I turn 45 this month. It’s time to accept that I am no longer a vague ‘early forties’, but definitely in the mid forties zone. In middle age. It is, after all, halfway to 90. Suddenly, people turning 40 seem really young and people turning 50, an age which used to feel positively geriatric, feel in the same general ball-park as me.
I have every hope and expectation of making it to 90 and of making the most of the second half of my life. I also have the mid-lifer’s increasing awareness of the fragility of life, of the random bad luck that can befall some and not others, of the health crises that can descend without warning. I have in the last year seen not only the unfairness of my mother barely limping past 70 before reaching her allotted time, but also encountered very many older, impoverished and disabled people through my work, living lives of quiet desperation and heroism. Some, the victims of shocking misfortune – being born with spina bifida AND being knocked down by a car; doggedly continuing to care for a husband who, through dementia, has become incontinent, abusive and oblivious to the identify of his wife of 60 years; being a severely disabled older person, a double amputee AND being financially abused by the very relatives who are purporting to look after you; being a mid-nineties mother still caring for a mid-seventies learning disabled child.
I have an increasing awareness of wanting to make the most of whatever I have left, to make it all count, but also of how quickly the days, weeks and years are slipping by and how powerless I am to stop time’s march. How can it be that five years have already passed since I reached forty? How can nearly a quarter of a century have gone by since I left university? I have never forgotten a conversation I had with a very drunk man who appeared to be in late middle age, in a pub in Queens Square in London in 1994, who gripped my arm as he earnestly exhorted me to make the most of my time as ‘life passes you by, it just passes you by’. At the time, my friend and I giggled at the attentions of the old soak and made a swift, clattering exit in our high heels and skirt suits. Now, I understand him. I still don’t feel as old as he looked, but I understand him and I would love to step back in time and tell him so and apologise for dismissing him. Likewise, my indomitable, tiny grandmother, who finally accepted, at the age of 91, that perhaps it was no longer wise for her to climb a stepladder to change a lightbulb. I will never forget her wry smile as she told me that the trouble was, she still felt seventeen inside and could not accept that her body did not agree with her mind.
Suddenly, it is also not just me who has leapt forward in time, but my children too. They are no longer babies, but fully formed, sentient beings beginning to forge their own paths through life. My oldest child has a newly acquired, deepened voice and breadth of shoulder, catching me unawares as I see him out of the corner of my eye as a man in waiting. It is shocking to see him suddenly at eye level and to know that soon he will be looking down on me. My youngest child, so long a baby, has lengthened and straightened – chubby cheeks turning (almost) sleek and chiselled, chubby thighs turning coltish and awkward.
With the passage of time has also come a change to the way my day to day time is ordered. When the children were younger, there was a long period of time when my life felt ruled by the clock. The painfully early starts, the breakfast by seven/lunch by twelve/tea by five/bath by six thirty/bed by seven thirty treadmill of keeping them fed, watered, clean and safe. The rainy days with a toddler, when the day could stretch ahead emptily, with all planned activities and reserves of energy exhausted by 9am, the day already three or four hours old by that stage. The painful early starts still happen with my ‘baby’, but it’s so much easier when they have learned to read and you have bought them electronic devices and can send them away again for an hour, safe in the knowledge that they are not going to hurl themselves down the stairs or pull the kettle on their heads.
The bed time routine still happens, but has now become elastic and never ending. The process may start at a similar time as in my treadmill years, but will then last several hours, through bathing, reading, homework, trumpet practice, sit ups (the teenager), more reading, hair styling (the daughter usually but not exclusively), and will not limp to a conclusion until the protesting teenager is dragged away from the television and ordered to bed sometime around 10pm, followed a short time later by his mother. I can now potter about, as the children do their thing around the house. I still need to be there, am never off duty, but am also not always required as an active participant and I am not always quite sure what to do with myself. My time is not my own, as I am an on-call negotiator and arbitrator, required to respond to the cries of ‘it’s so unfair’ or ‘it’s my go’ or ‘he’s just so annoying!’, never sure when or for how long my services will be needed, but there are portions of time where I realise I am being left alone.
I find myself feeling nostalgic for the baby days, when I was their everything during their waking hours and then for those times when I had tucked them up, safe and warm with a bellyful of milk, and my evening was my own (choosing to forget that there was very often screaming and/or puking, and that I was so wracked with tiredness that I just sat and stared into middle distance, rather than using my time meaningfully listening to radio plays or reading fine literature).
What I would dearly love to do is have a day swap. Give me, say, a day in 2006, the lost year, when I had three children under five and from which I am left with just a fog of inchoate memories. Let me hold them, play with them, stroke their beautiful soft faces (because they would let me do it then). Let them fall asleep on me and let me regulate my breathing and centre myself to their soft ins and outs. Let me hold their pudgy paws and take them for a walk, read them sweet, simple tales and sing their favourite songs. I’ve got more energy now, I would do it really well! And I miss them as babies now that I can recognise that their babyhoods have definitely gone. Let me also talk to myself nine years ago, tell the 2006 me that it’s ok, they will be ok and I will cope (apart from that one awful day when I nearly dipped the baby’s feet in boiling water when wearing him in a forward facing sling whilst cooking pasta, jiggling him up and down to try to stop him screaming whilst having a wailing toddler daughter wrapped around my leg and with a furious four year old son kicking next to me on the floor. Apart from that day).
And I would give a 2015 day to the struggling 2006 woman and show her that they are growing up beautifully, that they are bright and bonny and make me laugh every single day and that we are all growing older and wiser together.