Turning forty is a big deal, right? Well, I dreaded it. Aging makes you think about your own mortality, and thinking about your own mortality is uncomfortable. Every August, I’m adamant in my desire to let my birthday pass unnoticed. No cake, gifts, or gatherings, please. (Memes and jokes about aging are 100% encouraged.) Despite my pleas to let my birthday go gentle into that good night, someone always organizes a birthday gathering, and a cake topped with an absurd number of candles appears before my fast-wrinkling face.

For my fortieth, I decided to high key carpe diem the hell out of my day. Some of my people and I went to Las Vegas to celebrate. My margarita glass was never empty. I floated in a private pool, drank like a fish, and danced well past 2:00 a.m. For a few glorious days, I lived like a 21-year-old again.

When I got home, the exhaustion hit. No, it wasn’t just exhaustion; it was relief. It’s fun to feel twenty-one…for a few days. But I didn’t want to be twenty-one again. Or thirty. Or even thirty-five. Why?

Because being forty is the shiznit. Let me tell you why…

1. You accept the weird, messy parts of parenting and know you’re making the best decisions for YOUR children.

As a new mom, I thought every other mother on the planet judged me for my parenting choices. I imagined condescending eyeballs firing laser beams of disdain at me when I let my kid climb up the slide at the playground. At the grocery store, I swore I caught glares for not using a shopping cart cover for my toddler. (He might or might not have licked the cart handle.) Hated breastfeeding? Judged. Fed them applesauce with added sugar instead of making homemade from apples plucked from trees at the apple farm? I was 100% positive Judgey-McJudger had something to say about that.

Sure, some of them judged me. These days I witness it online more than I do IRL. It’s easy to be a keyboard warrior. Real life is nothing like Facebook or Twitter. You witness the struggles of other mothers. Even if the struggles look different from your own, you can look a fellow mother in the eye and say, “I get it.” Because you do.

As my children and I aged together, I understood that no one actually gave AF about my parenting choices—not in the beginning, not now, not ever. For me, the challenge of raising tweens and teens dwarfs the concerns of my early parenting years, and I’m too busy and overcommitted to worry about what anyone else is doing anyway.

No. One. Cares. It took me more than a decade to realize this simple truth. Once you stop worrying about what other people think of you and your parenting choices, you are a free bird. You are already the mother you always wanted to be.

This is forty-something.

2. You’ve found your people.

Picture a crowded New York City street. You stand stock-still in the middle of the sidewalk, staring at the throng of faces rushing past you. Someone bumps your shoulder and knocks you off-balance. You nearly faceplant on the pavement, but you catch yourself. Rather than offer an apology, the transgressor grumbles, “Move your ass.” It hits you. No one cares if you bust your face on the pavement. No one knows you exist at all.

For me, that picture of a crowded New York City street depicts what it was like being a new mother. My husband and I had moved to a new state four months before I delivered our first child. My family lived out of town. I hadn’t made any friends. Heck, I hadn’t even met the neighbors. The isolation made me feel lonelier than I’d ever felt before. I found solace in online mom groups, which helped me when I needed a community to turn to with my parenting anxieties, but I yearned for local support and camaraderie.

When I took my son out for walks, I noticed duos and trios of other mothers together. Everywhere I went—the park, the pool, the toddler playground, etc.—I saw happy coteries of mothers. Honestly, I’m an introvert and find it difficult to strike up conversations with strangers. Still, it was high school all over again, and I sat at a table on the outskirts of the action, awkward and alone.

Guess what? Your village doesn’t flock to you. It isn’t built in a day. You develop it over many years. Real friendship requires investment. You have to make authentic connections with other people. And let’s be real for a sec—investing tons of time in new friendships is a stretch during those years of birthing, breastfeeding, naps, and potty training. Unless you’re fortunate enough to live near friends you made years ago, or you’re an extrovert to the nth degree, it’ll be some time before you can actively work to connect with new people.

As the kids enter elementary school and develop their own hobbies and interests, you meet new people every day. There are the volleyball moms. The marching band moms. The PTA moms. STEM moms. There are millions of moms out there, and some of them will like you for you (even if you’re awkward like me).

