.) “Am I hurling insults?” (No.) “Am I raising my voice?” (No, but now they see where this is going and the idea of “tone” invariably enters the chat. This is my favorite part.)
“Ah, yes, my tone. Such a vague, yet damning, complaint. Ok. Would you describe my tone of voice as ‘acidic?'” (No.) “Am I sneering?” (No.) “Are my eyebrows furrowed?” (No.) “Are my eyes narrowed?” (No- they’re getting uncomfortable now.)
“Has the volume or pitch of my voice changed?” (No.) “Am I elongating certain words or syllables?” (They are no longer answering.) “Has my bodily stance changed?” (Now I’m just having fun.) “Did I invade your personal space?”
See, I’m not really being “rude.” I’m not yelling or insulting or threatening or glowering.
That’s being rude.
When all the examples of rudeness that I’m not participating in are pointed out, the accuser just can’t seem to put their finger on exactly how I’m “being rude.”
That’s fine, because I can: I need to get off my high horse.
As that’s the real problem, isn’t it? Who do I think I am, disregarding societal and personal expectations of warmth and accommodation?
Who am I, to refuse to comply with hidden biases? And then, to point them out?
How dare I remain neutral and objective in the face of emotional reactions?
That’s awfully arrogant of me. (I’ll speak about my own accomplishments and strengths, too, with no “I don’t mean to brag” prelude.)
If I had a dollar for every time it was said or inferred that I was “too big for my britches,” “on a high horse,” or a “know-it-all” in my forty years, I’d be wealthy.
(Isn’t it interesting that there are so many colloquialisms to describe the same, and apparently ultimately offensive, thing?)
It’s a cheap shot. And a gendered one, at that.
When a man responds neutrally/objectively, he’s praised for his lack of emotion. He’s called reasonable and unflappable. He’s performing well under pressure.
When a man speaks in a forceful tone, he’s a straight talker.
When a man talks about what he does well, people nod.
That same behavior is insulting, unnatural, and insensitive coming from a woman.
The Secret Is Not Caring
But here’s the good news! You can refuse to care. It’s incredibly freeing.
When an individual lays down accusations of rudeness and “wrong tone” despite no instances of actual rudeness, just let them.
Watch them throw the accusation down, and look at it dispassionately. Without picking it up.
The way I refuse to pick it up is to ask the questions in the previous section or tackle the issue of tone head-on:
“Making people comfortable with my tone isn’t important to me.”
When this offends them:
“I didn’t say it wasn’t important, I said it wasn’t important to me. I don’t know what to tell you. If it would make you feel better for me to say that’s wrong, then I’ll say that. But it’s not going to change my neutral tone.”
Accusations of arrogance should also be handled directly:
“Yes, I think very highly of myself. However, I’m not asking you to participate in my self-image, and your opinion of me isn’t my business. I’m not sure why my high self-regard seems to upset you.”
Fundamental Attribution Error Is Real
Read this article and you’ll see what I mean.
Household Labor Inequality Is A Problem
Studies say so, survey respondents say so, and tons of women on social media say so. Books have been written on the subject of household labor inequality. Entire Facebook pages are devoted to discussing it.
But household labor equity is possible. My marriage is a testament to that.
How much more could you get done, how much better would you feel, if parenting tasks, household labor, and the mental load that comes with them were more equally distributed?
Household labor equality isn’t a “feminist issue.” It’s a human rights issue.
We all deserve access to free time, hobbies, creative endeavors, and an interior life, regardless of whether we’re mothers or fathers, women or men.
An Unhinged Man Can Derail Your Life (Or Worse)
We’ve all heard about otherwise humdrum life activities that can be minefields for women: the lady attacked while jogging, or followed around Wal-Mart while shopping, or groped while riding public transportation.
I experienced what should should have been a humdrum breakup. Meaning that we were not married and had no children, bank accounts, businesses, or properties between us. There was no reason to involve the courts.
Oh, but there turned out to be a reason to involve them. Because an unhinged man lost his absolute mind when he no longer had access to me.
And I just won’t shut up about it. Because I am one of the (annoyingly articulate) lucky ones to come out the other side. Many, many others don’t.
You can’t hear it from them. So you’re gonna hear it from me.
When a violently mediocre man no longer had access to me, he began showing up at my place of employment. Driving around the parking lot or pacing my department with a grocery bag stuffed with (what I assume were) my recently deceased grandmother’s correspondence or idling at the end of a small drive, waiting for me.
Coworkers began walking me to and from my car, hanging around my department, writing and signing witness statements when they saw him. Months later, they watched when he was pulled over across the street.
