When I was 20, I imagined that 40 would feel like real adulthood. I am not sure what I thought that meant, but the notion of real or true adulthood feels more elusive to me three days before my 40th birthday than it ever has before.
I imagined some sort of psychological plateau based on a settled self-knowledge, a perfect bank account, and a sensible wardrobe. None of those things turned out to be true. Oprah ends her magazine, every month, with a section called, “What I Know For Sure.” At 40, all I can think about is all that I don’t know.
Here’s a list, albeit a narrative and non-linear one.
1. I have no idea what makes a good mom. I doubt it every day, every meal, every morning drop-off, every homework struggle. The 8-year-old is a tortured, sensory avoidant, insatiably curious, LEGO-building genius. When he hears a news story that he doesn’t totally understand, I feel like I am being water-boarded with questions. I don’t know how to explain delegates versus super delegates and why NATO is important or why Florida has a lot of Italian restaurants. Sometimes I Google. Sometimes I just lie. And sometimes, I just want to scream.
Both sons eat no variety of food at all. They stick to strictly pasta, cheese on bread with no crust, and maybe some French fries (which are really just an excuse for ketchup). All of their clothes smell like ketchup. It’s disgusting. Every time I see a kid eat a vegetable I feel threatened. Actually, a fruit too. What are those moms doing? Why can’t I do it? Some parents were aware of creating broad palates. I had no idea.
2. Speaking of food, I do not know how to eat. I thought by 40 I would have this figured out. All I know is that it is easier to gain weight and harder to lose it than it has ever been. I like candy more than ever. Aren’t we supposed to have outgrown candy? It feels so immature and nearly demented. I try to skip dessert. I can’t skip dessert. My older son asked me why I always get an appetizer. I said it was because adults always get appetizers. That is clearly not true, but I do. I need an appetizer and a dessert.
3. I never know what to wear. 40 years into this gender and I am completely befuddled about how to perform it. I don’t feel feminine. I don’t feel masculine. Some days I can wear a skirt, but only with boots. I can never find shoes, and order off Zappos, only to avoid the returns that I will have make, compulsively. I would have a 401K if I could send in my Zappos returns. I feel as much shame about my unreturned shoes as I do about candy. They pile up. I can’t find any packing tape. Maybe tomorrow I will do it.
4. I don’t know how to be Jewish. At 20, my Judaism was a spiritual experience, punctuated by a newborn, thriving feminism. At almost 40 the only comfort that I take in Judaism is a cultural one. I find that when I am most afloat in the world, the presence of Jews anchors me. For all that feels unknown, I am known and seen by fellow Jews.
But my kids are not in Hebrew school, and I feel some shame about it. The pressure that an introverted, sensory sensitive kid feels in the presence of a foreign language, unrecognizable hymns, and scary stories of persecution and genocide that have no discernible answers feels unfair. The pressure, for my younger kid who is powered by several batteries at once, to sit still also feels unfair. While I can’t even imagine having a bar mitzvah for my boys—financially, socially or religiously—that is really the least of it.
Oddly though, at 40, the thing that I might know most surely is that I am Jewish.
I don’t understand mindfulness or meditation, but I do hear the birds more loudly than I ever have before. I don’t feel sure about God, but the divine holiness of Paul Simon and psychotherapy is stingingly palpable to me. And I understand the Sabbath now, in a deep and abiding way. I don’t think it must be from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. Judaism has provided us with the very idea of stillness, reflection, and togetherness.
These notions, historically rooted and scarcely honored, are a balm. My evolving struggle with not-knowing coupled with the rapid fire speed of aging into real adulthood, whatever that means, is only ever soothed by this balm.