I feel like it’s a significant birthday. I wasn’t particularly freaked out by any of my other milestone birthdays. Turning thirty was nothing – I had a baby girl who was turning a year old two weeks after my birthday. That was my focus. Turning thirty five wasn’t a big deal either, I was busy. I had a six year old and a three year old, and I was thinking about getting pregnant with Julie.
All of this, I’m sure, is part of why I’m so panicked about my fortieth. I’m probably done having babies. And even if I’m not, I don’t have any immediate plans to get pregnant, and I’m pretty sure that I won’t. Such a huge part of my life is over. The creation part. Now I’m just living the dream. So to speak.
This is horribly inarticulate, but it’s hard for me to entirely understand what I’m feeling right now.
Forty just feels like something I need to pay attention to – to take stock of where I am, what I’ve done. To honor my past, to really think about what brought me here. So I thought what I’d do, in preparation for my birthday next Saturday, is to take some time to look back. Before I can look forward. Before I can look at where I am right now.
So much of what I do these days is day to day chaos, running from here to there, school pick up and girl scout cookie booths, planning out dinner and pushing kids into the bath. Trying to cram in a little bit of writing, desperately reading to try and center myself. Focusing on my marriage in tiny stolen moments of the day, and rushing, rushing, rushing from one thing to the next. Which is lovely, in and of itself. I have this incredibly blessed life, filled with people I love and activities that bring me fulfillment and joy. But it isn’t a life that leads itself to a lot of introspection, at least not at this point.
My first decade was probably the most challenging so far. I was the oldest of four children. My parents got married out of high school, and had me two years later. My two brothers were born almost exactly two and four years after me, and my youngest sister was born when I was five and a half. My parents’ marriage was ending, and they separated very soon after my sister was born. I had a huge extended family, on both sides, my mother was one of six kids and my father was one of eight. Both had grown up in the same small town that we still lived in, and I was enveloped in this incredibly close and loving world. My father was…. around? for most of that decade. I have very few memories of him, and the ones that I have aren’t entirely lovely. They aren’t entirely bad, but they are few and far between. His family opted out, and we were a single parent family long before it was something that was mainstream. It was a “broken home” and I was achingly aware of it. I was an introspective kid, and not at all comfortable with being a kid. I wanted to grow up, I wanted to be old enough to make the decisions and be an adult. My mother gave me the incredible gift of absolute faith. She loved me, and trusted me. Because she was confident that I was responsible and capable, I was. I felt like the other adult in the family. I was always aware of being the oldest kid, of having to set an example of good behavior. I loved, loved, loved reading. I loved babysitting, and being the one that everyone turned to. I felt much older than I was.
Mostly, when I think of this decade, I think of confusion. My parents (my mother) always gave us the gift of our own feelings, she didn’t want to tell us how to feel about the divorce or make us feel as though we couldn’t express ourselves, but it was a double edged sword. Because I hated being in the middle, being the one to decide where to go and who to spend time with. Having the power and the responsibility for my own feelings was scary at times. Because I was the oldest, the other three followed me, which meant that if I was with my mother, my father was alone. And vice versa. While it makes so much sense, and was a decision made with love and respect, I still remember that aching feeling, of knowing that whatever decision I made, one of my parents would be hurt.
My second decade was better. It got better as I got older. I was completely out sync with my classmates at school, and didn’t ever feel really comfortable. When I was eleven, I met the girl who became my best friend and got me thru junior high and high school. I grew into my identity as the slightly weird girl who read incessantly and was a good writer. I babysat all the time, still spent far too much of my time worrying about self-imposed family responsibility. I started to like who I was, and what I was doing. I got a job after school and found friends that had nothing to do with school and family. I fell in love, kind of, and went thru the requisitite series of unrequited crushes. I went to football games and kept score for field hockey and softball, allowing me to sort of feel like I was doing stuff without actually having to do anything. My teen years were fun, I think. I didn’t love it, wouldn’t repeat it for anything, but I think I was happier as a teenager than I was as a child.
