Why is approaching 40 so scary?

January 4, 2018

A few months ago, I turned 38. Ever since, I have felt 40's unrelenting approach. In my mind, 40 feels like some deadline or end point. I can't tell if now is a time to make grand changes and get in before the cut off, or to hunker down and stay safe because it's too late. I've been trying to figure out when life started to feel so limited and finite? When did the possibilities seem to dwindle and narrow?

The last six months have been pretty wretched for me. Ever since our plans to move back to Switzerland fell through, my spirit seemed to bottom out right with them. I've spent many a night lying awake running back over everything in my mind. Regrets large and small; pondering my life at the present. Connecting the dots that led me here. Is this all there is? I ask myself in the darkness, willing myself to go back to sleep. Finally, after some time, sleep comes. I rarely dream. And then morning comes. For a brief moment before waking, I feel calm, warm, safe. And then wham! It's as if I'm smacked in the head with a 2x4, every day. There is nothing actually wrong with my life. It's quite beautiful and comfortable in so many ways. But it is also quite a ways off of the track I thought it would be on at this point. Or maybe it's just where I thought I'd be but for whatever reason doesn't feel the way I thought it would feel. Either way, time is running out. 40 somehow became the finish line and it's almost here.

I have been feeling so alone. Alone in worrying. Alone in feeling so much pressure to have everything squared away by now. Alone in feeling like I am dropping the ball more often than not.

Then last week I read Ada Calhoun's article The New Midlife Crisis for Women. Calhoun writes about the major stressors plaguing women in their late thirties to mid-fifties today. Money is a major one. Relationships. Career and competitiveness in the workforce. Children or the inability to have them. The general pressure to have it all.

A few of my favorite passages:

Possibilities. We still have them in midlife, but they can start to seem so abstract. Yes, I could go get a doctorate, but where would I find the graduate school tuition? I could switch careers—therapist? Zamboni driver?—but at this stage of life, do I really want to start from the bottom, surrounded by 20-year-olds? If I went on an Eat, Pray, Love walkabout, who would pick up the kid from school?
"Having kids was the thing I wanted my whole life," says Karen, 42, a psychotherapist in Arizona. She pauses. "I had to turn off the Facebook feature with 'Six years ago…whatever.' I was torturing myself with it: If only I'd done things differently then, I'd have a baby now.
You come to this place, midlife," writes novelist Hilary Mantel. "You don't know how you got here, but suddenly you're staring 50 in the face. When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led. All your houses are haunted by the person you might have been."

Reading Calhoun's take on everything, I definitely don't feel alone anymore. I highly recommend reading the whole essay.

Maybe a high school librarian I know was right. Last fall, I was weighing a couple different job options and running through the pros and cons with her. She just shrugged and told me they both sounded good and I really couldn't choose the wrong thing. "My grandma used to say," she smiled, "'You can have it all, just not at the same time.'" Well, that certainly takes the pressure off, doesn't it?

How are you feeling at your current stage of life? Do you feel like you're where you're supposed to be, or thought you would be right now? Do you relate to Calhoun's words at all?

Join the conversation!

  1. I don't know if this helps, but I definitely feel the same way! I turn 30 this year, and although so many adventures are still ahead of me, I feel as though by picking which adventures to have I'm closing myself off to other options.
    Similarly to you, my husband and I are contemplating a big move (to Canada, my home country; we live in the UK now - his) and I think part of the reason we're frozen is because we feel it will close a lot of doors for us. This may or may not be true, but it FEELS true. We dither and every day we dither is one we don't spend searching for a new job, or starting a family, or getting a mortgage and although standing still is fine for now (we have a great life here!) I know it won't be forever, and I'm terrified of losing out due to inaction and fear.
    Here's hoping in 2018 we can meet at least some of our goals :)

    1. Oh yes, Stephanie, that is helpful. <3 It’s not so much age as the dithering, isn’t it? 30, 40 or 50, if we are contemplating something big and putting off moving forward, it creates a lot of tension and turmoil. I know I had to come back to the US to know whether or not this was the life I imagined it would be. Part of me wishes we had waited until Theo was a couple years old. But who knows, maybe transitioning from one to two kids would have been just as hard there? Maybe it would have FELT even harder due to the distance and perceived isolation? It’s impossible to say.
      You said one thing that stuck out to me: the phrase “I know it won’t be forever.”
      Are you sure? Could it be? That assumption and accepting the idea that it wasn’t forever was a huge factor in our deciding to leave Zurich and I regret now that I treated our life there as temporary or not a real life somehow. Thinking that way was a mistake. So before you make the same mistake, ask yourself why it can’t be forever. Ok?
      Thanks for chiming in, Stephanie! I loved reading your thoughts on this. xoxoxo

  2. I feel like I’ve been having various life crises my whole life. Even as a kid, I distinctly did not want to get any older, and felt a kind of fierce nostalgia for the present. In fifth grade, we each got to write a blurb about ourselves for the yearbook; most kids wrote about how excited they were to move on to middle school but I wrote mostly about not wanting to leave elementary school, haha. I have always struggled with endings, and each passing year or passing milestone is an end in some ways. I remember being, like, ten and realizing that I would never be an Olympic gymnast. I wasn’t a gymnast at all – it’s not like it had been a dream of mine – but the realization that I COULDN’T, that it was already too late – it was gut-wrenching for me! I have had that feeling in various ways my whole life. The day that “30 Under 30” type lists of accomplished people started to feel “young” rather than “old” to me – that was a hard day indeed, haha.

