I turned 49 a couple of weeks ago, so my forties are officially coming to an end. Looking back on my forties, I realize it’s been both the most content and the most challenging decade of my life. Here are five powerful and positive things I’ve learned in my forties, albeit the hard way.
1. I no longer expect people to change.
When I turned 40, I looked at my husband and asked myself an essential question – “If this guy never changes, can I spend another twenty years with him?”
The answer to that question was no. Divorce is not something I recommend. It’s heart-breaking for you and more importantly for your children. It ruins your finances, ends friendships, and leaves deep, irrevocable scars. However, while living with someone whose behavior was unacceptable, what I learned is that (most of the time) people don’t change. Love them and accept them for who they are, or let them go. I am so much happier because I recognized my husband for who he is and began a life without him.
2. The most valuable words I know are, “Just keep swimming.”
Two years after my divorce, I reconnected with someone from college on Facebook. He adored me, he loved my boys, they loved him, and we were happy. We got married, and he died of brain cancer. I know, that’s a lot to cover in three little sentences (but I’m finishing a book about our journey). What I learned from our story is that regardless of the good days and those that are awful, you must learn to block them out. The only choice we have is to keep moving forward. Dory had it right with her mantra, “Just keep swimming.”
I spent a good part of the last decade just stepping towards the end of the day until I arrived, gratefully in my bed. Then you do it again and again until you move from under the cloud that has been following you and into the sunshine. It’s not easy, whether you’re facing divorce, single-parenting, disease, or death (and we all will face one of them eventually). But activity is what will keep you sane. The best relief I received was each day that I engaged in the lives of others.
3. I understand what a true-blue friend is.
For most of us, these friends can probably be counted on one hand. In my forties, my real friends were revealed like magic ink that’s only exposed under high heat. When you need them, they show up (and they do so without you asking). Those that don’t will fall out of the landscape of your life, and you will be better for it. My mom used to call those kinds of friends, “fickle.” Some might say, “fair-weather” or “fake.” Use whatever “f-” word you want and you get the idea.
If you have two or three of these true-blue friends, you’re good. They will take your kids for the week and feed them without reservation. Do your laundry, then show up in the hospital with coffee and food that is edible. They’ll hold your hair back when you’re sick and wash your hair when you can’t. They just know when not to say a thing, whether to hug you or not, how to make you laugh, or sit and cry until no more tears will come. They will be the first to arrive at your wedding shower and the last to leave the memorial. Essentially, they will know what you need without you even asking. Those are are the friends you need.
4. I learned how to manage my own money.
My divorce ruined my credit. The recession dumped the value of my house. As a single mom, I couldn’t work full time for eight years, but I learned a valuable lesson. Do not count on someone else to take care of the finances or you will encounter disaster at some point. I learned the hard way that I needed to set myself up to win financially. I sat down with smart people who knew about money matters.
Now, I put my money away in an account only I will control despite my romantic status. I know what my home is worth, have a great interest rate on my mortgage, and drive a used car to avoid a payment so that I could put more money towards my retirement. My life is insured, I have disability, health and dental insurance, and money in savings all on a teacher’s salary! I may not be able to control the storms that come my way, but if they do, money won’t be one of my worries. The best part is that I still have enough left over to take a trip to Italy once in a while.
5. I now appreciate the value of my own health.
I learned how to move my body, how to slow down, and take a vacation all by myself. Instead of always putting the needs of other first, I learned to say, “No” and take care of myself. In the process, saying, “No” also became something I got better at.
Now I treat myself to massages, manicures, pedicures, and getting my hair done. I take long walks in beautiful places. I eat sunfood. My children, family, friends, and students all need me. And I can’t be me unless I’m strong and healthy. I learned to be a better parent, partner, and true-blue friend to others, as well as a better teacher and colleague because I now put self-care at the top of my list.
I also learned that hanging out by myself is just fine. Sometimes I’m lonely and sad, and sometimes I’m grouchy that I’m alone and sad. But most days, I’m content to be here and to have the little life that I do. I’m comfortable in my own skin. It’s like putting on an old sweater that’s not as bright as it used to be. It’s fraying a bit at the edges and the wrinkles need ironing. But you still like the way it looks and feels when you put it on, despite all its travels!