Does anyone else remember Oprah’s promise that we would be fabulous in our forties?
Last night was one of those nights. You know the kind. The kind where you wake up around 2 or 3am, and ALLLLL the things that could possibly be wrong in your life are rolling around your head. You second guess every conversation you had the previous day. You worry about all the mistakes you may be making in your life, your kids’ lives, your marriage — you name it. You lie there feeling like everything is just not quite right. So “just not right” that you may, in fact, be getting it all wrong.
You start to feel a little panicky. A little depressed. You start feeling really bad about your decisions and vow to make new ones. Clean slate!! YES! But then, NO! Everything at this time of the night feels impossible. You’re not going to make any real changes. You know yourself. You are just going to keep screwing it up. Or not…I don’t know…and then, thank goodness…you finally drift back to sleep.
Or is this just me? God, I hope not. Now THIS might be my new middle-of-the-night obsession. Am I the only one who feels this way? Am I the only obsessive-compulsive middle-of-the-night worrier? I tend to think I am not, merely from a general non-scientific survey of my girlfriends. And in my limited experience (of only being inside the head of one person) I have found that this middle-of-the-might worry tends to get worse — not better — as you age.
I was an avid watcher of Oprah Winfrey when I was in my late twenties. I was a new mom and loved all of her introspective advice. One thing that stood out to me over the years was how she described women in their forties. Oprah referred many times to how women in their forties became more of themselves — they knew who they were and were less oppressed by the demands, thoughts and opinions of others. They were able to finally say “No.”
“Wowww...this sounds GREAT!!” I thought, at the imagined freedom from the opinions of basically everyone I ran across. But despite having this newfound jewel of wisdom, I was unable to jump ahead of my chronological age and beat the system. Instead I franticly continued to be a slave to everyone else’s expectations for years and years to come. And although I would agree with a certain amount of freedom and confidence that only comes from plodding through the years of your life…I feel like Oprah, and her esteemed guests, failed to accurately convey just how this confidence really works (most likely because she was still in her forties herself when she was explaining it to us all, and had not fully made it out the other end).
Well, I have not made it out the other end of my forties either…but I am heading down the back slope at 47 and I have noticed a simultaneous increase in both confidence and insecurity. Increase in both?? How is this possible? Allow me to explain.
When I look back on my life, I see myself in my late teens and twenties as a very confident young woman. I know this is not everyone’s experience at this age — so I guess this will not apply to everyone — but stay with me for a minute. I had opinions about everything. I had opinions about politics, child rearing, life choices, and people — oh yes. I had lots and lots opinions about what was basically wrong with everyone who annoyed me — and let me tell you — a lot of people annoyed me. I was bold in my opinions, never afraid to speak my mind freely and often.
And then I starting having kids. I moved from being sure of myself in almost every way, to seeing that I pretty much needed to shut up about a lot of things. Being a parent will do that to a person. Before you have kids, you know exactly how it should be done. That person in the restaurant with the badly behaved child? YOU know exactly how that parent should handle the situation. The baby that won’t sleep through the night? Pffft! Get a backbone lady!! No sweat. No problem.
Well, when you are a parent, you quickly see that the perfect way to parent is not always so easy…and there are a whole host of reasons why parents do not choose the “obvious” answer in thousands of different scenarios. This makes you far less likely to judge every person in every situation whether it is child-related or not.
So you start to become a little less…bold. Or at least I did. I moved from always having a very strong opinion about everything, to sometimes having a strong opinion about something…and believe it or not (this comment is directed to my husband who might be in the “or not” category) many times I just kept my mouth shut. The typical teenager/young adult in me, who believed she knew everything about everything began to see that things aren’t always as easy as they appear. I began to have more empathy towards other people — which was a good thing. But do you know what unexpectedly happened as I was giving other people more of a break? I became even harder on myself.
