Reflections on Turning 40: Shaking Off the Dust of the Last Decade

As I write this, I am midway through my final day as a thirty-something. Tomorrow, I turn 40 and part of me wants to complain about getting old.

But I attended a funeral this morning for a nine-day old baby, and it strikes me that nothing could be more annoying or obnoxious than complaining about getting “old.” It’s a privilege not afforded to all. The little boy we mourned this morning will never see 40. Tom never saw 40. The kids who died in a car wreck last year will never see 40.

How supremely preposterous of me to act like turning 40 is a bad thing. I should be down on my knees thanking God for giving me 40 years on this planet. I should be grateful I’ve had this time with my parents, my friends, my family.

While that is paramount on my mind today, it is also natural to reflect a bit when we hit these major milestones.

So let’s reflect.

A Different Kind of Crisis

When I turned 25, I had something of a quarter-life crisis. Nothing had turned out as I had planned.

I should have been a Congressman by that point in my life, and if all had gone according to schedule, you’d be calling me Madame President right now. (No one has ever accused me of thinking small.)

Of course, at age 25, life looked a lot different. I was pregnant with my third child in what was, at that time, not a particularly happy marriage. I hadn’t gone to an elite school. I wasn’t rich, famous or anywhere close.

At age 25, this was all devastating. For some reason, I had in my mind that if you were going to do great things, it was only impressive if you were young. A 50-something Congressman? Pshaw. There’s like 300 of them. But a 20-something Congressman? That’s special. That would make me special.

Fast-forward 15 years, and I feel like I’m having a different sort of crisis. Not one about big life goals I’ve failed to achieve – no, I’ve outgrown that – but about the daily way I’m leading my life. I take a step back, look at myself and wonder ‘how did I get here?’

  • When did I get so lazy that I ask my teen to get the four-year old milk when she asks?
  • When did I get so hooked to my phone and computer that I can’t manage to unplug even one day a week?
  • When did I turn into the mom who gets annoyed when her kids ask for her attention?
  • When did I start having to force smiles?

Most importantly, is this what the next 40 years of life will look like for me?

I’m guessing a lot of the answers have to do with the last ten years. I’ve come to think of my 30s as my lost years. Fortunately, I’m also all about clean slates, and there is no better time than turning 40 to wipe the slate clean.

Saying Good-Bye to the Lost Years

I can’t deny moving from the decade of young adults to the decade of middle age leaves me feeling a bit conflicted. However, I think saying good-bye to my 30s will be good for my mental health. Eight of those ten years were filled with pain, disappointment and sorrow.

It’s too bad too because they started out so promising. After a rocky few years in which Tom and I wondered whether we really wanted to be married to each other, we hit that sweet spot. Life wasn’t perfect – I wished he’d go to church with us; he wished I’d go motorcycle riding with him – but we had made peace with our differences.

After a seven year hiatus, God apparently felt we were ready for another baby, and Boy #3 was on the way. I turned 32, and a month later, I got the call at work saying an ambulance was taking my dad to the hospital. The next day, I took my mom to my prenatal visit, and we walked across the street to see my dad. That night, a doctor told us he didn’t need a biopsy to tell him dad’s liver was dead.

I can pinpoint exactly when my 30s went south. It was that week. Dad would die late Sunday night. My blood pressure promptly rose, resulting in an early induction. When my blood pressure didn’t drop after discharge, what followed was a stressful hospitalization, complete with security guards outside the door.

Once home for good, Tom picked up the slack while I spent untold hours falling to pieces over the loss of my dad. One year later, my dad’s sister would die. Two weeks after that, Tom find out there was an 80 percent chance he wouldn’t be alive in five years. You can probably fill in the details from there.

Onward and Upward

Tom was dead before I could celebrate my 36th birthday, which should have given me plenty of time to salvage my 30s. Yes, widows in the crowd, laugh with me. You know better, right?

It would be easy to blame the last 4+ years of apparently lost time on my inability to pull myself together and buck up. However, I know better. Yes, I have zero regrets in how I handled those years. I regret the situation. I don’t regret my response.

From the outside – even from where I sit now, four years later – it seems ridiculous to think that I couldn’t do a better job. But I couldn’t. I know that. Between the needy newborn, the raging teens and my own bewilderment over being abandoned, simply getting dressed and the kids to school each day was a major accomplishment. I did what I needed to keep the wheels moving and our family fed and intact.

I can’t ask anything more of myself. I can’t feel bad about breaking down in front of strangers. I won’t apologize for going to McDonalds so often that the toddler in the back seat would light up like a Christmas tree every time we drove past one.

However, I also need to be realistic that those most difficult of years are behind us. It’s time to stop using Tom’s death as a crutch for the bad habits I’ve acquired from years of living in survival mode.

Now is the time to challenge myself to something better, something more. Gretchen Rubin, an author I love, ends her podcasts with the phrase “onward and upward.” That’s what I need for my life now.

We can’t go back. I can’t recover those years. I can’t make my broken children whole. I can’t undo the past. But I don’t have to give up. I don’t have to be satisfied with where I am right now. The next 40 years don’t have to be like the past ten.

Time to shake the dust off my shoes. Time to stop sitting in the shade crying. As Pope Saint John Paul II would say, “Rise, let us be on our way.”


* A note on the photo above: I really thought this birthday would come and go with little to no fanfare, but let me tell you, my friends have blown me away with their kindness and generosity. God may have taken my husband, but he has blessed with so many good friends to fill the hole left by his absence.


    1. Maryalene, You are blessed at this 40th b/d celebration…friends, humour, your readers, your dear children, family members. I am chuckling…you are so young compared to moi…I walked a half marathon in my 60th yr., and on my 65th, a quarter marathon. Mind you, I did not speed. I just wanted to be the tortoise, and GET THERE!! and say I had done it. I can only suspect that there are many many VIBRANT years ahead of you, and am glad for the connection we have made in this past year…it feels like someone understands!! And I have passed along to others the helps I have found here. I am so comforted to have a place where I can read and prepare my heart for some of what will be in our near future. May God continue to enrich your life, even as you have enriched ours! Carol

      1. Aw, thank you so much for your sweet comments Carol! I hope I’ll be doing half marathon when I’m 60. That’s really amazing!

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