In a few days, another birthday will roll around. The thirty seventh one, to be precise. 37 – how did that happen?
I’ve been thinking recently that maybe I should have a bucket list of things I want to do or “achieve” before I turn 40. “40” is a big number, and only a moment ago it seemed like a very long way away – yet here it comes, hurtling towards me like a boulder down a hill. So maybe a bucket list would make me feel more in control of the situation, less like life is happening on its own terms.
But you see, I did the bucket list thing when I was 27. I had the collection of things I wanted to do and achieve over the next decade. They were all the normal things – whatever “normal” is. They were things like get married, live in a lovely house we owned ourselves (near our friends so we could have dinner parties), grow my career, have babies, travel… I wrote it down and I envisaged it.
And then life happened on its own terms anyway.
It’s not that I didn’t get the things on my bucket list. Quite the opposite. I got so much more than I ever knew I wanted, I’m starting to think that bucket list was a bit redundant. My birthday gift as I turn 37 is the understanding that when what we dream for ourselves doesn’t come true, sometimes it’s because life has other plans for us. Better ones.
I did get married, and we do have a house, but we’ve never lived in it. We’ve never experienced the thrill of renovating it to make it our own and picking out paint colours for the children’s bedrooms. We don’t live near our friends – or at least not the friends I thought we would. We’ve instead lived in places I’d never have imagined and, while old friendships, unaffected by distance, remain as important in our hearts as they ever were, we’ve had the chance to make new friends, several times over. We’ve called new places “home”.
I did have babies, but not the way I thought I would. Is anything about having babies the way one thinks it’s going to be? In my case, one was born on a windy island in the middle of the Irish Sea, and the other in the middle of Europe where English wasn’t the midwives’ first language. With the first baby I felt as though my every purpose in life had been realised in her sweet face the moment I laid eyes on her, and I floated on cloud nine for most of the first year. My second was much harder – her arrival shook my comfortable little world, tilted my reality and plunged me into a post-natal murkiness I was utterly unprepared for, and which I had to claw my way out of bit by bit. But each experience was far more real and far more precious than I could have imagined when I simply wrote on my list “have babies”.
We have travelled, but – ha ha – the joke was on us. We had no idea that travelling with little ones would be less about “seeing the world” and more about crouching awkwardly on floors in strange places to change nappies, armed with wet wipes and disinfectant gel. On the flip side, we will now and forever be able to see the world through the eyes of our daughters – and that’s where the magic is.
My career took a backseat to my husband’s as we moved from place to place – not something a 27-year-old me with lofty ambitions and a love of new shoes would ever have put on a list of aspirations for her life. But after Annabel was born I knew immediately that looking after her would be the best job in the world. Putting my career on the back burner and moving around for my husband’s meant I got to stay home with both my girls, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat – even if I do feel like a crazy lady some days.
In my twenties I think I felt pressured by the notion that right then I was living the best years of my life. I looked as good as I was ever going to look, I had as much freedom as I was ever going to have, my life was as shiny as it was ever going to be. Now I’m older, I’m starting to learn the secret: that simply wasn’t the case. Because life only gets better. Fuller. Richer. More interesting. As cliched as it sounds, getting older is a privilege and a gift that not everyone gets to experience.
Goals in life are great, and obviously I’m all for setting them. Perhaps I will write a “bucket list” of what I want in terms of my personal, professional and fitness goals over the next few years. But I’m also going to keep letting life happen a bit. Letting it reveal its surprises, nudge me in unexpected directions, take me with its tide to places I couldn’t have imagined when I was 27, places I can’t imagine now.
I’m rolling with it.
So, although after 37 years I consider myself an expert on absolutely nothing, I implore you: if you’re twentysomething, or thirtysomething, or fortysomething, and you feel you’re not “where you should be by now” – please believe that you are. As that lovely poem Desiderata says, “no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should”. Or, as my guy Jon Bon Jovi would have it, “Welcome to wherever you are”.
Come on 37. Let’s see what you’ve got. Happy birthday to me.
[Featured image from Oprah.com]