What do Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Jessica Alba, and Meghan Markle have in common? Like me, they’re all turning 40 this year. Yes I know it’s a bit shameless to group myself among these celebrities, but it feels good knowing we’re all moms and geriatric Millennials growing a little older (and wiser) together. But remember when 40 sounded old? Remember when 40 even looked old (before Jennifer Aniston and J.Lo hit the milestone, obviously)?
I remember being out at the bars with my girlfriends (long before two-day hangovers were a thing), and every so often, a group of 40-something women would walk into the distinctly 20-something establishment we’d chosen for the evening. We might have gawked at their bedazzled jeans or Kate Gosselin haircut.
The women would be dancing together in a circle by 9 p.m. and maybe my friends and I would jokingly pick out each others’ older doppelganger (unless the women bought us a drink, then we’d be best friends). I’m one of those “old ladies” now and I would sincerely LOVE to be out at a bar with my girlfriends. I don’t have Kate Gosselin’s haircut or bedazzled jeans, but I do have skinny jeans and a side part. I would also be dancing in all my cheugy glory at 9 p.m.
What else did those 40-something women know about life that we didn’t at the time? As I close out my fourth decade, here are a few things I’d tell my younger self.
On friendship: true belonging requires you to be yourself
So, yes, this lesson is inspired by a Brené Brown quote. But I’ve learned as you get closer to 40, self-help books and podcasts become standbys in your media consumption. This one is so impactful because of its simple truth: you will not connect with everyone.
You will not be best friends with every cute-dressed mom you meet on the playground. Intimacy cannot be fast-tracked. You can only be who you are, show vulnerability around the right people, and trust your gut when you feel that click with another person—and maybe grab their number. You will never laugh harder than with the people who get you.
Had I learned this as a teenager when we moved to a new city and a new high school, I might not have spent lonely lunch hours in the library or the photography darkroom à la Jonathan Byers in Stranger Things. But I’ve learned those awkward experiences shape you too. You may be the first to notice the person sitting alone and the first one to open the circle. And you can teach that lesson to your kids, too.
On health: be grateful for your body
Do I still wish my boobs were a little bit bigger, my hips a little bit smaller? Maybe. But only if I’m trying on a dress or a bathing suit. Most days, I don’t really think about how my body looks.
I’m grateful to have held babies on my hip and little toddler hands while we crossed the street. I can still crouch down for hide-and-seek and swing at the playground. My body has gotten by on little-to-no sleep for literal years. It is scarred, squishy, creaky, and sore sometimes, but it can move (and my husband never mentions the squishy parts). I’ve seen enough friends and family get hit by health meteors cratering their lives to be grateful.
I’ve also noticed putting down our bodies is no longer part of the conversation among girlfriends. There’s talk of gray hairs, skin treatments, and wellness visits, but we’re so much kinder to ourselves than we were when we were younger.
On love: it will look different than you imagined
Marriage and motherhood are not finish lines or final plot points. Despite what the romcoms of the ‘90s and the Disney movies we grew up with ingrained into our minds, happily ever after requires a whole lot of work.
You’ll learn to recognize true love is not always the romantic kind, much like the climax in a more modern Disney flick, Frozen. It can be found looking down at a tiny person you just brought into the world, realizing you’d do anything for them. It can be looking into the eyes of a grandparent, knowing you’re seeing them for the last time. It can be watching friend after friend show up during one of the worst moments of your life—a conveyor belt of love and support—riding alongside as you move through grief.
Unconditional love can be gutting. It’s a tightness in your chest as you wave goodbye to your little one at daycare or school drop-off. It’s wanting to protect them but still let them grow, knowing someday they’ll need to navigate the world without your guidance.
You’ll learn romantic love isn’t in the grand gestures. True love is found in the small moments like taking the 2 a.m. feeding when you’re exhausted or stopping everything to listen to a problem without jumping to fix-it mode.
It’s hard to learn that for some people, love won’t be enough to save a relationship, a friendship, or themselves. Love opens you up to heartbreak. Love is a risk, but it’s part of living.
On comfort: good for shoes, bad for growth
The moment I ditched wearing heels on my commute to downtown Chicago wasn’t because of a blister. I’d already suffered many of them for “style.” Rather it came when my heel got stuck in the wood of the train platform and I nearly bit it in front of hundreds of fellow riders.
It would take many more years and another dramatic moment to rouse me from the comfort of a longtime job. Somehow I stayed employed through the 2008 recession. But trying to keep my head down and look busy during the uncertainty of that time made me risk-averse. Going to the same place with the same people felt comfortable. It wasn’t until—at 35 weeks pregnant—a little discomfort in my back led to my water breaking all over the front seat of my car that I learned another lesson. Sometimes discomfort is the push you need to change.
Sometimes discomfort is the push you need to change.
And motherhood changed how I felt about work. My supervisor was a dad, but he also asked me to come back into the office a week after giving birth to train my replacement. (And I almost said “yes”!) Back working, I’d gotten my first gray hair stressing about an advertising project—advertising! My husband or I would be sprinting from the train each day to pick up our daughter on time. When he got a job opportunity that would move us to another state, I was ready and welcoming a change.
There’s no doubt comfort feels good at the time. It’s secure, it’s predictable, and it can mean a steady paycheck. I know it’s a privilege to seek more than that. As I’m unlearning a lot of other things I thought I knew—from persistent biases to racial injustices—I’m also learning to sit with the uncomfortable. It can lead to progress and change—and gets easier with practice.
And, in my particular case, discomfort meant chasing a more fulfilling career where I look forward to Mondays … and get paid to write myself into a story with Beyoncé and Britney Spears. Oh, if my 20-something-self could see me now.