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What a 40 year old woman should do

By Heather Oman

Last week I was with a group of women and we were talking about European adventures. I half laughed and talked about my adventures in Italy, traveling with another broke college student, eating out of grocery stores and staying mostly in campgrounds. Once, in Verona, we camped in a full hostel’s back yard. I think they charged us $5.00 to put up a tent on the grass, packed in among several other grubby 20 somethings. We had to walk through the hostel to get to the back yard, and the hostel was a crazy, chaotic mess with beds stacked everywhere. Somebody was even sleeping on a bed on wheels in the hallway. (I have never been so jealous of a person in my life.)

A woman laughed with me and said, “Would you do it that way again?”

I considered the question and said, “Now, you mean? Nearing 40 and with 2 kids? Probably not.”

She looked surprised and said, “Are you talking about yourself? You’re not 40, are you? You can’t possibly be 40.”

I shrugged and said, “I’m 39. Nearly 40.”

She waved me away and said, “Oh, one more year, you’re still young!”

Because one more year is that far away? Will I be officially old in a year?

I had another conversation with another woman, where, when I revealed how old I am, she said, “Well, you look GREAT for your age!”

What is somebody my age supposed to look like?

In some ways, nearing 40 is kind of confusing. What is it I’m supposed to be doing? Are there any rules for somebody who is 40? I’m taking the first steps towards a different job path—is that something 40 year old women do? I wouldn’t go camping in Europe again right now, but I’d probably stay in a hostel—is that something a 40 year old woman would do? I wear copious amounts of sunscreen and have an obnoxiously large floppy hat that I wear absolutely every time I go to the beach. That’s DEFINITELY something a 40 year old woman would do.

And what is my hair supposed to look like? Should I keep my hair long, or cut it off? One particularly stressful holiday season I decided that I hated my hair and brought in a picture of a movie star to the salon and said to the stylist, “Make my hair look like THAT.” Well, she sort of did, but there’s not much she can do about my face or the lighting and I sort of forgot I don’t have my own hair and makeup team and that I actually don’t spend my life on a red carpet. The result was a very expensive short hair cut that made me hate my hair even more. A friend of mine tried to soothe me by saying, “You know, Heather, women over a certain age should never have long hair. That hair cut was long overdue.”

Am I a woman of a certain age? And does that mean I’m doomed to a life time of short hair cuts that are almost sort of but not quite reminiscent of somebody famous?

I’ve also given up on trying to figure out what to wear. I bought a pair of high heels a few years ago, and was stunned to see a 17 year old at church wearing the same shoes. Am I supposed to be wearing the same shoes as a teenager? I asked that question to my sister, who is 12 years older and even more in the middle of her life than I am, and she said, “Yes, of COURSE! It’s a good thing to be wearing the same thing as a teenager, it means you are IN!”

Are 40 year old women supposed to be in? Because, to be honest, I’d rather just enjoy the fact that I’m no longer in high school, trying to be IN, and just wear the same pencil skirt and cowl neck sweater and boots that I’ve been wearing for a decade and call it “timeless”.

If I died next week and an obituary read, “A 39 year old mother of 2”, there would be lots of people who would think, “Wow, she died so young!” But when I work around college students and new college graduates and go to church with mothers who are trying to manage a toddler’s tantrum while they nurse a fussy baby, I feel old.

So if anybody has any tips on growing old gracefully, I’d love to hear them. I don’t even know what that means, to grow old gracefully, but it sounds like something a 40 year old woman should do.

(Wait, is that obituary comment kind of morbid? Sorry. I have a morbid subconscious. I should tell you about my dreams sometime. For example, last night I dreamed somebody at church attacked me with a chainsaw. I might have issues.)

About Heather Oman

(Prose Board) lives in the south with her husband, her two kids, and her wiggly black lab. She is a licensed speech language pathologist, but spends most of her days trying to teach her own kids how to say please and thank you. She is a member of the Segullah Editorial Board, and is the founding member of the blog Mormon Mommy Wars.

22 thoughts on “What a 40 year old woman should do”

  1. Your dreams sound a lot like mine. Poor you!

    Just be you. Don't try to "dress young." Don't try to look 'mature.' Just keep being you. And don't wear anything you had in high school or college — probably including your hairstyle. :o)

    43 in Nevada

  2. I've been given looks of total surprise this year when I say I'm the mother of a 16 year old. "You look far too young!"

