Great expectations

In the spirit of honesty, upon which this blog is built, I confess that I spent the first hour or two of my 41st birthday – on Tuesday just gone – in my pyjamas, in my bed and in tears. The sadness started to creep up on me on Monday evening. I tried to avoid it with some obsessive worrying late into the night about things that really didn’t need worrying about. But by my birthday morning, there was nothing I could do but give in to it. Phone calls from family and friends interrupted my tears at frequent intervals and I shared some laughs with everyone who called. But I also shared my sadness. As soon as their tuneful rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” was over and they asked me how I was doing, I told them I was feeling blue. That was my truth. And everyone understood.

So why was I feeling glum? After all, things are good. Work is varied and interesting and arrives in my inbox just when I’m wondering where the money is going to come from next. My flat is pretty, sunny and homely. I have my health, as does my family. And I have plenty of fabulous friends – a few of which I was due to see on my birthday at the movies and at dinner (and I did, and had a lovely time, without any tears).

I initially assumed my sadness was to do with the whole baby thing. As any woman my age who feels she might like to have children will know, every birthday after 40 carries great significance. Despite the miracle baby stories we’re constantly told – “Oh, I knew someone who gave birth to a perfectly healthy baby at 45,” or 46 or 47, insert what ever age you like – it’s impossible not to see the window of opportunity closing with the passage of time. And it’s difficult not to grieve, even if we still have time and hope.

But while the baby thing obviously had something to do with my sadness, I realised, on reflection, that it was less specific than that – it was more to do with the big picture. It was to do with my expectations of where I thought I would be or should be at this age. As lovely as my life is (when I remember to appreciate it), I did not expect it to look anything like it does at this age. I didn’t expect, on my 41st birthday, to be talking to my Mum from the silence, stillness and aloneness of my one-bedroom flat in north London or to be pondering which way to turn in my career.

So what did I expect? Well, it might sound clichéd but I think I expected to be happily married, with children, living in a house with a garden. I also expected to be working in a high-powered, high-profile job reporting from global hotspots in the vein of CNN’s Christiane Amanpour or reading the BBC news like Fiona Bruce. Perhaps I expected to have a book published too. And of course I imagined by now I’d be baking regularly and wearing the latest fashions from Boden.

And where did those expectations come from? Well, I remember vividly having discussions with my childhood friends, around 15 or 16, about the exact age at which we’d get married and have children. I think my upper limit was 28. That seemed pretty reasonable at the time. Wrapped up in those discussions was a picture of what our lives would look like in the future and back then, 41 seemed positively ancient and very grown-up.

Hence the question I was asking myself on Tuesday morning: How on earth did I get this old? Where did all those years go? What happened to my 30s? And shouldn’t I be more grown-up by now (meaning responsible for a small person and not just myself)?

Expectations. They can be bad for your health and happiness. Having a fixed idea of how we want our lives to look and holding on to it tightly, rather than loosely, can lead to disappointment. Imagine if we didn’t expect anything from our lives. Imagine if we didn’t think about our future and how we’d like it to be. Imagine if we really did just live one day at a time and in a state of permanent thankfulness for our health or for simply being alive.

But then how to get the balance between aspiring to good things and taking appropriate action to move ourselves in the right direction whilst also not expecting so much that we end up disappointed? It’s a tricky one. If we always expected the worst – to be run over by the next bus, to contract an incurable disease, to lose all our friends and family to a natural disaster – we’d never leave the house or we’d walk around in a permanent state of glumness. It seems we need optimism to function and we’re programmed to look on the bright side, as explained in this Guardian article by neuroscientist Tali Sharot: The Optimism Bias, an idea I explored in a Psychologies Magazine article on optimism and pessimism a while back.

Personally, I don’t want to stop hoping for the best or dreaming about things I would like to come to pass. But as I’ve written about before on this blog, holding on tightly to outcomes and not allowing any room for manoeuvre is a path thwart with frustration and sadness. And by staring fixatedly at one particular outcome, we can often miss the beautiful opportunities that are waiting for us just beyond our blinkers. This year, I’d like to keep the blinkers off and to be more attune to my peripheral vision. As one of my birthday cards said: “Sometimes on the way to the dream, you get lost and find a better one.”

