“You might live to be 104 years old,” my mom said to me recently.
“Please, no,” I joked, thinking of all the ailments and losses I would have to endure to get to that age. On the bright side, I suggested to her, if a one-hundred year life is the new normal, maybe we could relax a little about work-life balance. There’s plenty of time for everything.
When my children are grown, I can kick off a new career path, developing my skills from age 50 to 60 and then reaching the top of my game at 68, enjoying a position of authority and mastery through my 70s at which point I will begin to wind down til I pick up a few hours of interesting work here and there in my early 80s. Finally, at 84, I’ll be ready to rest and focus on self-care. Twenty golden years ought to be enough, don’t you think?
The thing is, we don’t know when the last day is.
When Julian was born, he had a pair of pajamas that I hated because the phrase on the chest read, “If they could just stay little,” which is apparently the Carter’s layette tagline. I felt like I was waiting for him to get bigger, to smile, to sit up.
These stupid jammies wanted him to remain a wobbly-headed cross-eyed newborn forever? Eff that.
Now my kids are at an age that I love. They still need me terribly, but not every second. They can buckle their own seat belts and put on their own pants. They invite me into their secret clubs and make me drawings. Some days I think I want to freeze them at this age because I know this happy balance of dependence and independence won’t last forever. Suddenly I have empathy for the author of that embroidered message, “If they could just stay little.” It must have been written by a parent my age, or even one who has 30 years on me.
Today’s my fortieth birthday. It’s got me thinking.
My 70-year old self would probably look at my life today and say three things:
1) You should have worn the bikini. As much as I dislike my lower abdomen with it’s stretched out uneven flesh, it’s not going to get any better. I’m a native Californian who spent her teenage summers unselfconsciously in a bikini. After Julian was born, I converted to a one-piece to hide my squishy belly. I’m sure as my body ages, I will look back at my strong, cancer-free, 40-year old body and wish I could have brought it with me into the future. If you are reading this and you are 26, you should probably go put on a bikini right now. When you’re 40, you might wish you had not wasted anytime being embarrassed about the way you look.*
2) Get a mammogram. I didn’t need Angelina Jolie to add this to my to-do list. It was already there. Laying around my house somewhere is the doctor’s order for the test, requested by me when I was 39. I set out to do 40 self-care tasks in the forty days leading up to my birthday, and I’m getting close. I’ve had a facial, seen the doctor, made a dermatologist appointment to get my moles checked, donated a “stretch” sum of money to a cause that matters to me, increased my water intake, improved the ergonomics of my workspace, and more. I know, I know, getting my breasts squished by an x-ray machine is simply a sensible way to celebrate one’s birthday.
3) If they could just stay little! Seriously, lady? Did you just quote that trite and stupid phrase to my face? Oh, wait, it’s me talking to myself. Yes, I’m sure at 70 I’ll be wistful for the days of my grade-school aged children, and that’s what “little” will mean to me by then. A major perspective shift for me this year is to realize that it is a privilege to get older, and not one that everyone gets to enjoy. When 8-year old Martin Richard died in the Boston Marathon bombing, I thought about how grateful I need to be for every age and stage I get to have with my children and the rest of my family. I lose a lot of sleep worrying about accidental death and random violence. My husband and I ventured through our 20s and 30s together and I am feeling lucky to turn 40 alongside him. The bright side of my neuroses is that is that every day that neither of us gets hit by a bus gets counted by me as a win.
My wisdom ends here. I’ve been a parent long enough to hold a PhD in it, but someone already took that title. I’ve been a woman long enough to know that it’s time to treat myself to a couple of bras that fit. And I’ve been a Gen Xer long enough to have worn Flashdance-inspired dance clothes to school in the 80s, learned to swing dance in my 20s, developed a website for my wedding guests in 2001, and now wonder if the aches and knots in my right forearm from my mouse-clicking and iPhone addiction will lead my entire generation to early arthritis.
What do you think your future self would tell you?
*A bikini is a metaphor in this scenario. Maybe your bikini is a short haircut; opening a retail store; a tattoo.