Three weeks after obtaining a restraining order, when his mother (allegedly) called to (anonymously) complain about me, my supervisors commiserated rather than condemned.
Many, many others are fired. For missing too many hours. For crying on the sales floor. For the complaints, maybe even though employers know that the grumblings are vindictive. They’re just tired of dealing with the unhinged man (or his mother).
When a violently mediocre man no longer had access to me, he began following me in traffic. First, aggressively keeping abreast in the adjoining lane. The second time, getting out of his car to approach ours, waving a card (?) pulled from a grocery bag stuffed with (what I assume were) my recently deceased grandmother’s correspondence. In the final incident, following me to the literal police station (with a shortcut through the courthouse parking lot).
Due to the grace of God, a shift was ending. Law enforcement officers were walking to their cars. I got their attention. He burned rubber. They pursued.
Now important people were involved. My witness list included law enforcement officers. And they did not have good things to say about his behavior during the incident.
Many, many others are caught alone. Or not believed. There are no police officers to back up their testimony.
On the top floor of the courthouse, awaiting a restraining order hearing, an unhinged man strode angrily in the other hall, attempting to get in my eye line. Once we were in the courtroom, he glared so intensely that my lawyer advised me to turn my chair around.
The unhinged man’s first priority was not to appear rational and blameless in a legal setting. His first priority was to unsettle me.
Many, many others can’t afford a lawyer. Or are otherwise victims of a broken system. Or die before the court date. Or are denied a restraining order.
When a violently mediocre man had a legal injunction barring his access to me, he began parking outside my lawyer’s office and stalked my lawyer’s paralegal.
After refusals, fleeing, a cease and desist letter, and, finally, a restraining order: he felt so entitled to having access to me, that he stalked a legal professional trying to gain it. A woman that he did not know.
(This behavior is as stupid as it is psychotic. Hypothetically, legal professionals have considerable ties to the law and justice world. Those ties could come to one’s place of employment and tell unhinged men to leave legal professionals alone. But that is pure conjecture and absolutely did not and has not happened.)
Many, many others have no one to turn to when a strange man begins parking outside their workplace. It’s something they must “put up with.” They have no resources of protection to draw from.
When a violently mediocre man was released from prison years later, he said that I ruined his life.
I, who never showed up at his work, followed him in traffic, or stalked his associates, ruined his life? I’m not the reason he was incarcerated then. I’m not the reason he’s incarcerated now (as of writing).
What did I do? I denied him access to me, moved on with my life, and talked about what he did. That’s enough to send an unhinged man on a rampage.
A rampage that drained my resources (physical, mental, emotional, and financial) and wasted my time (what else could have I created, thought about, nurtured, etc., if I wasn’t looking constantly over my shoulder?).
Again, I number with the fortunate. No one wrecked whilst fleeing him. I was never caught alone. I had witnesses. I had an understanding employer. I had a support network, and a wonderful boyfriend (now husband). I had a good lawyer. In my case, the legal system worked properly.
I am a statistical rarity. But my story isn’t.
There are too many women who lose income, time, peace of mind, access to their children, job opportunities, quality of life, expectations of privacy, bodily autonomy, and their very lives due to the actions of the unhinged men denied access to them.
I’d much rather watch than participate in societal happenings, trends, and the like. This cultural voyeurism served as a stop-gap; enabling me to study the zeitgeist with a critical lens.
And nothing is a better tool for studying the zeitgeist than the internet. I’m like an anthropologist, digging through comment sections, charting hashtag trends, and studying behavior patterns.
These are my internet-observing-fueled societal musings, focusing on susceptibility, porous identities, tropes, criticism, and consumerism.
There’s damn near no universal human condition/perception. But there may be one: every individual thinks they’re better than, or immune to, the influence of their particular (depending on family situation, geographic location, time in history, pop culture, physical environment, etc., etc.) zeitgeist but they’re not.
And I am absolutely including myself in that group. Because it’s a pretty universal logical fallacy.
But we think we’re in a vacuum, acting on our own accords, prodded by original thoughts and motives.
We rarely are, though. For better and for worse, we’re (mostly) the products of our familial environment, historical period, geographic location, and cultural propaganda (advertising, trends, tropes, etc.).
No one wants to think of themselves as easily influenced (oh, but we are, we are, regardless of our petulance!).
The thing is, though? By not accepting this truth we become…even more easily influenced. By believing ourselves immune to cultural propaganda, we become more susceptible to it.
If we believe we’re immune to environmental factors, rugged individualists, if you will, then there is no need to learn propaganda’s tricks.
And without knowing propaganda’s tricks, we fall for them every time. We never even see them coming.
