After a recent high school track meet, I tried to offer some advice to my 15-year-old son. I wanted to impart the knowledge I gained over the years, both in running and in life. I went with a tactic I use often when I can’t find the words myself: I quoted song lyrics.
“Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead. Sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.”
I often quote these specific lyrics along with the rest of the advice dispensed to the class of 1999 in Baz Luhrman’s “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).” When I listened to it as a bright-eyed 18-year-old with the world in my hands, I found the clichés trite just the way my 15-year-old thinks he knows more than I do right now. In fact, he told me that the race was “literally with everybody else.” I smiled; it’s really a trip to parent yourself.
One bit of advice in the song that really made me laugh back then was age based.
“Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.”
I remember feeling buoyed by the fact that I didn’t have to know exactly everything about my life plan by the time I finished college. While I had a plan, but I didn’t know much beyond that I loved music and words. I majored in music and broadcast journalism. I wanted to do something big, but my (then undiagnosed) anxiety would flare in predictably unpredictable ways when I tried to nail down a specific path.
However, I laugh-scoffed at the idea that a 40-year-old wouldn’t know what they wanted to do with their life. While I didn’t quite know where I would be by the age of 40, I knew I would have it all figured out by then. What kind of aimless hap doesn’t know what they want to do by then?
Spoiler: Apparently, it’s this kind of aimless hap.
I’m turning 40 near the end of this month. While I have celebrated my birthday month in full joy for many years, fully aware of the privilege and joy of getting older, I’m having some kind of milestone birthday type of breakdown.
Maybe it’s losing a year to the pandemic. Perhaps it’s anxiety about things over which I have no control. Maybe it’s parenting teenagers and trying to help them shape their ideas for their future bringing to mind all of my previous choices, mistakes, and failures. Or maybe it’s a clearer view of mortality from a face that aged a lot in the past two-and-a-half year, repeated family losses, and again, half a million lives lost to a pandemic.
I don’t know exactly, but the truth is that I’ve been frequently awake in the middle of the night since the beginning of the year, thinking things like, “Shouldn’t I have done more by now?”
Which, by the way, is a ridiculous line of thinking. I am an everyday mom to two amazing teenage boys. I am thankful every single day for my husband and our marriage, something we’ve both worked hard to make a safe place to land. I’ve run marathons. I won awards for my writing, even though I’ve been silent for a number of years, working through things that weren’t able to be written. I’ve even created a beautiful, but more importantly, safe home for my family. All of these things make me happy and proud.
So what’s the problem?
I thought maybe by the time I was turning 40 that I would have a handle on the now-diagnosed anxiety. Instead, it’s still there. The pandemic, losing my job, and accompanying uncertainty only increased it over the past year. When my anxiety increases, my Treatment Resistant Depression tends to wake up, stretch its arms, and reach for any and everything. Thanks to therapy, I’m in a safe place and continue to work through it in healthy ways, but I know that 18-year-old Jenna would look at me with sad eyes and ask, “So, we never got better?”
What do you say to that? Yes, it got better. And then it got so much worse than a bushy-tailed, scared-but-excited barely adult could even imagine. As things do, it got better again. And then, well, worse again. The things that sidelined me on some idle Thursday weren’t even the things that caused my anxiety. The song says Tuesday, but ours was a Thursday, and we’ll never be the same.
Over the past year, things shook up my world as well. I’ve been forced to look at myself in new ways. Things that I thought to be true about myself were called into question, and I had to sit with some other truths that felt hard.
I’m not even dreading turning 40 due to some concept of fading youth. I mean, sure, I would love fewer grey hairs, but I got my first one way back in 1999. My greys don’t bother me too much. The wrinkles around my eyes, which weren’t so evident prior to 2018, don’t raise my hackles either. It’s not the aging part that’s bothering me, though I’m trying to be kind to my knees because the song told me I’ll “miss them when they’re gone.” Rather, it’s simply feeling like I could have and should have done more by now.
Sure, there’s still time to do the things on my list that remain unchecked. I can still write the book, break two hours in the half marathon, learn how to drive the boat onto the trailer, and maybe even forgive myself. I can still do basically anything. There’s not actually an expiration date on creativity, passion, or learning new things.
So, maybe what I need to learn as I approach turning 40 is that life is not tidy; it doesn’t fit easily into organized boxes that are conveniently shoved on shelves in the dark basement of my mind. Some days are hard. Some days are easy. “And in the end,” it’s who you spend those days with that matters most.
I’m so thankful to spend these days with my people. (And for sunscreen.)