Thursday, 4 February 2016

Getting to Grips with Getting Old

Life begins at 40, so the saying goes, but as the dust settles, the celebrating is over and 40 limps into 41, with 42 snapping a bit too closely at its heels, I haven't found it easy to accept the fact that I'm well and truly embedded into middle life. Just as it continues to astound me that I'm responsible for not just one but two  - TWO! - small human beings, I often wake up thinking I can't really be almost 43...can I?

Well, yes, it's a fact, usually brought pretty sharply into focus with that first glimpse in the mirror each morning. The grey hairs, the frown lines, the tired complexion...and the back. Have I mentioned the back? I never, ever thought I'd get a bad back. Well, now I'm middle aged, I have one. And a varicose vein...on my tongue! Who knew getting old could give you one of those?

As it goes, though, I can just about handle the physical changes at the moment (come back to me on that one in a couple of years...) but the mental impact of going beyond 40? Not so good. As someone with a tendency to anxiety, transiting from the home-building, family-growing adventures of my 30s to the 'is this it?' questioning of my forties hasn't been easy for me. I've become acutely aware of the lightening speed at which time now passes, and frequently wear myself out trying to pack as much into each day as possible (which really is exhausting now I'm nearly 43 - what happened to having boundless energy?) It's true what they say about time accelerating as you get older; feels like only yesterday I was hitching a papoose over my back, now my back hurts and I'm the bemused parent of a hormonal 12-year-old.

The great paradox of raising children is that while the days seem so very long when you're stuck at home with a baby or toddler, those years really do pass in a heartbeat. I know I was guilty of wishing time away when they were small, thinking perhaps that once they were sleeping through the night, eating solids, out of nappies, etc, life would become more manageable. In reality of course - and I can speak with some authority now I'm a middle aged person! - there will always be some new challenge to blindside you, so if you're new to this parenting lark, please don't wish time away; cherish those those long, routine-free days while you can.

Once they're at school, of course, the pace picks up. Time slips through your fingers. You'll no doubt be juggling commitments at work with other life stuff: caring for elderly parents or relatives, perhaps, getting involved in 'grown-up' things like the school committee, taking children to clubs, parties, friends houses, keeping on top of ceaseless housework and frequent irritations like homework and household IT issues. But despite being in a constant state of busyness, there will always be just enough time in my day for a mini panic, usually focused on work, money, the future..."Arrgh! I'm nearly 43! I can't be working in social media when I'm an over-the-hill old person! Arrrgh! I need to retrain! Arrggh! I'm too old to retrain!"...sound familiar? 

Becoming older is a sobering experience if you're a natural worrier and a seeker of stability. Having only just weathered the storm of the financial crisis, I've never been more acutely aware that my career never really got off the ground, my savings are small yet my outgoings ever greater. The worry of funding my children's further education - now only a few years off - looms large in my mind. I've never had a 'life plan' and now, at almost 43, that suddenly seems a bit remiss. Add in a constant drip of social media, where everyone else seems to be living the dream, and it's no wonder that so many 40-somethings succumb to that most insidious of malaises, affluenza. 

Then there are worries about health to contend with. Friends get diagnosed with cancer, parents get dementia and we imagine it's not so difficult for such things to happen to us, too. The invincibility of youth is replaced with a nagging hypochondria that makes us worry about every cough, lump and bump. 

I wonder how past generations approached middle age? The mid life crisis is not a new phenomenon but I can't help but feel that our obsession with clinging on to youth is something that's taken root in more recent years. Perhaps mine was the first generation most frequently told you can 'have it all', the first generation where travelling the world and leaving settling down till much later was the norm. An extended youth, free of responsibility is great, of course, but I do wonder if it makes the reality of middle age life just that bit more difficult to adjust to. 

Certainly my parents - who took one very frugal holiday a year (no half term skiing for them) rarely went out for dinner, and would scoff at the idea of 'life goals' - have often said that my generation, despite generally enjoying much more affluent, experience-rich lifestyles, seem pretty dissatisfied with their lot. While my parents made sensible provisions for their future, they didn't fixate on where they'd be in 10 years time, they just got on with life in the here and now, muddling along, enjoying the good times and doing their best to weather the storms when they passed overhead. 

So, now I'm officially middle aged I'm taking a leaf out of their book. To echo the words of psychotherapist Phillipa Perry in this excellent article by Miranda Sawyer, life really is too short to fixate on all the things you don't have, the goals you haven't attained now you're at that midway point:

"When people torment themselves with: 'If only I had… or if only I were…'," she writes, "I like to bring them to their actual felt experience of being alive in the present. People can suddenly find themselves alone, or jobless, at midlife and panic that they need another person or job in order to be alive. But that is only an idea. I like to keep things experience-based rather than idea-based. When they really experience the different relationships and occupations they actually have, they find that they are thriving."

Perhaps we could all do with a reminder that always imagining a more comfortable, more stable future is tantamount to letting the present pass us by. Because one day it is the future and though you may have those much yearned for things - the big garden, the stable job, the loft conversion - that most precious commodity, time, is far more tricky to pin down and contain. 

So how about a kinder approach to our middle aged selves: being a little more present in the moment, not beating ourselves up for not having achieved all those 'life goals'. Taking a step back from the frenetic pace of modern life and enjoying good health by looking after ourselves but remembering that our bodies - even our saggy, ageing ones - are awesome and hard-wired to keep us well. Spending time with people that matter and saying 'yes' more. Not bemoaning the passing of youth but taking joy in the knowledge that our happiest years (take a look at this article for evidence) may still be yet to come...
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