By embracing our basic gullibility, we open the door for caution.
Twentieth and early 21st century innovations involving advertising, media, and computer technology gives propaganda historically unprecedented speed and ferocity to spread and take root, both individually and societally.
So extreme caution is needed.
We (As A Society) Have An Identity Problem
While we’re busy denying our susceptibility to cultural propaganda, the media, business, and political sectors are busy taking advantage of it: by instituting more ways to encourage us to enfold their products, people, or ideals into our personal schemas.
And it’s working.
In my 18 years on social media, I’ve watched a phenomenon blossom: individuals having disproportionately emotional reactions to critiques of trends, celebrities, politicians, movies, or businesses.
They react as if they themselves are being discussed. As if there’s no remove.
I’ve spent hours reading comment sections and I’ve seen some things. People throwing down over brand loyalties, fandom wars, arguments about fabric color turning surprisingly vicious, and way, way more.
I’m using petty social media examples, but I think they’re indicative of an alarming condition.
In the early 21st century, nothing stands alone. We’re all wrapped up in everything, losing the ability to separate our actual selves from our views, identity politics, and various consumption habits.
We subsume these things into our identity.
Having a porous identity is dangerous. It’s harder to criticize what seems to be pieces of ourselves.
And nothing should be exempt from criticism.
Criticizing the Idea of the Thing Versus The Thing Itself
The ability to separate the trope, cultural shorthand, or associations from the thing itself is mental gymnastics modern society is losing its flexibility for.
A great example of this inflexibility is the typical reaction I get when criticizing nuclear families.
I choose my words very carefully, as I’m not trying to criticize actual families. Just the idea of “nuclear families.” (Note the quotations.)
I’m not criticizing the situation of a breadwinner contributing to household income. I exist in a nuclear family.
In my neck of the woods, “nuclear family” is cultural shorthand for “traditional values.” That’s what I take issue with.
I’m criticizing the idea that a “nuclear family” is “traditional” and therefore “good.”
Because nuclear families aren’t traditional. Not linguistically: the phrase wasn’t coined until the 1920s.
And not historically: for millennia, multiple generations (grandparents, parents, and children) contributed to household income/labor (as opposed to a sole “breadwinner”).
You know. The kind of household the Proverbs 31 woman lived in.
Interestingly, I’ve found that presenting these facts, objectively and respectfully, does not always calm the initial reaction of shock and offense. Instead, it commonly does the opposite.
The cultural propaganda that so strongly associates the concepts of “nuclear family,” “traditional,” and “good” have taken root.
I’m criticizing the idea of “nuclear families” so I must be also criticizing actual families and traditions and values and all that is good in the world and probably their entire way of life.
Put The Goggles On
You can’t see the water you’re swimming in, you know? Unless you’re wearing goggles.
In this example, the water is the automatic association between “nuclear families” and “traditional and therefore good values.”
(Remember, this is just one example. “nuclear families” could be literally anything else.)
The goggles are attempting to view the roots and historical underpinnings of this idea through a critical lens.
Associations like this can control our actions and views. From the mundane (what accounts we follow, our brand loyalties) to the really important (who we vote for, the laws that are drafted).
Divorcing the trope from the actual thing it represents helps to better examine the zeitgeist and how it can control us.
The powers that be encourage us to subsume goods, trends, and ideologies into our very identities because it makes us really good consumers.
For example: In my younger years, I bought stuff because I thought I was “supposed” to.
I’m cultured, aren’t I? Then I need this poster with French words and a cat on it! I love the Little Mermaid, therefore I have these corn holders with her face on them. If I don’t own and display these particular coffee table books, how will guests know what political group I belong to?
Or I bought stuff to keep up. You know. With the Jones’. I’d buy dumb stuff because of FOMO or fears of being perceived as unable to afford expensive trends.
Those are behaviors I’m ecstatic to leave in my 20s and 30s.
The older I get, the more I think everything (and I mean almost everything) is an elaborate ruse to get us to buy more stuff (insert George Carlin bit here).
At the age of forty, I find myself in the midst of raising four kids under the age of seven. It’s rewarding and challenging and transforming in ways I’d never imagined.
Balancing a career, social, and community life with the needs of a growing family is a constant juggling act. I struggle to find a work-life balance and am overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of responsibilities.
But my little gaggle of children and these challenges enrich my life and strengthen my character.
In this section, I’ll reflect on how I invented a parenting style meant to keep myself (rather than my kids) in line, why “do as I say, not as I do” is bull, a part of modern parenting that really bums me out, and why I like being an older mom.
