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At Every Age And Stage, You Are Enough, Sis

We’re socialized to believe that life unfolds in decade-by-decade milestones. With each birthday, let’s remember to enjoy the journey.

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illustration of a woman sitting happily in her apartment on a chair next to a birthday cake
Roeqiya Fris
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Last year, the months flew by faster than they usually do and before I was even a little bit ready, it was the week of May 21, my birthday. My 40th birthday. Friends born that same year were all over my social media feeds, enjoying lavish parties and taking luxurious vacations to commemorate their arrival at another milestone. They were all smiles and selfies, but I just wanted to eat a slice of ice cream cake on the couch and let that stretch of 24 hours blow by with as little hootie hoo as possible.

Long ago, birthdays stopped being festive events for me, mostly because I became grand mistress of a mentally tortuous game called “By This Age, I Should Have ________, but I Don’t.” The emotional equivalent of pricking myself repeatedly with a dull earring post, it’s pointless, self-inflicted and unmerciful. Still, every year when the last days of April start pressing themselves into the first days of May, I unleash the internal bullying.

By this age, I should have a house, but I don’t.

By this age, I should have a retirement account, but I don’t.

By this age, I should have this and this and this accomplished in my career, but I don’t.

And so on and so forth through an inventory of shortcomings and failed to-do’s that can run the gamut from my personal life to my physical appearance until I’ve successfully made not just my birthday completely moot and unimportant, but my whole entire existence. It’s a slow build to the conclusion that there really isn’t much for me to celebrate at all. Then, almost immediately, I feel guilty and selfish for my pity-partying because I’ve had friends — vibrant, life-loving, feisty friends — who passed away too young and would have loved to see their fourth decade.

We’re socialized to believe that life unfolds in chronological milestones. In your 20s you graduate from college or get your first real job, you move out of your parents’ house, you choose a career path, you have fun. By the end of that decade or in the beginning of your 30s, you meet a person you can partner with for the next 30 or 40 years, you make till-death-do-you-part promises, you have children if you choose to procreate and you buy a house.

I was a single mom with one child, barely making enough as a writer and editor to pay rent for my cute but tiny apartment in Washington, D.C. And I was turning 40. It was not the me I’d set out to be at 21 and 25 and 30. I’d woven my life goals around a timeline not necessarily of my own making, and I was trapped in achievement purgatory. I didn’t feel like I had enough to show for 40 years on Earth, and I wondered when life as I’d planned it was going to start. I was getting appeals from my alma mater for alumni giving and I felt like I wasn’t too far removed from graduation, like I was still in my 20s because I hadn’t yet hit the milestones I thought were guaranteed as part of the 30-something experience.

Feeling behind on life and not knowing exactly how to get to the new, next place is crazy-making, but feeling like you’re the only person who doesn’t know how to move forward is isolating and lonely. The people I was following on social media were living their best lives and I felt like a failure to launch. I wondered: Is this it? Is this all there’s going to be? And if it is, can I be genuinely content and happy with just this, this place where I am right now, until I die?

For Black women, it’s especially frustrating to work and pray and hope and dream, only to dominate lists of the most underpaid professionals, the least likely to be promoted in certain industries and the chronically undervalued at work and in dating. And still we rise, some of us hoping to live up to expectations set by people we want to make happy; some of us trying to feed kids and grandkids and be effective caretakers for our aging parents; some of us determined to prove we are somebody to someone who told us that we weren’t; some of us motivated by a certainty that we were made for greater than just getting by and wanting desperately to live that out.

If you’re waiting on something or everything, it’s not just you. We live in an achievement-driven society that measures our worth in titles, degrees and accomplishments. It’s easy to feel inadequate, particularly for women who are ostensibly old enough to have it all together. There are many of us 40 and over still trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up and others who have a vision but are just waiting to welcome its late arrival. But there’s a difference between setting goals and being enslaved to a timeline.

May came up quickly again in 2019 and I didn’t make any plans for my birthday this year just like I didn’t make any last year or the year before. Day to day, though, I am a lover of the life I’ve been given. I’m learning to stop counting my days like their only purpose is to move me 24 hours closer to a goal and to stop playing a head game with time that I’m not going to win. It’s my conscious effort to be free, to be present in the moments I’m blessed to have, to fully experience right now without assaulting myself for not being where I thought I’d be by this age. If my eyes still peel open in the mornings, God has an earthly purpose for me that day, and that means my story is still being written.