On Turning Forty

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July 18, 2018 by lucieromarin

Single women raised in conservative communities dread their fortieth birthdays. (I don’t know if the same is true for men; it would be interesting to know.) After twenty years feeling the sidelong glances (or sometimes receiving the blunt commentary!) of people waiting to see whether or not you will contribute to the survival of the community by the production of infant life, you cannot help but feel the growing cultural urgency at the approach of your use-by date.

I cannot speak for ethnic communities, but I can admit that, in a conservative Catholic community, a single woman who turns forty becomes immediately irrelevant to her culture except as a source of free labour. It’s no good interrupting me here to protest that everyone has a place in the Church because everyone is called to be a saint. I’m not talking about our culture as we promote it in sermons or pamphlets, but as we live it day-to-day. The two are not the same. (This is why the why my Diocese has bazillions of dollars to spend on youth festivals for the 20-somethings, while singles’ events for Catholics over forty get cancelled as an irrelevant expense. True story). I recall one fine male specimen of this culture exclaiming to me about his wife, “It’s her fifth child after the age of forty, so there’s hope for you yet!” He didn’t just mean ‘hope of children’. He meant ‘hope of an existence validated by the having of children.’

People are quick to blame, so, as you approach forty, (or if you admit to dreaming about something after forty) they will ask “Do you pray?” or “Do you put yourself out there?” genuinely believing, not only that they’ve had an original idea, but that they can save stupid you with it. However, they will not ask, “Did a priest lie to you for fifteen years?” or “Was your sense of self-worth progressively destroyed by a series of verbally abusive arrogant a-holes and false doctrine?” No wonder women dread the day.

Truth compels me to admit that the first hit is pretty bad. The first thing I felt was loss, the loss of hopes both spoken and unspoken, the loss of any hope of a return for my trust, the loss of the years spent waiting for the fulfilment of promises which turned out to be lies, and the loss of everything I might have been and done if I had not given my ear to those piety-coated lies. Yet, when I woke on the morning following my birthday, the first thing that happened was that I realised all the doomsayers were wrong. Yes, it was true that I was old, irrelevant, and had, in the words of one dear friend ‘missed out on love and family.’ But that wasn’t the whole truth.

The thing is, if you are irrelevant to a culture, that means the culture can be irrelevant to you.  It may not feel that way at first, but it can become the case that to be irrelevant to a culture is to be free of its constraints. I’m not talking about breaking the Ten Commandments or eschewing natural virtue; I’m talking about those demands which are purely social, even though we pretend they’re from God – how long you need to spend listening to pontificating people, whether you feel obliged to surrender your opinion to your social superiors or to your peers, how many hours you need to spend in volunteer service to be classified as ‘good’, what you eat, what you wear, what language you pray in, all these things.

After the first shock – which is inevitable if you’ve spent twenty years fearing it – I discovered that turning forty was not like dying; it was like being born again into a new life in which I was no longer beholden to the judgements of others or to their opinions. Nobody told me I would feel so free. Granted, in this born-again life my body was ricketier, my colds more persistent, and my weight a lot more clinging! But I did not have to pretend to myself that people less intelligent than I were cleverer than I, just because their social status was higher than mine. I did not have to convince myself that everything was my fault. I was not a ghost drifting aimlessly in a world made for the blessed vocation-haves, but a traveller and a worker in a world full of interest and marvels worthy of attention, and I could attend to those interests and marvels better than I could at any younger age, because I was no longer distracted by everyone else’s opinions about those marvels. My decisions could be motivated by something other than fear. I began to find beauty everywhere. I discovered goodness and friendship in hearts I might once have simply judged. Even babies ceased to be a rebuke or a weapon of status, and became really, really, really cute. And my prose-style was much improved.

Well, the only people who always get what they want are sociopaths and grandiose narcissists, so, obviously, life after forty can have its miseries, same as any other age. So far, however, none of them have been anything I was taught to expect, while the blessings have been real, though they were neither promised nor foretold.

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