Age is Just a Number… of Pretty Perplexing Things


I’ve only felt old two times in my life. The first was when I turned 26. As that fateful birthday approached, I was sure I’d never be considered young again. My childhood was over. My teens were long gone. And, as far as I could tell, my young adult days had ended. By the theory of rounding up, I was basically thirty. I was old, married, aging, and most likely finished as a fresh voice in the world.

By the time I did reach thirty, I’d already been there mentally for four years so it was merely a blip on my radar. I struggled with turning 26 more than any other age.

Until forty.

Turning forty was an apocalyptic experience for me. I was so distressed about it that I needed to leave the country to do it—not so much as a celebration, more as a consolation. I planned a trip to Mexico over my birthday so nothing about that day could relate to my actual life.

I’m not sure why forty was so upsetting. Maybe because I was the first of my closest friends to reach it? Maybe because it had previously been the oldest age I could imagine myself being? Or maybe (more likely) because my life didn’t resemble anything I’d expected at that age? I was a single divorced mom heading into unknown territory on my own. Whatever the reason, everything about forty just sounded so incredibly over and done. I do remember one friend assuring me that her forties had been her favorite decade, but I figured she’d just forgotten a few things in her old age (of 55).

So hello, 2018.

Annnnd, now here we are. This is the year when I will wave my forties goodbye and enter my oldest decade yet. I seem unable to avoid it. But, in a delightful sort of plot twist, I somehow feel the least old I ever have.

Does this make sense? No it does not.

Which tells me that aging has less to do with actual age and more to do with… something else?

You know that thing where you become the same age as someone else used to be—someone that you previously thought of as old—and then you realize they weren’t actually old, they just had a few years’ head start on you? That’s where I’m at. During the royal wedding I learned that Meghan is the same age as Princess Diana was when she died, and my mind was blown because Diana seemed so much older and Meghan seems so much younger, and my brain cannot compute.

That’s how it feels to think about fifty. It’s so much older than I’ve been before, but so much younger than I eventually hope to be.

There’s a lot about age and aging that just doesn’t make sense. How old or young we feel is a moving target on a relative scale that continually changes based on our current perspective. If we don’t step back to look at it all once in a while, we can easily lose track of where we actually are.

 LET’S PUT SOME SENSE IN THE nonsense

Aging in America is a series of contradictions. Shall we put them in their place??

Younger is better—except when you’re young?
When we’re kids of course, time crawls slower than a slug on a sidewalk and we can’t wait to become each year older. Every birthday brings new privileges and rewards. Five is kindergarten. Eight is great. Ten is double digits. Sixteen is car keys. Eighteen is movies, tattoos, voting, and the right to be charged as an adult in a court of law. Twenty-one is any beverage in any establishment. And then there’s 25.

One could argue that 25 is the last age a person might legitimately look forward to (unless you’re waiting to run for President) because at 25, one can finally rent a car and, as far as I know, that’s the last milestone needed to operate as an unencumbered, fully legitimized adult.

After that, you pretty much never hear someone say, I can’t wait to turn 27! Or 44! At some point, our new age stops feeling like a badge of honor. Graduating to a new number loses its gleam. And before long, it becomes some level of insult.

But here’s the thing. Anyone who’s made it past 26 knows that getting through 365 days of life and showing up for another birthday is no small task. And that makes me seriously wonder why we aren’t wishing each other congratulations and not just happiness on our birthdays. We congratulate every other kind of annual milestone—and a birthday is the anniversary of our most tremendous accomplishment ever: being born, growing up, showing up, hanging in, getting through, rising above, pushing forward, and being ourselves for another whole entire year.

I say, CONGRATULATIONS, PEOPLE.

Congratulations for every time you’ve survived the hard work, responsibilities, unknowns, pain, boredom, anxiety, stress, annoyances, and overwhelming ongoingness of being an adult for another whole year. Congratulations for every hard-earned year your age reflects. Older is better because older is you.

