“So I was in the pool,” wrote a young and very delightful girl I follow on Twitter, “and an old aunty, really old, like 40, clawed at me.” My heart skipped a beat at the “really old, like 40.”
I read it again.
I laughed it off, I told the girl who tweeted how I’d reacted. We laughed it off together. But a day later, I’m still trying my best to get the dismissiveness of that phrase out of my head. It does sting. In my head I’m pretty much the same I was since my early thirties, give or take some silver in the hair, a waistline that has grown a tad generous and skin that I now call lived in, and crumpled accordingly.
It has been a long time since I saw 40. I am closer to 50 today than 40, and it has been a decade I stepped into kicking and screaming. I was over the hill then. It is only downhill from now on, we’ve been told. We’ve been fed that for years, haven’t we, that the forties are where women go to die or end up laughable pastiches in loud colours and too much rouge. But I wasn’t going to be like that, I told myself. I was going to segue elegantly into middle age, I told myself. I would be a better, older version of my younger self. But no one sent that memo to the world around me.
I would be a better, older version of my younger self. But no one sent that memo to the world around me.
The world has grown apart from me. I can see it happening, I’m turning invisible. Change that, I’ve turned invisible. Perhaps it began with the slow gradation of the honorifics I’ve been called by shopkeepers. The ‘Sister’ morphed into ‘Aunty’ so smoothly I got whiplash from looking round to see who was being addressed before realising it was for me. The next I know, on the not so distant horizon, is ‘Maaji’. I’m hoping my heart doesn’t give up on me the first I hear it.
I wonder how the transition shows. I still live in the jeans and t-shirts I wore all my life. I still fit into some of the jeans I wore before the offspring was born. I still wear them on a regular basis, yes, though those were my ‘fat’ ones. The offspring, for whom the smooth lawns of my abdomen morphed into a ploughed field of stretch marks, looked at an old photograph of mine the other day and asked, in all seriousness, “You were pretty then, what happened to you.” “You did,” I replied, right back. If it adds to the issues he might seek therapy on when he grows up, so be it.
Through the 30s, I was on the backburner.
First, it was trying to conceive that took up a couple of years, then it was the first few years of parenting that swallowed me up whole and spat me out, diminished and humbled by the fact that I had created this delightful human being I felt completely incapable of raising. The rest of the decade was spent in the panic of trying to figure out how.
The 40s though, have been my decade of becoming.
All the years I lived before my forties now seem like just preparatory school for what my forties were to bring. The life experiences. The reading. The writing. The bringing up the rapscallion. The infinite diverging and converging career paths I took. The forties were when they all came together, the skeins tying themselves together elegantly into a knot that was now, undeniably, me.
The forties have been a decade of being unflinching about oneself.
I published my first book at forty. Written in a breathless hurry, fuelled by the panicked realisation that I’d lived to forty without doing the one thing I thought I should have done with my life, I wrote and sent it out, and then have spent the next seven years since writing more books. The forties have been a decade of being unflinching about oneself. I know I will never be a supermodel and have made peace with it and my saddlebags. I know I will never run a perfect home, and give dinner parties that will be talked about for days. I will never be the mom who creates Instagram worthy lunch boxes, and my offspring’s school projects will be hung together on a hope and a prayer, and lot of glue, squeaking in to completion, few hours before submission is due.
But, now, in my forties, I don’t care anymore, I have bucket lists of my own to be ticked off and at my back I can hear time’s wing’d chariot, as the poet said.
Circa forty the realisation set in that it was now or never. A certain selfishness entered my soul, it was my time to claim my space. I wrote my first book. I stopped doing work that didn’t excite me. I knew what I wanted, and was no longer apologetic about saying no to something I didn’t. I began caring less about others feelings and more about my own. I was also better at handling conflict, taking decisions, dealing with people, navigating tricky situations, being responsible about money. I was the grown up now, whether I liked it or not. For the most of it, I confess, being a grown up sucked. Given a choice I’d continue being a baffled teen but sadly, the body refused to stay put where the mind commanded it to. I’m not taking advice from my mother anymore, but I need my son to help me with apps and wifi logins and power point presentations. I’m parenting my child and parenting my mother. In my son I see what I was, the unfulfilled promise of what I could have been, in my mother I see what I could become.
It is a damning realisation. I can no longer blame anyone for my decisions. I can’t look for mentors now because I’m being a mentor myself. I look around me and I panic because I am now the generation that is in charge, and heaven knows, I don’t think we’re doing a rather good job of it. Acceptance of one’s capabilities and resigning to them, ignoring exhortations of reach exceeding grasp or what is a heaven for, is also a blessing of one’s forties.
I’m parenting my child and parenting my mother. In my son I see what I was, the unfulfilled promise of what I could have been, in my mother I see what I could become. It is a damning realisation. I can no longer blame anyone for my decisions.
When I was 20, I thought forty would be old enough to die. When I hit forty, I realised that I had another thirty years to go on an average before I was likely to go to the recycling centre in the ethers. The average age for an Indian woman now is 69.9 years. Around me, I see people living well into their eighties and nineties, women outliving the men and doing a damned good job of being feisty with it. That makes the forties just the middle mark on a life lived to its entirety.
Forty is the prime of life, they say. For men. For women, one is over the hill in a society that evaluates you by your reproductive ability. Menopausal women are past their sell by date. In a few years, I will be in my fifties. I’m not dreading it. Given how cool a ride the forties have been, the fifties can only get better.
Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV
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