    Really? Because I sure feel like I'm the mother of a 16 year old! Sometimes I also feel like I'm 6, or 11, but mostly I feel in the decade I'm ageing through.

    Then again, this year I noticed I'm getting wrinkles – which are exactly where my smile dimples my cheeks. I have the tiniest suggestion of my frown wrinkle line in my forehead, but my smile lines are much more obvious. And I LOVE that! I'm not planning on ageing gracefully, I want to have fun and be myself, not who I think I should be acting like. And I'm going to own a chainsaw of my very own!

  3. Screw your friend. Seriously. I hate people like that. I'm 42 and I have the longest hair I've had in 20 years and it looks freaking AMAZING. Be who you are. Do what you want. WHO CARES what people think you OUGHT to do, or OUGHT to wear, or OUGHT to be like. Who care what you are SUPPOSED to be like? Life is too short for that. Don't waste it worrying about if you're being appropriate for a particular age bracket. Nobody's going to look back at your life when you die and say, man, Heather really know how to behave appropriately for her age!

  4. I'm 42. Anyone who thinks 'm supposed to cut my hair off now can bite me.

    Maybe it's just because I'm "there" but 42 just doesn't seem that old anymore. I still don't have all the answers, I'm changing what I want to be when I grow up, and I'm not cleaning up barf and fruit snacks all day anymore. I kind of like it.

    I'm going back to college, I wear immodest shoes because I *like* them, not because someone said I should or should't, I wear sunscreen, and I've noticed my hands bear more than a passing resemblance to my mother's now.

    I kind of think I want to be like Birdie from You've Got Mail (because my pop cultural references are 20 years old now). I plan to continue to worry less about what others think, be friends with interesting people, enjoy myself, someday shock my children with stories of my youth. Because I've got 'em.

  5. I'll be 43 next week and I'm growing my hair out. I also sport skinny jeans, converse high tops, band t-shirts, and sometimes wear Doc Marten's combat boots. With dresses. I go to shows with my husband where I'm among the oldest in the room. And we rock. Also, I'm going back to college, so I'm surrounded by hip college age kids. Frankly, I'm a lot happier than I was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, because, like Tracy M said, I don't care what anyone thinks of me. I'm doing my 40s how *I* want to do my 40s. Do what YOU want to do. Wear what YOU want to wear. Do your hair the way YOU want to do it. Because nobody is the boss of you. Or me.

  6. What I did at 40-and-with-4-kids-at-home was go to Law School. I was, to be sure, "old" there.

    I turn 50 in 3 short months. You, my dear, are young.

  7. My hands are the hands of my mother and grandmother. It bugged me for a day, then I realized that it was because I am in the sun DOING things and I'm not going to change that.

  8. I was just thinking how great it will be to get to that 70 decade. People like to judge what they think you should do at 40. They criticize you for wearing mom jeans, and they criticize you for NOT wearing mom jeans. When you are 70 all is good. I guess people are just happy you are still alive.

  9. I've decided, after watching somebody mourn their turning 40 experience, that I'm going to live it up for the next 12 years. I'm not going to put off the things I like. I'm going to have fun with my family. I'm not going to hit 40 and wonder what I did with my life because I've spent it thinking about all of the rules pertaining to my age. 40 will come and I will be more than fine with it. Having a family will only increase the amount of enjoyability I feel in life. Traveling will happen. Exploring will happen. Hard work and hard times will happen. Hopefully I'll write it all down so that I remember how wonderful life has been and will continue to be after 40. And even if health or money or other things don't allow for the grand dreams I have, I will fulfill the attainable ones and stop allowing circumstances dictate what I do with my life. Also, I'm lucky to have a mother who sets a great example by embracing her age and welcoming growing older. Because of this, I don't fear aging.

    Do I sound like the 28-year old that I am? Idealistic and naive? I hope so. Because that's where I am right now and hope to be for a long time.

  10. Here's another issue with getting older–what do you do about your hair color? I have just about decided to just go gray. (It helps that I have light brown hair with only a few strands going gray now in my early 40's.) I saw a woman in the grocery store last year–she was trim and fit, looked to be in her 50's and had long silver hair. She was wearing all black and she looked GOOD! Sister Hinckley said 50 was the age she wanted to be through all eternity because 50 was when she finally stopped competing. I always thought that was interesting.

  11. 39 next month…I feel you sister! I feel like a youngster, and since I've never married nor had children I get treated that way too. Good and bad I hope as I age I will continue to feel and act young.

