End of an era

person lying on orange sofa
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I’ve been wrestling with the thought of my upcoming birthday for the last couple of years. It was a warning sign or a deep ravine up ahead of me in the distance. Midlife crisis is a term we use in jest, but I think it might be real and it’s not fun!

It’s not like I want to buy a sports car, if that were an option. The biggest feeling is a sense that life is passing and I haven’t got to the place I want to be yet. What if I run out of time? This can hit us at any age in life but the big zero birthdays (30, 40, 50, 60?) seem like natural reflection points. There are two ways of dealing with the existential crisis birthdays provoke. You either downplay it: hope no-one remembers and it passes as just another day. Or go big: plan a party, make sure everyone knows, post photos on social media of you looking ‘fabulous at…x’. I have been leaning towards the former and even contemplating staying in bed with the duvet pulled over my head on the day itself. Luckily, I don’t think I’ll be allowed to get away with that!

I’m grateful for getting to this point in my life. So why do I keep falling into the pit of despair? I guess it comes down to societal expectations. I’m at the age now I can clearly remember my Mum at. My sister and I decorated the house in delight, designing a birthday banner on the computer with clipart champagne glasses. There is a photo of Mum standing under this banner, a vibrant woman looking energetic and happy. Life begins, everyone said. Who knows what was really going on behind the smiles? But that’s the image in my head. The comparison point. I’m missing the me part of my Mum’s life, a strange conundrum.

At 20 and 30, I felt safe in the knowledge I was doing all the ‘right’ things. Growing up isn’t as scary when life seems to be following a well-trodden path. Sure, not everything was as fulfilling as I’d been led to expect. I seemed to be on my own waiting a lot, loneliness engulfing me as I turned the key to the door of an empty home each evening. But it couldn’t be perfect, could it? It was a life. It was the life.

The decade that followed was a real journey of confronting fears and re-evaluating values. Miscarriages, divorce, counselling, moving house, home renovation, the loss of my cat, travel, friendships, redundancies, starting a freelance business, new relationships, studying, health investigations – no wonder I’m tired! At points I became afraid to hope for things, worried that loving anything too much would make it disappear. The last couple of years in the pandemic slowed everything down to survival strategy. Like a cartoon character of my youth, I was building the bridge in mid-air so I could cross it.

I’ve been seeking a deeper connection with everything in life, never knowing if I’m getting it right but always putting my foot forward. Looking for divine intervention from the universe and trying to stay open-minded. I can feel my instincts a bit more clearly now, even if I still have to work on following them. Sometimes I can feel hope emerging and stretching again. It’s dizzying.

On the Southbank, in a hopeful moment

I’ve had a long time to contemplate whether I’m in the childfree by choice or childless by circumstance camp. The pendulum seemed to swing as I went through my 30s. I was so excited by the prospect at one time, but then it all became so difficult. Going through fertility challenges makes it hard to stay optimistic. Your body is poked, prodded and monitored. Apparently you are failing at the one thing you were designed to do. Medical professionals continually point out your age as a negative factor. You wonder if just giving up on the idea means you can be free of the invasiveness and judgement of all that. Just be a person again. And of course the toll on relationships is massive.

Over the years I’ve explored different perspectives on this topic. Lately I found this talk from Jody Day about the grief of childlessness. It expresses a lot of the thoughts I’ve had and find extremely scary, such as the idea of never being a grandmother. My grandmothers were fantastic! Will I really never occupy that role for someone else? It also shows how women living unconventional lives can feel very ostracised, as if they don’t have a stake in the future. I’ve definitely felt this when doing mundane things like getting financial advice. Many systems are set up to base recommendations on the assumption that by a certain age you must be married with dependents. Stating that you are not often prompts an uncomfortable silence along with the blank or crossed-out boxes on the forms. I often want to blurt out some kind of explanation, even an apology! I shouldn’t take it personally as it’s just capitalism in action. We’re a new generation of women. Sometimes there is less to sell us. Less we can be guilted into thinking we need.

A big source of inspiration is people my age or older who are living less conventional lives. When you see people becoming more sure of themselves, opinionated, interesting, creative and contented with age, it’s a huge incentive to keep trying. I know I’ve got much more to offer in every area. Many untapped reserves.

So I’m developing alternative visions for the future. It isn’t decided yet and possibility is alive in me. Some ambitions can be realised at any age: writing a book, having a cat (yes, the crazy cat lady stereotype), living in France or Italy, living by the sea (ideally in France or Italy, but I might take Margate), growing roses in a Victorian walled garden, a kitchen island with enough space to walk around, natural light, meaningful conversations, more books, board games, tea, wine, hell maybe I will get that sports car!

It doesn’t have to be all these things or any I suppose. That’s the beauty of a life unplanned.

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