For the past few years, I’ve been swimming against the crushing current of time that’s been sweeping me swiftly and inevitably towards my fortieth birthday. Why do we fear 40? Some psychologists say it’s because entering middle age is fraught with the same tensions — the same existential drama — as entering adolescence. It matters little to most of us that Sex and the City defied convention and posited that 40-something women can be as sexy and fabulous as a new pair of Manolos. It’s still that age our 20-year-old selves declared — with all the smugness of taut-bodied youth — old.
The day before my birthday, Gabe whisked me away for a surprise spa retreat at Langdon Hall. When we arrived in our suite, I was greeted with chocolate-covered strawberries, brownies, and a steaming hot bubble bath in the jacuzzi tub — all meticulously arranged by Gabe. I was presented with an itinerary for my birthday spa day, which included a body scrub, Swedish massage, spa lunch, facial, pedicure and manicure. This is precisely the kind of romantic getaway the dreamy-eyed, 20-year-old me imagined the 40-year-old, wildly successful me would indulge in.
While I can’t deny the experience was a fabulous one, it was one of the quieter moments that made me grateful to be the woman I am today, rather than the girl I once was. I woke up in the morning next to Gabe, who bounded out of bed with a cheery “It’s your birthday; you’re 40 today!” — side note: he’s two years younger than me and smug about it — and handed me a box wrapped in SpongeBob SquarePants paper. Before opening the gift, I stopped to appreciate the sheer quirk of it. In that moment, I did an internal gut check for the dread Gabe’s proclamation would have induced even a day earlier, and found none.
All of the anxiety and angst that had been dragging me down with the force of an undertow had dissipated, and during a day of reflection and introspection at the spa, I realized why. While I’m grateful to my 20-year-old self for many things — including the foresight to never tan her face — I wouldn’t trade my reality for hers, or her dreams of the future. I may not fit into a bikini the same way she did (the smug bitch). I may have more sharply defined features and more fine lines. But — and here’s the kicker — at 40, I fit into my own stretched skin with a comfort and confidence I never possessed at 20.
Gabe isn’t precisely the kind of man the 20-year-old me imagined for herself. Oh, he’s wicked smart, witty, cultured and well-travelled, just as she dreamed. He’s also bearded, not into fashion, and not even close to 6-foot tall. Each of those things would have been a deal-breaker for the 20-year-old me, bless her misguided soul. Now, what’s more important to me is a man who truly gets me. Mine gives me romance with a side of quirky humour, love with a side of honesty, support with a side of challenge.
I’m not sure my younger self could appreciate what a gift that is. She still had too much living to do, too many mistakes to make, too many detours to take. I’m glad she did, because all the roads she walked led her to where I stand today. Sure, there was heartache, and some hard lessons learned along the way. But, oh, the stories she could tell.
Turning 40 isn’t a choice for any of us who live long enough to do so. Being happy, though, that is a choice. Two decades, two beautiful children, one failed marriage, one wildly successful career, and countless misadventures later — and that is the choice I made on the morning I turned 40. It’s a choice I didn’t know was available to me on the morning I turned 20. That knowledge is worth the fine lines, the stretch marks, the exhaustion of juggling career and motherhood, and the next-day pain after partying like you’re 20. If this is 40, bring it.