Non-Reactive Parenting Is More About Training Adults Than Children
I’m very, very proud of my contribution to the parenting zeitgeist: I coined the phrase (and am constantly fleshing out the style of) non-reactive parenting.
Some assume that non-reactive parenting is “soft” on discipline (what does that even mean??). But non-reactive doesn’t mean non-punishment. It means punishment without anger. It’s not about letting a child “get away with it,” it’s about adults practicing emotional regulation.
It’s not that I think children are too precious to hear raised voices. It’s that I think adults need to learn emotional regulation.
Non-reactive parenting encourages caregivers to react calmly and strategically to difficult parenting situations.
And this increases emotional regulation all around: parents form a habit of pausing before reacting, and the children model the behavior they see.
I Must Model The Behavior I Want To See
The more I parent, the more I’m convinced that the best way to instill my children with positive behaviors is to model them.
Months ago, I wondered why my kids weren’t eating fruit. I looked up Pinterest recipes, turned banana slices into pretzel spiders, the whole rigmarole.
No luck. One day, it hit me. They never saw me eating fruit! Sure, I’d have fruit smoothies in the morning, but they rarely saw me snacking on whole fruits.
I changed that. And now they eat more fruit. It was truly that simple.
If I want my kids to be respectful, I have to be respectful. If I want my kids to amuse themselves quietly, they need to see me quietly amusing myself (reading crossword puzzles, crafts, etc., not scrolling). On and on, with any and all behaviors and habits we can think of.
Children and Technology: The Problem Nobody Wants To Talk About
Touchscreen tablets are often a child’s first experience with an intermittent reward system. I firmly believe that children under ten are too young for that particular introduction.
Tablets are the kid versions of slot machines, introducing a probable addiction and slashing expressive language skills.
Tablets aren’t educational. They’re wealth indicators, expensive distractions.
The “educational value” of children’s technology is a marketing ploy. I know, I know, “but my little Susie learned how to add from Blippy!” Listen: anecdotal incidents make for interesting conversation, but do not make for objective data.
And the data simply disproves that these “educational” programs, tablets, and games do diddly-squat. There is some evidence that educational TV programming can truly teach children, but only the older ones, and most importantly, only when caregivers are involved and actively watching with them.
You know what’s educational? Walking barefoot. Having a casual conversation about opposites. Reading recipe instructions aloud.
Resist the hype and allure of “educational” children’s technology.
To learn more, read Who’s Raising the Kids? Big Tech, Big Business, and the Lives of Children.
In Praise of Geriatric Pregnancy
First, a caveat: have kids whenever you want. I don’t think it’s “bad” to have kids young. But this article is about things I’ve learned, so it’s my perspective that’s on deck.
That being said, boy, am I glad that 75% of my children were carried through geriatric (in OB-GYN terms, age 35 or over) pregnancies.
I was a hot mess in my twenties: impulsive and reckless, lacking emotional regulation. I absolutely would not have been able to pull off non-reactive parenting.
I get so many messages from women concerned about their fertility timelines. After the usual questions (“Should I freeze my eggs?” being a top one), this one finally unravels: “What’s it like being an older mom? Do you like it?”
I can’t tell you what to do with your eggs. But I can assure you that I not only like being an older mom, I relish it.
While I may be more mentally prepared for parenthood in middle age, what about physical preparation? I don’t have the energy and stamina that young and dumb me did.
What’s an aging parent to do? That brings us to our next section.
The View From The Crest
One of the most depressing remarks I’ve ever heard was the observation, delivered at a 40th birthday celebration, “It’s all downhill from here!”
I said it was depressing, not untrue.
In this section, I’ll unpack some theories and practices about menopause, glucose, and fitness that will (hopefully!) make the descent easier.
Middle Age Matters
I’m just going to leave this passage from Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun here.
“Then a specialist finally got the answers because he did the right blood work. In my first consultation with him, he said, ‘The medical community does not pay enough attention to women in their forties.’ He’s probably in his late sixties. He’s been doing this for a long time. He said, ‘What happens to you in your forties, as a woman, will determine how long you live, will determine how happy you are for the next forty years. Your body is changing so dramatically. The hormone shifts that you’re going through are not insignificant. And they have so many downstream health effects.'”Ada Calhoun
Now, right now, is the time to be as proactive as I can about my health.
The following strategies make me feel more empowered about doing that.
The calories-in-calories-out model for weight loss has been losing credibility in the scientific community (uh, except for those employed by Big Food and Big Diet) for a while now.
And the results from glucose studies may be the final nail in the coffin.
(Side note: I love that talking about glucose spikes is so…valueless. We’re not talking about calories, “good” and “bad” foods, or “diet tips.” We’re just talking about glucose. Neutral, neutral glucose.)
