One Year Shy of Forty: The Perils of Starting Over

Next week, I will be one year shy of forty years old.

I don’t feel anywhere close to that 4-0 decade. Somewhere, somehow, I detoured off the path of endowed wisdom, financial security, and gainful employment – all the things one is supposed to have as they nudge up against that fourth decade. There is this myth in our culture; once you hit 40 years old (or one year short of), you should kinda sorta know who you are. You are almost at a halfway point (if not past it), so you should have the important stuff figured out by now.

Yet, what am I doing as I turn one year shy of forty?

I’m starting over. Completely.

During my thirty-eight year, I left my 12-year marriage, reentered the work force after being out of it for just as long, saw the last of the five stepchildren I raised go off to college, and I started a new life as a single working mother.

I fell out of an entire income bracket once I left my marriage, if that tells you anything. I’m temping, for God’s sake. I am right back where I was just out of college: trying to start a career and build a life with extremely limited resources. I have something most college graduates don’t have — a 10-year-old son.

In all of my almost thirty-nine years, this year was the most fearful. Every decision, every juncture was marked by a series of “what ifs”: What if I fail? What if I become completely destitute? What if I can’t find work? What if I suck at everything? What if I have to go on food stamps (I did, briefly). What if…what if…what if…

Ten months later, I’m in my own apartment for the first time in more than a decade. It is a struggle, but I’m managing. My ex has helped me, as well as family. I’m still temping yet I’ve amazed myself how useful I’ve become to the place where I work. I’m slowly learning to appreciate my value.

But as I turn one year shy of forty next week, there is still one big “what if”: What if I spend this birthday, and every one after that, alone?

I’ve never been a big celebrator of my own birthday. This year, however, I am a tiny bit afraid of that day. There will be no forgetting. I will be alone. It will be just another day. There will be no spouse to bring me flowers. No one outside of my family (and Facebook friends who will get a reminder that it is my birthday) will know. There will be no gifts and no cake.

This bothers me. I don’t know why. Most of my birthdays were so uneventful that I can’t remember them. I did not mind the uneventfulness. There were years I actually forgot when it was my birthday. But it is different this year.

Why is that? The only thing I can come up with is that in the process of building a new life, I sometimes feel that I have no one to watch me as I do it. Nothing reminds one of milestones and benchmarks (the good and the bad) more than a birthday.

I take comfort in the fact that I know many newly single people feel the same way. We face that first post-divorce birthday in retrospection. Where do I go from here? Will I be alone next year, as well? What if my life, at this moment, is the best that it will ever be?

And the big one: What if everything from here is downhill?

How will I celebrate my birthday next week? I don’t know. I have no plans. My immediate plan is to allow myself to be sad. But I’ll get over that quite quickly.Image

But I hope that the biggest gift I’ll get is the ability to reflect upon the past year and recognize all the awesomeness I’ve accomplished. And the year leading up to that big 4-0? Well, as one person told me, “Honey, you won’t be Kansas anymore!”

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