A year and a half from my fortieth birthday, it occurs to me that I have no idea what it means to be middle-aged. The term itself is part of the problem, suggestive as it is of being stuck in a place that's neither here nor there: not youth, not early-career, not the beginning of anything--but not the culmination or fulfillment of anything, either.
This is not how I regard my actual fortysomething and fiftysomething friends, all of whom lead the kind of rich and interesting lives that I'd be lucky to emulate. But I haven't thought much about how they got to where they are--and, more importantly, I've never had any vision for what I wanted my life to look like at that age.
Maybe popular culture is to blame, with its scarcity of interesting midlife characters (unless you're a parent or having a midlife crisis, there's not much place for you on stage or screen), or maybe it's academia, with its prolonged deferral of adulthood; I'm only just now at the place of personal and professional stability that most of my nonacademic friends reached five or ten years ago. But mostly, I think it's that the interesting things that happen in midlife are less dramatic, less external, and less predictable than those that occur in one's younger years.
Up to age 30 or 35, there tend to be clear paths to follow or clear milestones of achievement. These vary somewhat by profession, peer group, and domestic choices, but one generally knows both what the "expected" next step is (get married, buy a home, have kids, make partner) and what one's own desired next step is (get divorced! move abroad! go back to school!). I was always impatient to be a grown-up, eager to be 18 and 25 and 30. I knew the kind of person I wanted to be and the kind of life I wanted to lead, at least in general ways.
But now I. . . don't know. I don't fear turning 40. I just have no idea what it means to be a fortysomething woman, or how I want to be a fortysomething (and eventually fiftysomething) woman. I don't have the kind of hard goals I've had for every other stage of my life. I mean, living in the same place as my spouse is still something I'm striving for, but otherwise it's more of the same: I want to keep doing the stuff I like and find meaningful, and discover more such activities.
When your life has been goal-driven for so long, with every goal the plausible and satisfying end of one particular storyline, this approach feels vague and aimless. What's the point? What's the payoff? Who benefits from my learning Italian, or resuming music lessons, or remodeling my kitchen?
At the same time, there's something freeing about realizing there's no script and nothing I have to do. God willing, I've got, like, decades and decades to figure it out. I don't yet know how to exist in the world as someone who's not a young woman, or a junior scholar, or any of the other things I've been for a long long time. I never imagined myself as middle-aged. But now that I'm starting to, it feels like a gift.