  12. I've always thought that middle aged women who are still buying clothes in the teenager section look like they are trying too hard. My aunt has always done this and at 60 years old she looks silly to be wearing the same clothes as the 16-year-old next door.

    And unfortunately a lot of the styles for teens are not designed for women who have given birth and have hips and butts to reflect it. I tried on a pair of jeggings and looked like a hippo trying to wear pants.

  13. At 46, my wife and I drove around Europe, staying at campgrounds from Normandy to the Alps, from Paris to Vienna and Prague. With two of our children. Not having to schlep a backpack was a huge step towards respectability, and all the money we saved on lodging was spent on food instead. Were we "acting our age"? Who cares! The food was delicious! (And we probably gained 15 pounds.)

  14. Like you, I felt frisky at age 40. My fourth child was in first grade, the rest of the kids pretty much took care of themselves, plenty of time to volunteer, travel some, and relax. I let my hair grow, was in touch with my body. Yes, really frisky. And, of course, frisky enough to get pregnant:)

  15. Interestingly, age does not change us inside (at least I still feel like a kid inside…lucky for me, so far good health), only outside. I asked my mother in law (who is 82) what age she would go back to if she could and she said 60. I was so glad to know I had two years before I even would get to her favorite age of all! Now I am nearly there. I have let my short salt and pepper hair begin to grow out again. It is naturally curly and my husband never saw it when it was long and wants to see it, so one more time. Who knows? I may learn how to perfect the "French wad". I still weigh the same 105 lbs. I have since I was sixteen years old, but I have stopped wearing jeans to teach preschool. I now wear a smock (just a sort of short, loose, dress, over leggings and ballerina flats. I wear this as nursery leader too…I just had to have something that I could wear that was modest, but still comfortable. I have a dozen of them, so I can trade them off. I am always surprised when I look in the mirror and see someone who looks old. So all I can say is enjoy life whatever your age and don't worry about what others say if you know what you are doing is right for you!

  16. Now I'm feeling young in my early thirties. Honestly, I thought this would feel old or look old- but it does and doesn't. I'm happier and more confident in my thirties than I was in my teens or twenties. I'll take the consequence of age for the confidence of it any day. I follow suit with those who say do it your way. I'm planning on it too.

  17. Andrea, I will be 43 next week, too! So fun!

    I think there are fewer rules about what is acceptable after 40 than there used to be. MY rules are that I don't wear it if I wore it the first time it was popular, I don't need to feel bad about not having a bikini body because, well, I'm over 40, and I really should wear mascara every day because if I don't, I look super tired and washed out. That's about it. I wish I could give up hoping for a flatter stomach and a faster mile, but I'm not there yet. I still read too late some nights, I still listen to music that I would like if I were 20ish instead of 40ish, and I still daydream about what I might be when I grow up.

  18. I'm aging disgracefully on my own terms (I'm 52). I did 15 push ups in the halls of church last night in front of the bishop and the full time missionaries. (I was helping a 7 yo boy burn off some excess energy while his mom was in a meeting.) I don't follow the rules for dressing like a midlife person. I shop at thrift shops and create my own rules for how I dress, mixing youthful styles from teen stores with items from Ann Tyler and other more "mature" brands. I listen to Taylor Swift music and Cole Porter. I watch Doctor Who tv shows and Betty Davis movies. I have a vibrant Twitter account, but I don't like e-readers. I have friends ranging from 4 months old to 104 years old. I just decided to stop coloring away the gray. I wear shirts that show my upper arms. I rarely wear make up, but I just bought lipstick that matches my age spots (copper; it looks good!) I changed careers at midlife by going into a totally new field. I hold a mix of religious and political beliefs that many people have told me means I lake moral integrity. I have less patience for people trying to put me in a mold now that I'm a half century plus. I rarely ask people for permission before I take action. I'm always going to have critics no matter what I choose to do, so I might as well embrace what makes me happy and make no apologies. And I'm old enough to remember when "Garden Party" was a new release on the radio, which expresses that idea lyrically. Rock on with your fabulous selves.

  19. Two extremes to look at such things, Heather. I'm a '60s generation person who was taught to "never trust anyone over 30." With that attitude, you're way old.

    On the other hand, some say life begins only when the last child leaves home and the dog dies. You've a ways to go.

    Sleeping in hostels, maybe. Park benches, not so much.

  20. "You spend so much of your life basing yourself on what other people think of you. Then you realize that maybe one of the purposes of life is to learn not to worry about what other people think of you." ~Dustin Hoffman

    That is all.


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