    Really what it is about, I think, is the feeling of extinguished hopes, squandered promise, reached boundaries. I went through a period of pretty heavy grief during my second pregnancy. It’s my second child, but our fourth overall, and we agreed it had to be the last. And it was a boy, the fourth boy, my sweet little baby boy. I didn’t wish he were a girl. I don’t. But I did feel a sense of shock that I would never – will never – be the mother to a daughter. I had always assumed I would be, and the knowledge that I would never braid hair, or have a child feel comforted by stories of my first period or anything like that, that I would never be the mother my mother was to me, the mother her mother was to her – it was heart-wrenching to me in a way I hesitate to talk about in most circles, because it’s easy to simplify it as a rejection of my sons, which it isn’t.

    I don’t do well with the word “never.” And so as the “nevers” in my life pile up and begin to match, or maybe outweigh, the “somedays,” it brings a real sense of anxiety. “Someday maybe I’ll go live in Colorado” has become “I will never go live in Colorado.” “Someday I’ll become a librarian” has become “I will probably never go back to school to become a librarian.” “Someday maybe I’ll get a gold medal on the floor apparatus in the Olympics” became, so very long ago, “I will never get a gold medal on any apparatus in the Olympics.” “Someday I will tell my daughter about this” has become “I will never have a daughter to tell about this.” Big and small, absurd and poignant, they are all endings of possibilities, deaths not of dreams necessarily but of the ability to dream with reckless abandon.

    In many ways, in my life, the only reason I gain the fortitude to move forward in any direction is by convincing myself that I can always go back. But as I get older, it becomes more and more clear that in many cases, and in many more each year, there is no going back. And with that knowledge, I find it much harder to muster up the will to move forward.

    And yet, time moves forward even if we don’t. I remind myself of that often – it’s the kick in the butt I seem to need, a lot of the time!

    1. I can absolutely relate to everything you're saying here, Alexandra. Truly. We moved internationally a few times when I was growing up and the severity and finality of those goodbyes really struck me and stayed with me. I have a hard time with change and accepting that the only constant truly is change. But we can find ways to carry on. I just finished a beautiful book that really spoke to me about this. I'll share it soon, once I can find the words. It was truly striking. More later. Thanks for sharing your insights, as always. xoxoxo

  3. Yes! I have been feeling this way as well. In the past year, I built and moved into our forever home, birthed my last baby, turned 35, celebrated our 10 year wedding anniversary and all of a sudden, everything seems to...final? I’m so grateful for all of the things I have accomplished, but I’m also wondering what is next for me. I’m afraid to turn the page because I have no idea what that looks like. Thankfully my husband feels similarly, so we declared 2018 to be the year of patience, plotting and goal setting. What are on our must-see lists? What are our career goals? Etc. I’m hoping lots of discussions, but no big moves, will lead us to more clarity. Isn’t there a saying about muddy water becoming clear as it stands still? So that’s exactly what I’ll be doing this year.

    1. That's all very exciting, Amy! Enjoy it and plan vacations. Why not?! All the other ducks are lined up. Just live your life and enjoy it. You're smart to be planning that way because having stability and a foundation like you've arranged can afford you a lot of flexibility and adventure, paradoxically! xoxoxoxoxo

  4. This article was such an interesting read and yet I think I am at peace with the ambiguities of mid-life at the moment (I turn 38 this year). This past year has been a big one of changes for our family as we have repatriated to Canada (from Amsterdam). Looking over photos of our life in Europe, I feel a deep sense of homesickness for a place that never fully felt like home and which always felt temporary. I knew I would miss our neighbourhood but part of being a multi-local is that the places you most identify with are not in a single "home" but spread around the world. Living overseas has caused a lot of growth for us and I absolutely think it was worth the downsides. Having been a SAHM for the past 6 years, I don't really have a sense of a career anymore and am not sure what direction I will take when our small people are both in school, but the women in my family have generally done interesting things in their 40s (and older) and so I have a sense of possibilities open. Of course we all have closed possibilities too, but I get to choose where to focus my energies and I have always been an optimist.