When Jessie Inchauspe professionally examined these studies (and then began wearing a continuous glucose monitor for personal experimentation), she was so floored by the findings that she started an Instagram account and wrote two books on the subject.
Basically, all the studies say the same thing, that managing glucose spikes has positive and far-reaching impacts on physical and mental health.
Especially at my age, with menopause in view.
Getting Proactive About Menopause
We don’t discuss menopause enough.
Probably because we’re prudes or dumb or something.
No, just kidding, it’s because no one (including freaking medical professionals) knows much about menopause, so we lack the vocabulary to discuss our experiences.
Ain’t that grand?
That’s why reading The Menopause Manifesto was so helpful. I have the vocabulary now.
Knowledge is power. After reading this book, I know more about what tests to request, symptoms to look out for, coping strategies, etc.
Fitness Divorced From Weight
The more I learned about menopause (particularly the horrors of osteoporosis and muscle loss), the more I understood that the importance of fitness isn’t in the aesthetic.
If I don’t regularly move, strengthen, and stretch now, right now, the latter part of my life will suffer.
I cannot exercise my way to a younger version of myself. I cannot exercise my way into personal or societal acceptance.
But I can improve my balance in the hopes of lessening future falls. I can lift weights, creating denser bones to sustain those falls.
So that’s what I do.
Random Hot Takes
I didn’t know where else to put these micro-musings. Don’t worry, we’re in the home stretch!
- Normalize telling others that you don’t care what they think, calmly and matter-of-fact, not sneeringly.
- And then normalize replying to that revelation with “congratulations!”
- Unnormalize “bless your heart” being an insult. What kind of Guess Culture foolishness is that?? It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, that’s what. When you say “bless your heart,” mean it. When you mean to be insulting, be insulting.
- Bliss points are why I avoid ultra-processed food.
- Thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are separate things and should be treated, processed, and acted upon as such. Also: thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are not always true.
- Catalog your faults. Not beratingly, but with curiosity and gentleness. Bring up your faults in conversation. Not in a self-deprecating way, just with forthrightness. Journal your faults. Not with handwringing, but with loving acceptance. Do this because there is nothing more true than the famous Audre Lorde quote: “Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me to diminish me.”
- A good way to “spend money to make money” is to invest in a mutual fund. Not to buy a social selling starter kit. Or an exorbitant course. Or a bunch of nostalgic collectibles to sell online.
- Being able to better tolerate risk aversion is the coping skill that has had the most positive ripple effects on all aspects of my life.
- To really lessen carbon footprints, avoid palm oil, fast fashion, and single-use items.
- The world has changed, irreparably and irrevocably. It is not the world we grew up in. That’s just a fact. Accept it. Move on. Innovate or die.
- The good old days weren’t even that good. We just think they were due to fading affect bias.
- The right materials won’t save us. A new notebook won’t make us more organized. A pretty whiteboard with all the decals won’t make us better time managers. A fancy meal subscription service will not make us health nuts. We cannot consume our way to habit change, and attempting to is just a distraction from the goal.
- Habit change is simple. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. Be wary of gurus and systems that attempt to complicate it.
- Speaking of habit change and simple solutions, I found Mel Robbins’ book, The 5 Second Rule, helpful.
- Purposely removing oneself from echo chambers while simultaneously seeking out as many different perspectives as possible should be a mandatory condition of adulthood.
- The older I get the less I believe in conspiracy theories. And it’s not that I think political systems don’t do horrible things (Hi, have you met me?). It’s the “conspiracy” part that I grow more suspicious of. “Conspiracy” implies “secret.” None of this tomfoolery is secret. It’s all in the public record. No one’s in a dark room, making decisions by candlelight. These harmful decisions are made on Senate floors, under lights, speaking to others, into cameras, their words recorded.
- My internal locus of control is my safe place.
- Alcohol and manufactured outrage are the most dangerous and addictive legal intoxicants.
- Understanding spotlight bias means the second half of your life can begin.
- People are what they repeatedly do. Period.
At 40, I feel a sense of gratitude for all my life lessons.
From navigating the ups and downs of relationships to finding purpose in new careers, from increasing my tolerance to risk aversion to cultivating a more anti-consumerist lifestyle, these past four decades have been a journey filled with growth and self-discovery.
Through it all, I’ve learned that life is about embracing my imperfections and using them to fuel my growth and evolution.
I’m excited to see what the next years hold. And to share my insights with you.
Thank you, so much, for doing life with me.
Enjoy these other articles about things I’ve learned over the years:
You Tell Me!
What are some of your life lessons? Share your wisdom and insights!