In a few days I will have another birthday. I will take one step further into middle age. I will leave the year of 40 and enter the year of 41.
Birthdays aren’t really that big of deal any more, although I confess at one time they were. You reach a certain point where it all just seems silly, and big celebrations become needless. As long as I get my black forest cake from my favorite baker, I’m good.
But last year felt like a big deal. Turning 40 felt like a really big deal. So I decided to celebrate it, rather than dread it. Entering both my 20’s and my 30’s had seen big celebrations and major bucket-list items were checked-off with each. Forty was to be the same. I made a list of 40 things I wanted to accomplish. I even gave myself an additional four months, starting the list in January last year instead of on my actual birthday. But the truth is many of those items, maybe even the majority, went unchecked.
They are still on that list, staring me in the face, as I reconcile the fact that I will not be able to visit 10 more states, hike 25 more miles, squeeze in 30 more dates with my husband, or lose 40 pounds in the next four days.
It’s hard not to feel a sense of disappointment, like I let myself down. Forty was going to be a year of celebration and also a year of self-care. Care that I have woefully neglected for way too long. But it wasn’t.
I didn’t start that exercise routine, I didn’t run those 40 miles. I didn’t do those push-ups and I didn’t lose a single pound (in fact, I went in the opposite direction). I also didn’t go to bed earlier, cut back on TV and social media, or finish that writing project that’s been in my head for over a year.
I could tell you that I have some really good excuses for not accomplishing these things. And maybe I do. My husband had a stroke a few days after I turned 40. My son was diagnosed with two mental illnesses 3 months later. My grandmother moved to my town so I could help care for her 6 months after that, and a lot of other stuff happened in between.
My year of 40 became a year of caring for others, of which I don’t regret or wish away one single moment. I felt, and still do, privileged to be able to do the things that I have for the people I love. But somewhere along the way, despite a few positive starts (like finally getting that check-up and blood work done), I decided I had to trade my self care for the care of others. Self care for me became sleeping in on a Saturday because I was so exhausted from the week, and binge-watching The Crown and Outlander until 2 a.m. because once the house was quiet and no one needed me, I needed to escape to another world for a while. But it felt less like self-care and more like survival mode for much of the time.
So here I sit. The list still staring me in the face. And I have to make a choice: Do I wallow in the failure, the let-downs, the “should haves” and “could haves”? Do I only focus on the things I did accomplish (and there were quite a few of those) and say “to hell with the rest”? Or do I dare try to be brave enough to say, “This year! Forty-one is the year. I will get this self-care thing right,” and try again?
Honestly, I don’t know what to choose. But I think maybe I don’t have to pick just one. Maybe I can say “Good job on these 12 things you did do, Jelise. Cross them off the list and celebrate. But don’t give up on the things you haven’t finished yet. They’re still important. And you can learn from your mistakes and do better.”
That’s what I would say to one of my kids, isn’t it?
Maybe 41 is the year of self-grace and shortening the “to-do” list instead of adding to it. Maybe 41 is the year to say “less is more”. Maybe my 40’s are the time for slowing down and savoring what I already have; what’s already been accomplished. Maybe this decade doesn’t start with giant celebrations and major bucket-list items but ends with peace and contentment, knowing that each day was celebrated for the gift it is, and that I tried to love well. And maybe this season is when I finally choose self-care — not just once or in some big, bold way — but every day in small, meaningful ways that strengthen my body and nourish my soul.
Maybe it’s time.