Numbers don’t matter—until they do?
I wish I could believe the folklore that one’s actual age doesn’t actually matter; that it’s only how I feel about my age that counts. As fifty looms, that would be a more enjoyable belief. For the most part, that’s my experience. But I’m starting to notice that, in a few key places, the number apparently matters. Such as…

  • THE OB/GYN: Shockingly, I was fired from mine last month. I didn’t know this was a thing that could happen to a person. Apparently turning fifty officially disqualifies me from the OB category and only gives me a few more years in the GYN sector, so they’ve removed me from their young and fertile patient base. I’ll admit I’m still feeling a bit traumatized (and insulted) by this. My OB was one of my most trusted physicians. I’m feeling reduced to “old and dried up” in some new and fundamental way. I’m going to need a minute here before I recover.
  • ONLINE DATING: I’ve never even been tempted to lie about my age. I’m proud of my years. But I’ll admit, I’ve recently considered claiming I’m younger than I am in my online profiles. In my experience, a large percentage of men pursue women who are 10 to 20 years younger than them, which apparently leaves me with the men old enough to be my father? Does this mean the only way to meet a guy my own age is to pretend I’m 10 years younger?? Sheesh. And do I really want a guy who’s searching for a sweet young thang online? No, thank you. Okay, I’ve solved that one. Moving on.
  • JUNK MAIL: I’m feeling very hesitant to check a new box on any age-range questions these days, for fear of what will end up in my mailbox.
  • THE WORLD OF WORK: I’m a freelancer, so my birth date hasn’t been a factor in whether or not I’m hired for work, but I’m acutely aware that my perceived age might be. Another freelancer I know hesitates to mention his adult children with clients—to avoid any negative age bias. This guy is a brilliant, talented, highly connected white male, and yet he still has this concern. This issue is on my radar these days too…
  • ASSUMPTIONS: I’m trying to figure out how to say this one. With my closest friends, age is irrelevant. My best friends range in age from 22 to 62. But, occasionally, when my age comes up with more casual friends or acquaintances I notice a dynamic I wish I could avoid—because I remember being on the other end of it. I was once in a therapy group with about a dozen other women, co-led by an amazing, vibrant, witty, compassionate, youthful therapist. Her name was Elizabeth. After a year or so in the group, a friend mentioned to me that Elizabeth’s birthday was coming up—and that she was turning 50. I was stunned. All that time I had assumed Elizabeth was a few years older than me (I was 35 at the time). I remember feeling betrayed. I somehow felt like I didn’t even know this woman I thought I knew so well. That was ridiculous, I know, but a paradigm shift had happened and, although I wish it didn’t, it changed how I saw Elizabeth. I felt like she had tricked me in some fundamental way, and it’s as if the lens through which I saw her had been replaced by a new one. I’m not proud of this, but it happened. This might be what I fear most. That anyone I care about would suddenly feel distanced from me, simply based on my age. (Followed, of course, by the fear that I may be deemed outdated, unrelatable, obsolete. And that this will matter to me more than it should.)

The longer you’re here, the more you’re behind?
At some point, aging became a reverse competition. Not like baseball, football, or Settlers of Catan, where you rack up points through skill, strategy, and good ol’ hard work. Not like the olden days (or wiser cultures) where the elders are the most revered. Nope. In our world, aging is the golf of life. The lower your number, the higher your score. The fewer years you’ve traveled, the further ahead you are.

Which is just a setup for failure. Not one of us has the slightest bit of control over the relentless passing of time, and no young person has done anything valiant to earn her youth. This approach makes all of us losers.

I propose we switch metaphors. How about: Aging is the canasta of life. Anyone can play but older people are usually better.

The harder you try, the younger you stay?
Yeah, no. This nonsense is not only off-base, it’s exhausting. And expensive. A few California friends were visiting recently and they commented on how refreshing it was to be around Minnesota women who haven’t completely reconstructed their faces in a vain attempt to “stay young”.

