Friday, February 15, 2013

Growing Older

Last year I turned forty. It shouldn't have been any big deal for me. In fact, I spent most of my youth wanting to be older than I already was. Adulthood meant that I would be able to leave crooked teeth (and the vast array of embarrassing orthodontic devices meant to correct the problem) behind, that I might actually grow taller and develop a figure (that only sort of happened, on both counts), and that somehow, someday, I might actually get to make my own decisions and be taken seriously.

That or reading the Beloit College Mindset List.

So believe me, I was as surprised as my poor husband was when, a few weeks shy of the fateful day, I burst into tears over the idea of turning forty. It had come out of nowhere. What did I have to cry about? By almost every measure, my life was exactly where I wanted it to be. I have a happy marriage, and a nice (though perpetually messy and in-need-of-repair) house in a good neighborhood. My boys are reasonably well behaved and do well in school. I have work that I enjoy doing, even if the amount of it that I get qualifies it more as a hobby than an actual career. Of course, last year I was still massively overcommitted to volunteering, but even then I knew it wasn't going to last forever.

It took me a long time to figure out what was going on in my subconscious. I had actually left all the awkwardness of youth behind me. Adolescence was a hell I would never need to return to. I could fondly reflect on the days when my husband and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment filled with a collection of hand-me-down furniture that looked like it had been picked at random from the nearest Goodwill and know that all the inconveniences of sharing one coin-operated washer and dryer with the residents of five other apartments were behind me. I could even look back on my days of early motherhood and laugh indulgently at the young woman who thought it would be a good idea to re-read The Feminine Mystique while eyeball-deep in postpartum hormones, and who lugged around a diaper bag full of enough supplies to get Son #1 and me through the first week of a natural disaster in comfort. (For the record it is a horrible idea to re-read The Feminine Mystique when you have a newborn, unless you like sitting in a rocking chair clutching your baby and sobbing hysterically. And overloaded diaper bags are a good way to mess up your back and lose your favorite baby outfits because they get buried in the bottom of the bag.) So why the tears?

I think the first part was due to a quirk of timing in my life that yields much-deserved karmic lessons on a regular basis. You see, my mom had me when she was twenty-seven. I had Son #1 when I was two weeks shy of turning twenty-eight. So now when I look back on my childhood and think of how I viewed my mother at whatever age Son #1 happens to be at the moment, I am struck with the inescapable fact that he is probably seeing me the exact same way I saw my mom at the same time of life. When he was in early elementary school, this view was mostly pretty good. To my elementary-school self, my mom seemed both old and ageless. She was capable of anything in my eyes, and was always there when I needed her. And she always knew when I was trying to pull one over on her. I could tell by the confidence with which Son #1 expected me to be able to solve his problems that he saw me the same way, though on the inside I felt not terribly organized, just one step ahead of his needs. Hell, there were even days I felt as though I were the babysitter, and wondered what moron had decided to leave me in charge. And I discovered that the secret of my mother's seeming omniscience was that kids are really, really, really bad liars.

That started to change when Son #1 hit adolescence. It's obvious to him now that I don't know everything--all he has to do is ask for help with his math homework in order to find my Achilles heel. I am regularly treated to eye rolls and exasperated sighs, and as often as I am taken for granted as a source of solutions (i.e., clearing my calendar on a day's notice to help chaperone a middle-school hike) I am also taken as an impediment to the life he would like to be leading (how desperately unfair that I will not let him play the Xbox until his eyeballs bleed). I wonder if I am going to be paid back in kind for each eye roll and exasperated sigh I directed my mother's way, because if so I've got a long row to hoe yet. And is he looking at me with the same unsympathetic adolescent eye I turned to my mother, when she gazed in disappointment in the mirror? I'm sorry, Mom. Now I get it. I'm not sure where my crow's feet came from, or the cellulite on my butt. And why the hell am I still getting zits? I bet you were thinking much the same kind of thing back in the day--little did I know at the time that my day would come.

The other part was a far more sobering realization. It's that I have hit the point in life where I have to acknowledge that not everything is truly possible any more. Some options I don't care about now and never did--I never wanted to be an athlete (of any kind), and my efforts at exercise are just about evicting the aforementioned cellulite and keeping myself healthy. As fascinating as I find science, I know I don't have the math chops to be anything more than an interested observer. I'm too claustrophobic to go deep-sea diving and too prone to motion-sickness to ever go up in space. But some realizations are more painful. I know that taking thirteen years (and counting) out of the regular work force means that I will most likely never have a high-powered career of any kind, and there are times I feel like I let my own potential down by opting out. Despite my best intentions, I gave up writing for about eighteen years, and I'm not getting that time back. I will never have a daughter. As much as I used to enjoy the adventure of moving to a new place, I will most likely never live anywhere other than Los Angeles again. In other words, the life I have now is pretty much it.

It's not that I'm sorry to have the life I do (see paragraph two, above). In the grand scheme of things, I know how lucky I am, and how much of the good things in life I have in abundance. But now I think I get why people have mid-life crises. If I had looked around and been truly unhappy with what I saw, I might have felt desperate to start changing that right now. Instead I shed a few tears over the dreams that will stay dreams forever and moved on. The plans I make now will have to stick a little closer to reality, and that's okay. And if Son #1 is looking at me and thinking that I'm hopeless--well, someday he's probably going to have a teenage son who rolls his eyes over his receding hairline and horrible taste in music.