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.”