    1. This is great. You're so realistic and taking it all as it comes. I love how you describe the "deep homesickness for a place that never fully felt like home and which always felt temporary." EXACTLY. Life is always evolving. We can move gracefully into the next phase if we choose to. Thanks for pointing that out. xo

  5. You are definitely not alone.

    Let me preface what I'm going to say with this, I am a Christian and I find my identity in Christ. All my fears and anxieties and disappointments and heartbreaks are ultimately answered by Christ at the cross. I could say so much more. Either way, I know my "ending," and it is secure. That is not to say, though, that I don't struggle with all these feelings.

    I just turned 39 (in December) after what has easily been the hardest year of my life. Last year I was surprised to find out I was pregnant. Then our baby boy (our third kiddo at home; we lost our first almost 8 years ago when he passed away in my husband's arms shortly after birth; I share that because this year has been harder than the year Nathaniel died) came a month early (Jan. of '17) and surprised us with having Down syndrome. My very hands-on and giving mother has been battling breast cancer. We are stuck in our small 2 bedroom condo. I could go on and on. I feel like I have processed SO MUCH this year all while trying to care for our three kids, the youngest of whom has special needs. Life is NOT AT ALL what I thought it was going to be. There are so many more details I could share, but I already write too much. Anyway, by God's grace, I've felt myself in the last few weeks let go. Truly let go. I haven't let go because I'm some kind of guru or have some super-power, I think I've let go because I am utterly and completely exhausted and I just can't hang-on anymore to my ideas of what I thought my life would be or the version/image of myself I thought would or should materialize. I cannot think beyond what is immediately in front of me. I, of course, still think about the logistics of the weeks, months, and years ahead (to the extent that I can think of the latter), but I can't handle getting emotional about them. I am just not big enough. Thinking too far ahead gives me paralysis. I can't control the outcome of the 80,000 fears the 1,000,000 "what ifs" that swirl through my head. When I try to think of these things, I end-up being useless during the day. I'm literally unable to get things done to care for my family or even myself.

    Anyway, this letting go, this embracing of "I can't" has been so utterly and completely liberating and paradoxically(?) empowering. I have no freaking idea what tomorrow will bring, and I think for the first time in my life I'm totally okay with it. I will and can only deal with what today brings. In fact, I think one of my new favorite Bible verses is from the Lord's prayer "Give us this day, our daily bread..." Matt. 6:11. I'll only eat what I can today. I can't hang-on to tomorrow's bread, because it will mold or I'll drop it or someone will take it while I'm trying to manage everything else in the day. So, I try to remember to ask God for the grace and strength for today (for lovingly caring for my strong-willed 6 year old, or responding to the emotional needs of my drama-queen 4 year old, or making appointments for our almost 1 year old, and cook dinner and do laundry and go shopping and maybe shower and maybe, hopefully clean-up our mess of a home etc., etc., etc. :) because the reality is that I cannot handle more than that, and that is okay. Similarly, my internal mantra this year has been "Bloom where you're planted," which I guess is a Mary Engelbreit quote. I feel like I've been in the dessert. I don't know how long I'll be here. I don't know if I'll ever get to an oasis, but in the meantime, I hope to be a cactus flower.


    1. Oh, Roxana, your words were echoing around my head for days. What a lot to digest and work through. And what a beautiful approach to life. I like the idea of taking one day at a time and I love your idea of being a cactus flower. It can be SO HARD to focus on the positives, but they are there. You're doing it and you deserve to be every bit as proud as you are. You're awesome. Thank you for sharing. xo

  6. This was such an interesting post. I am 38 myself, and I can't say that I love the sound of "almost 40", but I don't dread it. I think the reasons for that are quite simple: My husband is 12 years older than me, I have the two kids I always hoped for, a house, a career - and I've had some experiences that usually come later in life, one of them being a divorce. Plus, I have friends and colleagues between 25 and 55 that I love talking to - and their age really doesn't matter to me.
    Instead of being afraid, I approach 40 with the hope for even more freedom and less fear, as with every year that I age, I feel that I learn to say no when I need to, to say yes when I want to; not to be ashamed of my naked body in a sauna (I am from Germany) or my my tears in public; and to make free decisions without caring what other people will think.
    Yes, there are only so many options left now, but then again, so many still left. What matters in the end is that you can say "Je ne regrette rien"!

  7. By the way, great to have you back. I missed your honest and thought-provoking posts. Thanks for continuing your blog!

    1. Thank you, Meike! I think you hit on a bit piece of it. By 40, we're supposed to have the house and career and marriage and family and all the ducks in a row. It would give me a lot of peace of mind and comfort with this milestone if I had all the ducks lined up, too. But I do have some of them! And the others can be wrangled post-40, so I guess I shouldn't worry so much. ;) And I agree that we relax and care less and just let go and get on with things much more easily as we get older. That is a welcome relief! I may not like getting older, but I sure as hell wouldn't ever go back to my 20's either. LOL! Good reminder. ;) xx


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