On the topic of birthday cards, I received another one with a quote from Chinese writer and inventor Lin Yutang, which said: “If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.”

That quote and card brought tears to my eyes (I have rather over-active tear glands – you may have noticed – and especially on birthdays), particularly because it came on the back of a hectic weekend at the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre. I had an amazing time at the festival and was there Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I heard talks by inspiring, creative and funny women. I sat on a panel on body image and ageing. I networked. I was mentored and I mentored. I learned that my fear of success was far greater than my fear of failure and I was encouraged to seize life and its opportunities and to put my talents to full use.

But amidst all the inspiring talk, the most powerful message I heard and the one that touched me most was that sometimes we need to do less, not more, to achieve less, not more and to stop running, aspiring, striving, jumping and climbing. And that’s why that Lin Yutang quote, above a picture of two girls lying on a picnic rug in a meadow, brought tears to my eyes. Achievement means precious little if we can’t enjoy it, celebrate it and take some time out from it. Maybe sometimes we just need to say that’s enough for now. Maybe we need to put things on hold and hang out on a picnic rug in the sunshine.

I know I’m not going to stop working or trying and nor do I want to. I still have a drive and a desire to put my talents to good use. But maybe I can give up striving. Maybe I can sometimes take the easy way out instead of the path marked ‘struggle’. Maybe I can prioritise my free time over my work time and make sure I celebrate my successes.

So that’s my wish for myself this year and for anyone else who is prone to doing too much, achieving too much, striving too much or running too much: more fun, more laughter, more joy and more time spent on picnic rugs in the sunshine.

To quote from another greetings card that hangs in my bathroom: “How beautiful it is to do nothing and then rest afterwards.”



About Katherine Baldwin

I am a writer, coach, midlife mentor, motivational speaker and the author of How to Fall in Love - A 10-Step Journey to the Heart. I specialise in coaching women and men to have healthy relationships with themselves so that they can form healthy and loving romantic relationships and lead authentic, fulfilling lives. I coach 1:1, lead workshops and host retreats.
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12 Responses to Great expectations

  1. I found your blog via Gateway Women and I’m so glad I did. You write beautifully and I feel I understand lots of the thoughts and ideas you’re describing. I think a lot too about striving. On the one hand I think its the key to success. On the other it seems to be the key to living under almost constant pressure. Maybe the key is to accept that paradox and try to relax into it. I wonder…

    I love the message from the card on your bathroom!

    So pleased to have discovered your lovely writing.

  2. Hi Olivia,
    Welcome to my blog! And thank you so much for reading and commenting. I think you’re right about the paradox and that the key is to learn to live with it, find the balance within in. That’s my goal, but it takes a lot of trial and error! Nice to have you on board the blog.
    Best wishes,

  3. roisin says:

    Another heartfelt post Katherine. Your feelings really resonate with me, I am in that space of spending some part of every day at the moment wondering where/why it all went wrong and how could my life have ended up so different from the one which I imagined, the one that everyone said would happen for me one day if I was patient and when it still didnt materialise, the one that I was determined to make happen by hook or by crook. And yet here I am/you are (and many more of us Im sure) with a reality far from the one we wanted. Its a struggle to not feel like a failure some days and I have over active tear ducts at the moment too!

    • Hi Roisin,
      Thanks for commenting. Sorry to hear you’ve been suffering from similar blues. It’s definitely a tricky age. I hope you’re not feeling like a failure today. I’m pleased to say my glum feelings have receded since my birthday – I’ll blog about that soon – and I also received a comment from a woman who has all the things I thought I’d have at this age – big house, family, pets and regular baking! – but who also struggles with similar feelings to us. That has helped put things in perspective for me and I’ll be blogging about that soon also. I hope you’re feeling good about where you’re at today.
      Best wishes,

    • london_girl says:

