I turned 40 a few weeks ago, right at the end of week seven of quarantine… and it wasn’t the 40th birthday I had imagined. 40 is a milestone I’ve felt good about meeting for a while, and I’d planned to celebrate it shopping and sipping champagne in my favourite city with my favourite women.
Instead I spent it – as we’ve spent most days in 2020 – at home. And although it seems frivolous to grieve a birthday party when so many have so much more to grieve, it occurs to me that many of my friends will reach this same milestone during this very strange year as well, and I think it’s okay for us to give ourselves permission to feel a bit short changed. To mourn – just a little bit – the things we planned and the things we’ve lost.
Our best laid plans have evaporated.
But here’s the thing about lost things: life abhors a vacuum, so where there are losses, it’s inevitable that other things will appear. Like gains.
On my birthday I woke up to my girls jumping on me, their little bodies quaking with anticipation about the gifts they’d made and wrapped and the cake they’d baked (under the watchful and ever-patient eye of their dad). As I blew out my candles (and Annabel shrieked “Oh good, you only have 1 boyfriend!”) the day unfolded in a way I couldn’t have imagined before quarantine and confinement were part of our lives.
We spent it together, for a start, which we wouldn’t have been able to do on an ordinary Friday. We took the girls down to the lake and watched them whoop and shiver as they splashed in the icy water.
Two sweet friends surprised me with contraband birthday cake, cards and balloons (but no birthday hugs or kisses), and there were texts and voice notes beeping on my phone from far and wide all day long, making me feel so loved.
I had a lengthy Zoom session with three of my best friends on the other side of the world, which we would never have done if we’d all been at work; we drank champagne poured by our husbands hovering in the background (helpfully keeping children at bay) and laughed until our sides hurt, reminding me of the exquisite comfort of old friendships.
And at the end of the day, as our home-made pizzas bubbled in the oven, I called my parents – who were supposed to have been here with us. We laughed together at the situation (because when you want to cry, laughter is often the best solution), and raised our glasses and reminisced about my mum’s own 40th birthday, which I remember so well and which feels like only a moment ago.
And that was birthday number 40.
The following day I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t feel like a significant milestone had passed, and I didn’t feel like I had welcomed in a new chapter of my life. This might be because of the quieter nature of our celebrations (my daughters’ delight and excitement notwithstanding). Or maybe it was simply because I didn’t feel the need to say goodbye to the last chapter – that the blending of the two felt right and natural.
There was a time when I thought that 40 would feel like a revelation – that it would be the age I was at when my children would be older and more independent and would sleep through the night (ha!), and I would start to get more of my self back… This may still turn out to be true, but on the first day of a new decade, I didn’t wish for life to be any different from the way it was.
And maybe that was the greatest gift of all.
I don’t think we should minimise our disappointment as our plans for our 40th birthdays come to nothing. After all, it’s a big deal – and celebrating the milestone is a fun excuse to affirm the things that matter to us with the people we love. It’s okay to feel sad as we send out party postponement notices and claim back air miles for flights cancelled and plans abandoned. Denying our grief over these things lost is pointless.
But let’s not let the disappointment cloud our vision of what is right in front of us. Maybe more low-key, maybe quieter, but no less an affirmation of everything good and true – everything that took us 40 whole years to acquire.
I didn’t get what I thought I wanted for my 40th birthday, but I got so many other things I never would have dreamed up – it was even better.
Suddenly 40-nothing feels like 40-everything.