Lifestyle

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Orla Barry: No marriage, no house, no kids – I'm exactly where I want to be at 40

From mid-life crisis fears to 'you don't look your age' comments, Orla Barry is taking it all in her stride

EXCELLENT: Orla Barry’s ‘Green Room’. Photo: Ronan Lang/Feature File

KATE Moss is 39, Kate Winslet 38, Julia Louis-Dreyfus 52. Did you know that? If you did, bet you are a) a woman, b) 29 or older, and c) terrified of ageing. I've just turned 40. Forty, can you believe it? Just saying the word makes me sag and droop a little.

My editor asked would I write about it. No way, I thought. This is much too personal. Never mind that I had already written about not being married, not having children, no house, no pet or any form of permanent existence.

Saying I am 40 is like owning up to a whole new life, throwing away my identity and turning my back on, well, youth.

A friend texted the morning of my birthday. "You're 40," followed by 10 exclamation marks. Indeed.

Second text. "There's no pretending you're young anymore, ha ha."

They really are good friends who also happen to be over 40 so don't care much for sugar-coating this milestone. The problem is I'm very good at pretence.

I'm of the generation that was told we could have it all. Even though we knew it wasn't really true, we pretended that indeed we could. As long as, it turns out, you are still of an age that begins with the number three or lower.

I wonder what it's like to have a mid-life crisis. I ring Leslie Shoemaker. She's a counselling psychologist, American and 45. How do I know if I'm going through a mid-life crisis, I ask.

"You're not," Leslie reasons, "because nobody goes through a mid-life crisis at 40 anymore. It doesn't happen until you're 50 now." So you didn't have a crisis when you turned 40? "No, I fell apart when I was 30 and I'm dreading turning 50." So it gets worse from here on in? Panic rising.

"We-e-elll, I'm loving being in my 40s," says Leslie, rapidly switching from kindly friend to professional counsellor.

How can you tell, though, that I'm not going through my mid-life crisis right this minute? A minor hump in your life could be a full-blown, crashing tornado in mine.

"Let me tell you about a friend of mine who's going through a mid-life crisis. Or rather, a friend's husband. He's leaving her. She's in her mid-40s, so is he. He's leaving her for a girl he met online, who's in her 20s."

That's harsh, I agree. "It gets worse. He has met the girl only once." Ouch.

"He has taken to going to tanning salons to build up his body tan". O-ka-ay. "He has also started shaving his chest hair."

Well, that's just plain weird. Are you sure that's a mid-life crisis? "Actually," Leslie concedes, "I think I would call it a whole-life crisis."

I wonder should I celebrate the event. "Yessss," says Leslie. "You must celebrate Every Event Now."

She sounds too emphatic for my liking. Why, I ask, what's the big deal? "Because when you reach our age, you realise life is fragile. Every moment is precious."

I'm not sure this is the type of advice she should be giving to someone wondering if they're in the throes of a middle-aged breakdown.

"I've attended more funerals in the last few years than ever before in my life; people my age are dying now." This isn't helping at all. I thought Americans were all about seeing the positive in life.

"You know what you need to do?" Leslie pipes up suddenly. "Make a list." What kind of list? "A bucket list."

'You don't look your age." I've lost count of the number of times I've heard that phrase in the last month. I accept it in the sentiment in which it's given, a nice thing to say. But why is it so wrong to look the age we actually are or, heaven forbid, older?

Surely our faces and our bodies should tell the world something of the lives we've led. So what if you have an extra bit of flesh around your tummy? You've also pushed out an eight-pounder through an impossibly small opening. That should be your symbol of achievement, not shame.

You should be wearing your bump with pride, not crawling to the treadmill the moment you manage to put one foot in front of the other, and remove your newborn from your breast.

I have no excuse. Mine is just chocolate brownies and wine. But ooh they were good. Now that I've turned 40, they just seem to make their presence felt a little more.

Remember Michelle Pfeiffer? If you're anywhere near my age, you'll swoon and recall that exquisite example of flawless female beauty draped along a piano crooning to Jeff Bridges or talking while brushing her teeth simultaneously in her bedroom with Al Pacino. Unless, that is, you've seen her lately.

I did, in the flesh. It made me want to weep a little. Oh Michelle, what have you done? Hollywood can be so cruel. Now she could be any age: 20, 40, 60, 90, 150. It's impossible to tell.

Why are there no parts for older women in Hollywood anymore? Because a whole generation has disappeared under a surgical scalpel and re-emerged as clone-like, slightly alien-looking beings, that no one can imagine being their mother, gran, sister or lover.

One brother's card arrives in the post. "You're not old, you're retro." My sister writes: "Age is strictly a case of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter." She always says the kindest things.

Another brother: "The lovely thing about being 40 is you can appreciate 25-year-old men."

I have many brothers. It's only in the last year I realise my mother had six children before she reached the age I am now. No wonder she looks at my life, bewildered.

The thing is, as a 40-year-old woman, it's very hard to appreciate 20-something-year-old men, whether you want to or not. Society will scoff at you, men will mock you and women will demean you. Switch the gender and the mockery is in jest and the jibes pointed but not cruel. I have a 27-year-old friend who has always been attracted to older men. When I say older, I mean her last date was 57.

She has had a six-month crush and sort of fling with another man who is 52. She has never dated anyone her age and has no interest in doing so. When she signed up to a dating website recently, she posted her own age and her preference: males between 35-55.

Her page has been swamped with messages from men in their 40s and 50s. Only one man she conversed with expressed hesitation about the age difference. The others were unperturbed, as was she.

People say it's a procreation thing. We are hard-wired to want to procreate. Women will seek out a similar aged or slightly older man who appears to be good father material.

Kind men who take responsibility well and are financially buoyant. Except the thing is so many of us don't. We just fall head over heels for the foreigner we met on holiday who shows zero responsibility and has no career. For the actor who is always waiting for his next big job. Our hearts don't work that way. And even if we followed the correct formula, what's to say we wouldn't be bored to tears in weeks?

The world is full of financially independent women who don't want children. So who cares whether he's 25 or 55. We should be wishing her well, not smirking at her dates and belittling her decisions.

I decide to celebrate my birthday after all. I don't pull out all the stops. Just book a very large table in a favourite restaurant and ask a friend to look after the rest.

When the night arrives, I'm not nervous, just a little overwhelmed that so many people from different parts and decades (yes, decades) of my life have come together for this one night.

Most of them have heard so much about each other over the years but have never met. One Kerry friend tells a French pal: "Aw, isn't it great to see Orla has more than three friends?" The French friend looks bemused at the Kerry wit. Cork friends remember times wearing scrunchies and bright pink lipstick. Young work colleagues have never seen a scrunchie, except in vintage shops.

As the night wears on, I think to myself this is what I wanted. I've ticked no boxes, exchanged no vows, bought no houses and I'm exactly where I want to be with the people I love the most.

It's an uplifting thought that stays with me all night. The next morning, my two-day hangover kicks in. "Aah, now you know you're 40," says my 43-year-old friend knowingly.

I nod and shuffle back to the sofa. Time to start the bucket list.

Irish Independent

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