On the threshold of forty


Next week, at the end of March, I’ll celebrate my fortieth birthday. Decades are obvious signposts in our culture, and I’ve been anticipating this one for a long while. I’m surprised at how much I’m looking forward to it.

I see now that twenty and thirty are scarier. There are so many choices to make about how to live. Laying the foundations for adult life was what those two decades were about. I did that: my foundations are solid. I wasn’t passionate about what I was doing then, but I didn’t hate it either. Not all of it. It was a necessary part of my story. It gave me something to stand on.

The work I did then, the careful spending, the little house we bought with its very low mortgage payments – along with years of training by frugal parents, just enough support to leave university without debt, and some moments of financial serendipity when we needed them most – all of those layers helped make it possible for us to live on one income over the past decade. We had two children; we settled in.

There was so much more detail there, of course, but now, looking back at midlife, I can paint it all with one broad brushstroke.

Now I’m surveying the terrain ahead. I’m seeing this new decade as a wide expanse of possibility. I see it stretching ahead of me and I love the uncertainty of it.

A few years ago, I was full of doubt. I looked around and saw all of my pre-motherhood friends committed to solid careers, to a certain future. Everyone else seemed to know what they were doing. But I didn’t. I felt like the perpetual student, the dilettante, still trying to tune in to what made me hum. I felt like I was a child again, starting anew.

Either I had wasted my twenties or I was wasting my thirties. I was stuck thinking it had to be one or the other. I couldn’t see at first that both stages were necessary: both the building and the deconstruction.

Leaving my job when my first child was born was in many ways an excuse to get off the path I was on. But starting from the beginning again is terrifying.

Being a high-achieving immigrant child, I had had a lot of expectations of myself. A lot to prove; a lot to live up to. I had developed lots of pride and ego to shield myself from the wounds of feeling ever a stranger, of being sure for the longest time that I didn’t belong. I see now how much energy I spent on protecting myself; how hard I found it to trust people deeply; how much anxiety I suffered; how seldom I asked for help.

Pregnancy, birth, nursing… All those experiences made my ego more permeable. It’s harder to keep those walls up when your body is so intertwined in someone else’s survival; when your heart has opened wide; when you need to choose how you present the world to someone with no prior experience of it; when you see what you don’t want to pass on to your children.

I look back now and I see that in those early years of being a mother, having stepped out of certainty, given up my salary, cashed in my RRSPs; when I was wasting my education on the continuation of life and the simplification of my needs, when I was re-creating my life from the inside out, I felt that I could barely speak. I knew that what I was doing was different from what it looked like from the outside; I couldn’t muster the energy or the words to explain. I knew that for myself these choices were radical: getting at the root of things. I dug in deep; I sunk into experience. I watched and listened, and slowly collected the knowledge and skills and awareness that I needed to move back out into the world.

It was hard not to see it as wasting time, as a fallow period, despite the huge work it took to make and nurture the lives that joined me on the way, despite all of the intense learning and unpaid work and projects I kept taking on over the decade of my thirties. None of this had been in my plans. What was I doing and why?

But I also had a memory of my first year of full-time work after university. I remember dragging myself out of bed one morning and saying bleakly to my husband: “Is this what every day is going to look like for the rest of our lives?

I no longer worry about that. Each year is a surprise. I don’t know what’s happening next. It’s scary, but I’m much happier.

I’m immersed in relationships. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think of all of the people I love, think of all of the human and non-human entities who I am in relationship with. My heart often feels like it’s bursting, and this is sometimes painful, but that opening is worth more to me than anything else.

Finding a place for myself in the world has been much more complicated than I ever imagined. What feels to me like doing good work and like moving in the world with integrity has little to do with my preconceived notions of success, however flexible even those seemed to be at the time. What feeds my soul and engages me and keeps me waking up each morning with the joy of being alive continues to surprise me and knock me off balance.

My ego has taken a beating, but my confidence is growing.

There is so much about being an adult that is about shutting down the “shoulds”, the inner and outer voices that tell us that we aren’t doing what we’re supposed to be, that we aren’t doing things right. Tearing up the plan. Shutting down pride and expectations. And instead listening to what makes us giddy with excitement and curiosity and just the right kind of fear.