My twenties, though, I liked my twenties. I lived with my cousin for most of it, in our little apartment in Maynard. We had a dog, and a I had a series of jobs that were fun and not all that engaging. I dated, if you could call it that, and had my heart broken a couple of times. The drama of it all appealed to me, as did just being on my own. I was starting to distance myself from being the oldest child, the one everyone turned to. But only a little bit, because I was still really involved in everything. I had nieces and nephews over all the time, family members coming to stay with us. I was still very family oriented, and not really ready for anything else. My love affairs, if you could call them that, were safe. Nobody really challenged me or pushed me for more than I was ready to give. I didn’t trust relationships. And looking back, I’m sure it’s no accident that I was 28 before I met the man I’d spend the rest of my life with. It took at least that long before I was ready for him.
I met Marc just after my birthday, and it was like a whirlwind. I fell in love, so fast. Got pregnant even faster. I don’t always know that I believe that everything happens for a reason – but I do know that losing that pregnancy, losing my twins one at a time, pushed me closer to Marc. It shattered me. And when I was at my most vulnerable, he was there. Solid and strong and loving and everything I had long given up any hope of finding. And so we stayed together. For all intents and purposes, we were a unit from that first night, and a week before our one year anniversary, we had Jessica Mary.
Which is a lovely segue into my thirties. I learned more in the past decade, about myself, about mothering, about family. About marriage and identity and spirituality and everything else you could think of. Marc helped me to grow up, in the nicest of ways. I stopped defining myself as a daughter, a sister, and an aunt. I became a wife and a mother. Converted to Judaism, which was a long process that was so internal – really thinking about who I was, who I am. What kind of values did I want to pass on to my children. Standing up for what I wanted, and what I believed, even when it didn’t match up with what my family wanted. And on the flip side, standing up for what I wanted and what I believed, even when it didn’t (doesn’t) match what traditional Jewish converts do. I still struggle with that – I like to have everyone agree with me, and learning to live with disapproval is not easy for me.
My thirties is when I had my Jessie, and she completed my life in a way that I still can’t describe. My Sammy – who taught me so much about motherhood, about strength and love and tenderness. My Julianna, my sunshiney angel who brings so much laughter and joy into everything. We’ve built us from the ground up – a marriage based on trust and communication and absolute commitment. Parenting the whole family, his two daughters from his first marriage, and our three together. I’ve been very focused on being a mother for this decade. And it’s been lovely and hard and scary and so breathtakingly beautiful at times that I can’t begin to find the words for it.
Each decade has gotten progressively better. Richer. I’ve learned so much and changed and grown. I’ve had this incredible life so far, blessed with a family of orgin that wasn’t perfect, but was loving and accepting and supportive and strong. I had aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents who adored me, in addition to my mother, who’s just flat out freaking awesome. And my brothers and sister, my stepsisters, and my stepdad, my nieces and nephews. I was incredibly lucky to have that, as a child and as an adult. I’ve got a husband who’s my best friend, and I’m endlessly interested in him. He’s brilliant and kind, the kind of father every child should have, and I’ll never, ever stop being grateful that I’m lucky enough to have him. I have two stepdaughters – and they make being a stepmother easier every year. They are amazing sisters for my kids, and they are so blessed to have them in their lives. I have my own children, my Jessie, my Sam, my Julie. They are simply everything I’d ever dreamed of having, these beautiful, healthy children – and they make the prospect of getting older seem like such a gift. To be able to watch them grow, to be able to be their mother, it’s my wildest dreams come true.
So maybe turning forty won’t be that bad. When I really look at my life, at where I’ve been and where I am and where I’d like to be – when I see how much I’ve gained with each new decade, when I look at how much richer my life is with each passing year, how can I be anything other than delighted to blow out the candles on Saturday?