40th birthday balloon
In our culture, 40th birthday parties are bigger and boozier than the others (Photo: Stocksy)

LIFE HONESTLY

Unmoored, floating – my forties were met with existential panic

You’re supposed to enjoy turning 40, says Sophie Heawood – so, what happens when you wake up, realising your life isn’t exactly what you expected it to be?

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By Sophie Heawood on

The thing about turning 40 is that you’re supposed to enjoy it. Aside from all the jokes about what an old git you’re turning into, soon to lose your looks and your marbles, there is a sense of it being a celebration of the last gasp of youth. In our culture, 40th birthday parties are bigger and boozier than the others – more interesting than 30ths, more significant than 50ths. A hearty swansong for the part of your life that you are ready, if reluctantly, to leave behind. Yet, as I approach 42, I can finally admit that I found entering my forties terrifying. Cold sweat in the night, waking up in a panic for months, paranoid like never before, terrifying.

So, it is with great relief I note that the legendary fashion designer Barbara Hulanicki, now aged 81, told the press last week that turning 40 was the lowest point of her life. Even though she had already set up Biba and already enjoyed years of success as a fashion pioneer in London’s Swinging Sixties, she was lost. “I locked myself in a bedroom,” she told The Observer, “and howled.” I don’t know the full details of why she howled, or how many moons she howled through, but it’s bloody reassuring to hear that someone who has also turned 50, 60, 70 AND 80 still agrees that 40 was the pits. “It was the worst age milestone,” she confirmed. “You feel that that’s the end.”

Of course, I haven’t met those other decades yet, so may discover that my 40th was a mere walk in the park without a Zimmer frame – but I doubt it. Because I experienced it as a sort of exit poll on my life, when I had to take my deepest-ever breath, look around and see what I had done with my time here on earth. And despite being a fairly cheerful person who has travelled a lot, had some career success and lives with a lovely, healthy daughter, I didn’t exactly like what I found.

The ageing in itself didn’t bother me – I’d never worried about wrinkles or stuff like that. (Of course, that turned out to be because I’d never had any – easy mistake to make if you’re blessed with a big round babyface like mine.) And the celebrations were good – I held a lovely party with a best friend who was also turning 40, got my hair done and went out singing. And panicking. And sweating. And singing again. And realised that all the friends who’d said it would be fine and they loved turning 40 were friends who’d had the requisite number of children, and were now settled with the partner they wanted, in the home they wanted. 

All the friends who’d said it would be fine and they loved turning 40 were friends who’d had the requisite number of children, and were now settled with the partner they wanted, in the home they wanted

If those are the things that you always presumed you’d have sussed out by the age of 40, unlocked like levels on a video game, then it’s quite an existential shock to wake up one day and discover that, while you have indeed found yourself on the Age 40 level, you haven’t acquired the shields, the weapons and the tools. Skidding around on your own weightlessness. Unmoored, floating, a little afraid of gravity. It can almost feel like grief. Particularly when it comes to fertility.

If you’re a woman, you know that there’s still a chance you could have a baby, or a second baby, in your forties, but there’s a tough road ahead if you’ve staked your entire life around that chance. I’m lucky – I had a baby at 35. But accepting that – along with all the other things she’s missed out on – my daughter will probably never get a sibling has been hard.

Then there’s realising that I’ve been a wayward freelancer too long and I’ll never get to work in a newspaper office, never get to work on a team in the magazines I dreamt of as a teenager. I know this might sound faintly ridiculous or just negative thinking, because I could apply for those jobs if I wanted, but the whole point of turning 40 is that you get realistic and say, “You know what? I won’t. I just won’t. I’ll stay here, writing freelance on my own, because that is what I do.” A person can’t live 40 years without any of their cards getting marked. I just don’t believe in eternal reinvention, as it goes. As for all the lessons I have learnt from my hugely successful and loving relationships – oh God, no. I really tried! But no.

Perhaps the most humbling bit about turning 40 is realising that all your life you have mistaken your personality for moods. Those moods – that’s you, that is. All you!

I am not here to doom-monger. I am here to say, “Listen up, people younger than me, who expect their future to be a certain way – look at the life you’re living right this minute, because if what you want at 40 is something totally different, then where is the link? Things lead to things, and then to other things. The person you turn out to be is not an entire coincidence, and not everything in life is down to luck or chance. So, put your drink down and take a good look around. And then take heart from the old saying that I have discovered to be true, as I’ve gradually relaxed into this decade and learnt to count my blessings: the first 40 years of childhood are always the hardest.

@heawood

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In our culture, 40th birthday parties are bigger and boozier than the others (Photo: Stocksy)
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