As if it weren’t enough that your work and home lives threaten overwhelm at every turn, now you’re turning forty. Or have turned forty. Or will soon will be turning forty. Rather than urge you to consider the alternative to growing older, instead let me offer a lively and consoling read: Knowing Pains: Women on Love, Sex and Work in Our 40s. Gathered by Molly Tracy Rosen, these short essays offer a varied and optimistic take on life’s middle stage.
“Blink twice during your forties and the next thing you know, you’re looking at your body in a dressing room mirror and – pilates or no pilates – it resembles a large cow bladder.” So begins Elaine Hamill’s “The Naked Truth.,” about the perils of mall shopping for those over forty – “too old for the Gap and too cool for Talbots.” When she enters Armani Exchange, the very young “sales boys” look at her “like maybe I would be more comfortable not in their store.” But she doesn’t feel that old. Quite the contrary. What she feels is “like the ground has shifted beneath me.” In Knowing Pains, she and her companion writers explore just what that shifting ground means to them and, more important, what it does for them.
Natalie Serber makes peace with her need to color her hair. Diane Perro picks up and moves to Paris knowing no one and no French. Esther Gulli loses forty eight pounds and buys her first thong. Nancy Davis Kho attests to the restorative powers of being a devoted rock fan. Tina Goette, newly divorced and 8 months into her 40s, begins to train for a half marathon by pushing her baby in a jogging stroller, then gets really serious and runs the actual race. And Amy Kossoff Smith enters cyberspace with a new business. Elizabeth Becker manages to be laugh-out-loud funny as she recounts wrestling with a religious calling. She recounts her adolescent obsession with nuns and questions whether God “really means me, or was I mistakenly intercepting the call for the girl who sat behind me in homeroom who seemed way more pious?” After spending years adrift without an outlet for her spiritual impulses, in her forties she establishes her personal relationship to a higher power.
Disappointed by her younger almost-lover, Colleen Gregory instead gets a tattoo, learns to sing, and with her husband’s help, saves their marriage. She’s not the only one to be tempted by a younger man. Vicki Larson reflects on how the chick lit clichés of a woman at mid-life – divorced from an unfaithful husband, two kids, forty-something, fling with a “boy toy”- turned out to save her. Now, she says, “I know my body, I know what turns me on, and I know my good side for a photo. I know how to put things in perspective. Confidence has helped me get real about myself, the world and my place in it, and that’s pretty sexy.” Whatever their particular take on being in their forties, these women agree that they now know themselves better – what they need, what pleases and satisfies them– and accept their flaws. If they’re starting to go soft where they used to be solid, if their skin seems to be losing its glow, they attest to what Ona Gritz calls their “unexpected late blossoming and self-assurance.” Not a bad trade-off.
All this confidence and optimism doesn’t mean that they don’t get frustrated, make mistakes, or experience profound sadness. Lauren Bogart, five months pregnant with their third child, learns that her husband has an incurable brain tumor. A widow at 37, at forty she still manages to remain hopeful, even happy. Light in tone, the pieces in this collection aren’t frivolous. Nor, I’m glad to report, do they commit the sin of pious uplift. Instead, the writers are mostly funny and smart, well aware of life’s ironies. As Anita Drieseberg, a “proud spinster” (her words) at forty two, attests, “though it’s hard to turn forty, it’s really not hard to be forty.”
It’s fitting that they and their editor have chosen to donate all the net proceeds from their book to breast cancer research, education and access to care.
Knowing Pains contributor Vicki Larson is a regular contributor to Mommy Track'd - her most recent piece is Mad at Dad.