Wait, what? That doesn’t make any sense! As I am becoming less hard on others, I am becoming harder on myself? I know — I know — it just doesn’t add up. But this was this strange back and forth I experienced as I muddled through my thirties. I still had my strong opinions (sometimes voiced — sometimes not) but I was simultaneously becoming more and less confident. More secure in what I knew — and less secure about the measure of my own success. Oprah didn’t tell me this! “Well, no big deal,” I thought. I am only in my thirties. I will knock it out of the park when I am in my forties. I still have time. I am still figuring this all out. I’ve got this.
But forty came and went and it didn’t look exactly like I thought it would. Some things had definitely changed. For instance, I would not always throw my hand up to volunteer for every thing that came my way with the kids. Who will coach? Who will be on the PTA? Who will organize the fundraiser? Not me. Well, to be fair, sometimes me (I mean, I am not a monster) but a lot of the time not me. I was willing to say, “I am sorry, I have too much on my plate right now, but I am happy to _______ (fill in the blank with something much less time-consuming).” And I did not worry so much about what people thought. I had that backbone Oprah had talked about. I had exercised my “No” muscle. But was I truly confident all the way around?
Well — who is, really? But no. I was not. Although I was beginning to draw boundaries with others, I was failing miserably at drawing a boundary in my own mind with myself. My own failings seemed to be fair game, and as I entered my forties there was not only my new heightened self-awareness there were a whole host of new things wrong with my aging face and body happening almost daily. SO much material on all fronts for my midde-of-the-night mind!
Another thing Oprah and her life-coach gurus did not warn us about (when talking up the forties) was the possibility of being surrounded by hormonal, brutally honest teenagers. If you somehow emerged from your twenties or thirties without a healthy sense of self-awareness, your teenagers are SOO ready to provide this service for you. They will let you know exactly what is wrong with you down to your core. They will rip you apart and leave your sagging face and stretched out innards on a stake like a scarecrow to be picked apart by, you guessed it, your own sad self in the middle of the night when you feebly realize your nasty teens actually have several good points.
And let’s not forget that forty is is the beginning (or maybe the middle) of you and your spouse’s mid-life crisis. Hold on, Oprah! I am supposed to be feeling fabulous!?! Where is this amazing ME?! Well! Super-awesome, confident 40-something me and my super-awesome, confident 40-something husband are looking at each other and thinking (silently), “Is this really it?” There of a lot of people in their forties who have already done the “big stuff.” Marriage. House. Kids. And now they are sitting around wondering…”Crap. Is our yearly vacation the only thing we have to look forward to?” “Is this the life we set out to create?” “Am I going to die living in this house looking at my husband’s fungal toenail?” (Oh wait — is that last one just me? Sorry.)
Anyway, forty is hard, folks. And so is fifty. And from what I can see, it is no panacea after that either. I don’t mean to be a negative Nancy, I’m just letting you know that if you didn’t get to forty and think: “Wellll now! THIS. IS. FANTASTIC!”
You may be normal.
Please feel free to comment when you are up berating yourself in the middle of the night.
PS. This morning I came across this piece of writing I never published. I hit the big 5–0 about a month ago. I am not sure if it is a function of age or simply the wildly strange geo-political position we all now find ourselves in since 2020 — but I spend a whole lot less time (if any) worrying about myself in the middle of the night. In fact — probably almost none at all.
As I enjoy this respite from crippling self-evaluation I instead spend sleepless nights worrying about the state of the world and how we will be affected as a family — and what we are doing to prepare for potential economic collapse. Yeah — just that. No big deal. A far cry from worrying about conversations I may have with a fellow parent at Tae Kwon Do or my neighbor across the street.
But I thought I would post this anyway for all you who are still struggling. So my advice to you if you are tearing yourself apart nightly: Wait until you turn 50 and no longer care or do a deep dive apart from the mainstream media about what is really going on in the world.
I am not talking conspiracy theory. I am talking conspiracy reality.
You just might stop sleeping all together. Good times. ;)
Start a garden.