Six years ago, I was having a cocktail with a friend. She’d recently crossed the threshold into Later 40s and was grumbling about the myriad issues that accompanied what she called “the slow train to crone town.” I nodded along, giving the occasional sympathetic smile or the expected “oh, yeah, totally, right,” but I was only half-invested. I was not quite forty at the time, and though I was the kind of youngish person who had been describing herself as “old” since approximately eighth grade, I didn’t really think of myself that way. I was still trying to learn about new hip hop and fretting whether I was wearing the right jeans to fit in at art parties. I went to shows. I didn’t have any kids or any savings. I was single. By any material measure, I was still just starting out.
My friend let me nod along for a while before taking a good swig of bourbon and sighing. She said, “You’re thinking this is not going to happen to you, but it’s going to creep up sooner than you think and when you least expect it. So buckle up, because your 40s are tragic and weird.”
It’s unlikely she had the foresight know just how tragic weird my 40s were going to be. We were still months away from Trump and years away from Covid. She meant, simply, the ordinary particulars of being a human woman in your forties, which I could maybe describe as horror movie material, but that makes it sound way more cool and interesting than it actually is.
I knew it was coming. My mother was pretty forthright with me as she was living through it. She kicked off her fortieth decade with a divorce and the death of her father then slid through job loss, recession, and bunch of scary medical issues in the first half. Mom said that she’d never had any realistic advice on how to get through middle age. Her own mother, Nana, was a woman who thought nothing of getting into a shouting match with any highway patrolman foolish enough to give her a ticket and boasted about her ability to endure dental surgery with no painkillers, so not exactly a World Champ on the empathy front. As a result, Mom offered instructive advice while having a maternal excuse to vent about what was happening to her.
Every now and then a memory catches on something said to me (something about what does and does not work to cover gray) but I was I was in my teens and early twenties then, still bound up tight in the solipsistic fog of youth, sincerely concerned that if I did not make something of myself by twenty-five I might be doomed to sadness and obscurity forever. I didn’t have time to listen to Mom discuss the vagaries of hormonal flux. I didn’t have time to discuss what time would do to my body because at the time I still thought time was a renewable resource
And it was, until suddenly it wasn’t.
I don’t remember the first time I picked up on the idea that something had gone kinda sideways. It was nothing so simple or obvious as a fresh crop of gray hairs (I’m still holding out, on that front). It was more uncomfortable, internal, unsettling. Things weren’t happening to me the way they were supposed to. Things hurt, for one thing. I went to the doctor with my complaints and was told repeatedly I was just anxious (“You’re totally turning 40 soon. That would absolutely make me anxious,” said a perky 27 year old resident) and that nothing was physically wrong with me. Then something was physically wrong with me. Then it wasn’t. The clock reset under different conditions with the same results. The pops, squeaks, grumbles, mumbles, aches, itches, spells of great sadness, fear, fury, frustration all continued apace, and a lot of nice people with more degrees and way higher science grades than I ever had tried to attribute it to nerves, to food, to exercise and lack thereof, to invisible cysts, hypothetical tumors, a raft of what if diagnoses vague as the test results. Ultimately it was , my OB-GYN, a woman, not so much older than I am, of considerable empathy, wit, and hard-won honesty, who finally looked at me and said, “You know . . . you are a woman in your forties.”
I am in my forties.
I am a woman.
Both of these things are complicated. All of the complications inform each other. I don’t want to blow anyone’s mind here, but it’s tough being a woman. And it also sucks being in your 40s. There’s the whole Bottom of U, thing, in which researchers suggest people spend the decade scraping the floor of the happiness curve for a whole wide variety of reasons, up to and including the illness and death of parents, our suddenly aging bodies, the dawning realization of our own mortality, the creepy suspicion turned 100 foot skywritten message that “Hey, the way you’re life was going to go? Maybe time to start making some serious downward adjustments.” I’m sure I would feel super weird and uncomfortable about being in my forties if I were a dude too. Certainly the midlife crisis runs in the family. It might have played out differently in the all the traditionally coded masculine ways. Like, I might have started hitting on age-inappropriate partners at the bar. I might get so freaked out about my heart and my impending demise that I try to extend myself into the infinite with body building or whittle myself into sinews trying to outrun mortality on the back of wildly expensive bicycle. I might be more likely to buy a boat and fashion myself an admiral. I might risk my life trying to climb something dangerous in some Tough Guy showdown with God or whatever. I might not have spent so much money trying to buy my way out of fear for the future via multiple pairs of glam rock boots and glittery sneakers (but knowing me, even me as a dude, probably not).
Maybe I’d be more confident, less appearance obsessed, because I’d know it just wouldn’t matter as much to people. Maybe I’d see myself on some upward sweep of professional satisfaction, because I’d believe the only thing holding me back was ambition or lack thereof. It would be easier to navigate the workplace without having to constantly walk the impossible high wire between not overwhelming men by appearing too aggressive and not giving so much that you allow yourself to become erased. Maybe if I had the privilege and trust of knowing that I’d be taken somewhat seriously, I might not spend so much time grappling with the best way to be heard.
Here’s something: I suspect the dude version of me would be able to walk into a doctor’s office, point their abdomen, and say, “Look, everything hurts. Everything is swollen. I don’t know where one problem starts and the other begins. My skin is weird. My hair is weird. My emotional make-up is middle school bathroom stall dire. “ And I feel like that dude version of me would get a “This is exactly how we fix that, pard.”
