How old do you feel? I look at my neon trainers and inept home balayage, and tentatively place myself at 29. I mean, I haven’t perfected winged eyeliner, I enjoy music that can only be described as “industrial robot disco”, and I’ve yet to grasp the full practical implications of Brexit. On the other hand, I’m married with a family and a career, and I’ve just bought a house. I’m a mix of adult responsibilities, youthful exuberance and millennial concern. Twenty-nine fits me perfectly.
Except, the thing is, I’m 41. Forty-bloody-one. I know I’m 41, because firstly, maths; secondly I clearly remember watching Charles marry Diana on TV; and thirdly because on my 41st birthday I rang my best friend and sobbed, “I’m already fucking 40, and now there’s a fucking ONE on top of it.” My best friend, sitting primly in the London flat she rents with her cat, replied: “Well, I’m 37,” and I don’t think either of us felt any better.
This wasn’t what I expected 41 to look like. On the rare occasions when I’ve envisaged my forties (I mean, why would you), they involved sharp tailoring, slightly boring murmured dinner party conversations, and the owning of “objets”. They certainly didn’t involve me clawing my way through early motherhood while trying to navigate a freelance career, my own faulty mental health, and never-ending personal debt. In jeggings.
And yet here I am – first baby at 38, career at 35, family home-owner at 41. I have hit every milestone around a decade later than my contemporaries, and for a while this caused me a great deal of shame. Throughout my thirties I hemmed, hawed and outright lied about my age for fear of judgement. At the same time, if I ever met a twenty-something with an established career, relationship, family – or even mobile phone contract – I’d want to run shrieking from the room at the thought of such responsibility. I just didn’t feel ready. I didn’t feel old enough. And I began to think I never would.
I had been in the relationship for 10 years and was nudging my mid-thirties. We broke up and I pretty much assumed my life was over
The truth is, I’ve never really known what I wanted to do, so I’ve spent my life so far figuring out what I didn’t. I had a late start thanks to a nervous breakdown at 21 and its subsequent four-year recovery, and after that I tried being a professional musician, which wasn’t for me in the end. Nor was a career in theatre tech. Or being a web editor. Or managing web editors. Or being a technology journalist. Or, in fact, being in a childfree relationship. All these things are perfectly fine states of being, and I thought I had wanted them, but had then spent the duration constantly doubting myself.
When I figured that last one out I had already been in the relationship for 10 years and was nudging my mid-thirties. We broke up, I moved from north London to south London (which somehow seemed more dramatic than breaking up), and I pretty much assumed my life was over.
But just two years later I found myself waiting in a midwife’s office, stroking my newly swollen belly, surrounded by women around my age. And, for the first time, I really wanted something. I really wanted to be there, facing that enormous permanent responsibility. I was approaching 40 and never before, except when I was saying my wedding vows, and sometimes when writing, had I felt this want so clearly.
So now I just go where the want takes me. So far it’s taken me to writing and parenting, and out of London to Kent, where I can just about afford to do both of those things. Thanks to my inveterate prevarication I think I’ll always come late to things – Game of Thrones and Sufjan Stevens, for example – but being so far behind the herd has its advantages. Firstly, when you have no peers left you don’t have to worry about keeping up with them. Secondly, there’s a whole new generation of peers coming up behind you, and you can learn a lot from them.
So here I am. Forty-one. Actually forty-one. I have some stuff I want, and I’m figuring the rest out. Which, now I think of it, is a hell of a lot better than being 29 and freaking out about falling behind.