By the time you are forty-something, you’ve collected your people. You’ve made friends for keeps. You have a couple ride or dies, and you hold on to them for dear life. Yes, it’s still possible to make the best friend you’ve ever had in your 40s. Making friends isn’t something you stop doing once you hit a certain age.

This is forty-something.

3. You’ve learned to say “no.”

A couple years ago, some friends and I sat around and discussed our different interpretations of the word sure. Most of them used it literally, meaning “certainly.” One said she didn’t care for the word because she couldn’t decipher the user’s tone, particularly via text. For example, you ask someone to carpool to soccer practice. They say, “Sure.” Does that mean they’re happy to carpool? Or have you backed them into a corner where they feel obligated to say yes simply because you asked?

Until someone purposefully mentioned this in conversation, I hadn’t thought much about how I used the word. The hard truth was I only used it when I was agreeing to do something I didn’t want to do. And that’s passive-aggressive and gross.

Can you give Lily a ride to and from the meeting you’re holding AT YOUR HOUSE?
Actual response: Sure.
What I really mean: Are you kidding me? I’m hosting a meeting of multiple children at my house, and then I’m getting in my car to drive your child home once I’m done managing said meeting?

Want to carpool to band practice?
Actual response: Sure.
What I really mean: This again? We tried this last year, and I ended up doing 80% of the driving.

See what I mean—passive-aggressive and gross. I needed to grow up! Sure, I’m fine being inconvenienced sometimes (see what I did there). But if something sounds outrageous or doesn’t make sense for my schedule, it’s a hard pass. As a parent, I volunteer for X amount of opportunities and uphold my commitments. My husband and I show up for every concert, game, exhibition, etc. I refuse to do things that don’t make sense for my family and me just out of a false sense of obligation.

This is forty-something.

4. You know who you are.

For the love of everything that’s holy, the 20s make for a difficult decade. Self-doubt and insecurity plague the best of us, and our decision-making skills leave a lot to be desired. What do you want to do with the rest of your life? Where will you live? Who are you really? Technically, your brain doesn’t even start “adulting” until your frontal lobe is fully developed, which happens around the age of twenty-five.

Then come the 30s. Careers, families, and commitments kick into high gear. Maybe you’re settling into a career, or you’re training/switching to a new one. Maybe you’re done having kids. Or perhaps you’re starting your parenting journey. Possibly you’re a newlywed adjusting to married life. Whatever your situation, you’re still building your life.

I delivered my fourth and final child the year I turned 31. My husband and I brought four lives into this world in five short years. During my 30s, the years of sleep deprivation left me feeling foggy-headed and withdrawn. My husband and I existed in pure survival mode, treading water 24/7. We had no time to focus on anything but diapers, pacifiers, bottles, and sleep. It certainly wasn’t a period of self-discovery, to say the least.

Something magical happened when I entered my 40s. I slept again (until I didn’t because perimenopausal sleep-maintenance insomnia hit me like a fist to the throat). All of a sudden, I had time to take stock of my life.

I won’t apologize for my introversion anymore because it’s fundamental to my well-being. Yes, I can be moody, sarcastic, and inflexible; but I’m loyal, self-disciplined, and forgiving, too. I deflect emotional pain with humor and have a low tolerance for bullshit, and I can prattle on all day long about time travel, horror film, and the Oxford comma debate.

My point? As a forty-something, you’re comfortable in your own skin. Mostly. At least, I know I am.

Your identity evolves over the course of your lifetime, but you have a pretty good grip on what makes you you by the time you enter your fifth decade. You’ve experienced enough hardship. You’ve identified your core personal values and what makes you happy. You’ve loved and been loved. You’ve experienced heartache, grief, gratitude, and joy.

This is forty-something.

So stop freaking out about being in your 40s. Accept the mother you already are. You’ve found your people, and you’ve learned to say no. Most importantly, you know who you are, warts and all. It’s a rich, full decade of life. Don’t spend one minute of it wishing you were twenty-one again. This is soooo much better.

I made a promise to myself this year: Instead of evading offers to celebrate my birthday, I’m accepting them. There won’t be any private pools or endless margaritas, but there will be family, friends, and plenty of gratitude.

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