Because the real difference between being a man in your forties and a woman in your forties is that men aren’t also dealing with a whole section of their anatomy reconfiguring, restructuring and starting to cease production. This is an uncomfortable and confusing process, which feels a little like puberty but without the implicit promise of Better Days Ahead at its conclusion. And to make matters worse, the world doesn’t really know what to do with women in their forties. Are they harridans? Are they hags? Should they start acting their age? Should they start dressing like a grandma? Should they start dressing like Sofia Loren? Should they shuffle off quietly and stop taking up space? Are they objects of pity? Are they objects of respect?
As it is, the muddle of What to do with Women in their Forties seems to extend past clothes and casting choices, dating sites and psychological profiles back to the health community, where the generalized response feels like a mixed bag of maybe hormones, maybe antidepressants, and “have you tried yoga?” But that’s not fair. There are surgical fixes. You can solve the problem of being a woman in your forties by cutting out the whole framework, and fast forward to being a woman in your fifties. Plenty of women do this, by choices and necessity. They are fine with this. On paper I should be too, after all I’ve never wanted to utilize said framework for its intended childbearing purpose. It’s mostly been an expensive, messy, crampy bag of tricks I neither needed or wanted
Still, the first time someone told me they thought a hysterectomy was the best solution to all my problems, I spent about a hour crying in the parking lot outside the doctor’s office. I couldn’t even tell you why . It wasn’t about the immediate end of my fertility–I’m almost forty-five, for Christ sake. Even if I wanted it, even in the best and most perfect Hail Mary (no pun intended) circumstances, I’m not putting a bun in the oven. Nor was it the whole Express Train to Actual Menopause thing. Again, I’ve had friends plenty of friends who’ve had it all out. They were fine. They are fine.
It was just . . .it was just . . .
Youth takes youth for granted, right? We never spend our early lives doing what our later lives kind of wish we had. Regret makes us human, but so does hope, specifically the hope that no matter how improbable, no matter how late in the game, we may be able to seize onto tsome last long summer afternoon and make it mean something before night falls and the season changes.
What I suppose I was upset about in the car was the undeniable fact that I am no longer a young woman. And (I say this with considerable shame at my own dismay) that I never really got the chance to enjoy the things that young women are supposed to. All the dumb, boring cis hetero princess stuff . The whole center of the reel that comprises the section between childhood and the onset of middle age in thr movie. I never felt beautiful walking into a room. I never felt someone’s eyes on me that confirmed it. I never had a decent love affair, let alone one with someone who loved me back. I never got asked to prom. I never received a love letter. I never had anyone tell me they loved me in a romantic way. I never fielded a serious proposal. I never had to think particularly hard about the kid thing, because I have never been in the kind of substantive relationship in which the idea was even remotely up for discussion.
I understand that (prom and babies aside) most of those things can/could/will continue to be things I might experience, regardless of my technical reproductive status. But it’s annoying and bewildering because now it feels like there was never any to my ever having had to deal with any of this lady bullshit. Thirty years of Ibprofen and not wearing white jeans. A lifetime of conditioning and sexism, all built on some baseline assumption about the kind of life I would end up living, even when, especially when, it was never exactly the life I wanted. It’s like I don’t want it, but I would have liked to be able to reject it to its face. And at the end of the day, I feel like what I’ve mostly gotten out of being a woman is ease of wearing crinolines in public, mascara, the ability to maintain loving, empathetic relationships with other women, and the fact that it’s easier to avoid mowing a lawn or going to war.
Sometimes, maybe two or three days of the month these days, when I am sore and exhausted inside and out, I fantasize about being the dude I’m not. He’s some Wildean character, probably named Ambrose or Basil, who wears gorgeous bespoke suits and lavender silk smoking jackets. He’s always perfectly groomed and impeccably barbered. He travels extensively, anywhere he wants to go, and never worries about going alone. He hosts magnificent salons in some elaborate library and his guests always find him to be charming and mysterious. His love life is uncomplicated by expectation. Catch me in the right day in the right mood and I’ll tell you that being Ambrose would remove a lot of bullshit stress from my life, and allow me to be myself without so many qualifiers.
But this is not a coming out story. I don’t really want to be a man, not the least of which because being Ambrose is a much a fantasy as imagining myself as, say, Cate Blanchett. Men, (even, especially men like Ambrose) have their own shit, after all. They have to deal with masculinity, which, as a concept, is both hilarious and terrifying. And most of them are too hung up on all that stuff to realize that they could wear crinolines and mascara and love their other male friends in an purely empathetic and uncomplicated way. Maybe because people keep trying to make them go to war. Probably because they’re constantly worried that someone might make them mow the lawn.
I didn’t end up having to schedule a hysterectomy. The doctor found another solution, surgical, but less invasive and less final to help deal with cause of some of the aches and pains (“Did you know your fibroids are big enough that’s kind of like you’re five months pregnant?” she said. And I said, “Glad I’m not,” and meant it). That means all the old parts in the attic will continue wind down naturally, and possibly drive me slowly insane in process. I’ll have a little more time to get used to the idea and maybe do one of those stupid thought exercises where I focus on what might yet happen instead of whatever I think I’ve missed. I have plenty of time, after all, or rather, I have just enough dumb human hope to still convince myself that I do.
Picture today is of an always comforting pile of crinolines (not mine). I can’t take credit for it.