In my observation, staying youthful doesn’t mean staying in your youth. Often the people who seem “oldest” to me are the ones who are still trying to look (and live) like their high school selves. Somehow, by desperately hanging on to their youth, they’re losing it. Being Peter Pan outside of Neverland has an entirely different effect. The people I know who exude youth are the ones who’ve stayed open and authentic—but have never stopped evolving, becoming, growing, and being where they are right now.

Young at heart

So why is it that I feel younger turning fifty than I did turning 26? I’m not sure. I’ve been wondering if it has something to do with possibility. Major chapters of my life are coming to a close—my daughter just moved to Chicago, my son just left for college, my nest is suddenly empty—but I am somehow feeling a greater sense of possibility than perhaps any other time of my life. I’ve said many times recently that the last time I felt this much possibility was when I graduated from high school.

I’m no expert, but perhaps that’s related. Maybe a key to feeling young is being alive, and believing there are still more possibilities ahead.

What I know for sure is this: I’ll never be as young as I am right now, and neither will you. So maybe this really is our golden age, friends. xo

Image sources: 2

Julie Rybarczyk (re-bar-chek) is a freelance writer, fair-weather blogger, and well-intentioned mom who almost never remembered to send lunch money to school. She’s perpetually the chilliest person living in Minneapolis—so most of the year you’ll find her under layers of wool, behind steaming cups of tea. Or at shortsandlongs.net.

  • You rock, woman! One of my best friends turned 30 today and she got angry because we dared to congratulate her. I’m sending this link to her immediately! 😀
    I guess it’s all about culture that puts so much age-related pressure especially on us women but when you hit 50 all those ”obligations” disappear. Which is insane.
    I really enjoyed reading this, thank you so much! Especially this sentence hit a spot: ”… my mind was blown because Diana seemed so much older and Meghan seems so much younger, and my brain cannot compute.” I know, right!

    Teresa | outlandishblog.com

  • I was actually stupidly excited to turn 30 last year. I live numbers that end in 0, I guess. They look neat and well-rounded. I turn 31 on the first of October and since Halloween is also my favorite holiday, I’m just claiming the whole damn month and celebrating every day.

    Might be my last exciting birthday until 40 or 50, ironically enough. 🙂

  • I never heard of being retired by your gynecologist because you turned 50. I’m 60 and mine is still seeing me. If you have all the organs then I think they’d want to keep seeing you. If you don’t I suppose it’s less important.

    Otherwise, there are great joys in growing older, and I find surprising new ones all the time. I’m at a point where I really only care about how I look for my own pleasure, and that really came as a surprise. It’s related to beginning to have some kind of genuine understanding of what it means to love myself, which in the past I thought had to do with “self-care” like pedicures and going for bike rides on sunny days. But it’s not a physical thing at all. It’s really about seeing all kinds of disappointments and flaws and still thinking I’ve done the best I could with the capabilities I was given. So much (everything?) is beyond our control. I recommend the Auden poem, The Model.

    • Charlotte – THANK YOU for confirming that being fired by my OBGYN is odd. I have all the parts and pieces and they are all still in perfect working order. What the heck. And thank you for your inspiring and encouraging insights on life a few years ahead. Wow. So much to look forward to. Enjoy!! xo

  • Absolutely lovely post! I’m 32 and I’ve been thinking about aging quite a bit lately, thinking about what age I look, what’s next for me getting older, if it’s possible to lose weight, and how I’ll continue to deal with getting older. Aging is SO hard on women, and particularly hard at this time in America where youth is applauded, commercials and movies focus a lot on young girls and that being the most important aspect of our lives. Now that I’m beyond that I struggle with where the years have gone and what I might have done differently had a seen the weight of aging sooner. But alas, you cannot go back, only forward, and so I try to look at myself honestly, forget about my age, and do the best I can daily.

    Eva | http://www.shessobright.com