      Hi Roisin, what you said really resonated with me, as did your post, Katherine.
      I am 45 and have just moved again, for the third time in three years, to a small studio flat which feels far from permanent (although nice enough for now), but being all I can currently afford. I don’t have kids, and never met anyone I wished to marry, therefore feeling very much alone right now. I have great friends, and a very loving and supportive ex-partner, but struggle very much with the “where did I go wrong?” line of self-questioning. I constantly berate myself for having ‘failed’ (as I see it), and for not making more “effort” to find husband/career/home/kids. As if, somehow, it was all under my control!
      The day I moved into my small flat, I stood there and the tears came, as this small, cold lonely space was most definitely NOT what I had envisaged for myself at 45. Like you both, it would have been kids around me, husband, a home to house all my potential pets, and a full, happy and busy life. The polar opposite is true right now and I could cry just writing this.
      It’s so valuable to know I am not alone in this, and that others feel exactly like I do.
      Thank you for your great post, and in those early morning hours when I feel my life has completely lost direction, I am grateful that there are others who share this with me.

      • Hi london_girl, and an apology for my delayed reply. I usually write back to those who are kind enough to comment but you must have slipped through the net. I wanted to say thanks so much for sharing and writing and I hope that you’ve been feeling brighter since you commented a few weeks back. I think there are so many of us out there who are living a life we totally didn’t expect to be living at this age – one without the white picket fence, the husband and children etc – so you’re definitely not alone. I’m pleased you found some comfort from reading other women’s experiences – that was definitely the aim of this blog, to provide a space where we could share what was really going on to help each other through the tough times. You might also be interested in checking out Jody of Gateway Women (see her comment below) and her website. Jody is all about inspiring women who’ve ended up without the things they thought they wanted or society expected of them. She’s a great example of someone who’s refound her mojo after struggling for years with the sadness of not becoming a mum.
        I hope we can all continue to share. We’re definitely not alone!
        Best wishes, Katherine

  4. jan says:

    Happy birthday b. Miss you x

  5. Jodykat says:

    Happy Birthday, dear Katherine.

    I too found my 41st birthday a real drag. I found turning 40 was exciting and the beginning of a whole new adventure. Somehow, when I turned 41, I wasn’t prepared for the fact that the meter was going to keep running…!! The next birthday, therefore, didn’t come as such a surprise… or such a big downer.

    I think it’s important to have dreams, and it’s important to be sad that they haven’t come to pass. This period of mourning will pass, I promise.

    Accepting our powerlessness over ‘making stuff happen’ isn’t easy, or fun. And I think accepting that we’re finding it hard to accept our powerlessness is fine too 🙂

    You are an inspiration to me, and to so many other women. I know it doesn’t cuddle you on your birthday, but I hope it warms your heart.

    With HUGE HUGS

    Jody x

  6. Hi Jody,
    Thanks so much for your beautiful and supportive words. I really appreciate it and it really helps to know you’re around and that you’ve been through so much and come out the other side with renewed verve and lust for life. See you soon I hope!
    Katherine x

  7. Blue Rabbit says:

    Hi Katherine,

    So sorry to read about the tears of sadness and frustration shed on your Birthday. Although, I am a few years younger than your 41 years, I understand your blues of unmet expectations which we all have in one form or another. The years tick by so quickly before we even have time to draw breathe and wonder why we haven’t achieved the very things in life that we assumed would have happened – marriage and children.

    It is interesting to read your mention of a message from a lady who has the very thing that you and I (and so many other women) desire and that is the husband, the house and the children. Yet, I imagine that she longs to be in our position of independence, having time for ourselves, pursuing our passions and interests. Although, our longing for the simply pleasures and the bliss of family life is ever present, if we did have it, would we be happier and more content?

    It is good for us to take stock of our current circumstances and appreciate the blessings.

    Is the grass ever greener?

    I am struggling to decide what I really want. Am I ready to give up my fun, full, independent and active current existence for the prospect of motherhood (considering donor insemination at the moment), or should I see whatever life might still hold for me?

    I do not know. I pray that whatever happens, I will continue to embrace and live my life to the full.


  8. Thanks, Blue Rabbit, for your comment. I think the key, as you mentioned, is to appreciate where we’re at and all the good things in our lives. I’m starting to realise the grass is rarely greener – it’s just cut differently! And I’m starting to learn not to compare my insides with other people’s outsides, because we never know what’s going on in their insides! I wish you all the best as you ponder your situation and your next move and particularly as you “embrace and live life to the full”, which sounds like a great plan!
    Best wishes, Katherine x

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