Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

Women Discuss: Being Forty-Something

In past Women Discuss columns here on DW, we’ve discussed deciding not to have children, polyamory and open relationships, wedding advice, and how to express condolences. Today, we’re covering a topic close to my heart: being a woman in her forties. From physical changes to career developments to balancing the demands of caring for aging parents and – sometimes – young kids while finding time to nurture relationships, friendships, hobbies and civic responsibilities, being a woman in her forties can feel like climbing a summit: the views are often spectacular and the rewards are plentiful, but boy, do our backs ache. I recently shared my feelings about being a forty-something woman, and below, eight other women share their thoughts on some of the best and worst parts of being a woman in her forties.

We feared becoming invisible and undesirable in our forties.

“I was worried that I’d instantly become undesirable, that somehow at the magic age of 40 all my feminine beauty would just dry up. Crazy, because I knew lots of women in their 40s and beyond that are beautiful in and out, but it was something about turning 40 (for me) that made me fear losing something that only younger women have. Those fears did not materialize though. In fact, I’d say that I feel even more vibrant now than I did in my 20s or 30s. I’m more confident now than ever so I feel amazing.” — Rachel W., 42 and married

“I worried about becoming invisible as I aged. I’d read a lot about that, about not being seen on the streets and how difficult it was to adjust. That’s definitely happened (no more skating out of speeding tickets), but what I didn’t expect is what a relief it is. I don’t wonder if success in my career is due to being young and relatively attractive. I don’t worry or wonder if I’m more or less attractive than other women. I don’t dread being harassed on the streets any more (though it infuriates me that it’s still a thing). — AJ, 43 and happily remarried after a divorce

Sex has gotten better.

“I have great, fantastic orgasms!” — ABF, 49 and monogamous

“Since I separated, dated and now have a new partner, the sex has been awesome. Earth-shatteringly awesome. That may be because I went basically without for the last 20 years of my marriage – but still it’s been amazing. Not being self-conscious, getting to explore and try new things — yep, Awesome!” — Emma, 48 and separated but with someone new

We really don’t care what you think.

“I no longer care what other people who don’t know me think about me for surface reasons. I don’t care if I’m cool, if I’m wearing cool clothes or hanging out with cool people. I care if people trust me, believe in me, and like me for me.” — Beth, 42 and single

“Every year I just care less about what other people think about me. I realize that life is going by and I want to be content/happy/satisfied. A huge part of that means not getting my self value from anyone else.” — Emily, 43 and married

“I am crystal clear on what’s important and give exactly zero shits about what people think about me. It’s incredibly freeing!” — Katherine, 45, married

We are pickier about whom we spend our time with and as a result, the quality of our friendships is better.

“As I’ve moved into my 40s, I’m less and less inclined to put up with other people’s nonsense. I’ve shed a lot of friendships that weren’t working for one reason or another. As a result, I cherish the few and faithful friends I’ve kept all the more. — AJ, 43 and happily remarried after a divorce

“I find I have less time now for older friends that I no longer have as much in common with. I do care for them still, and if we get together I’m happy to catch up and have a visit. Usually though I’d sooner spend time with my new partner and my kids and his.” — Emma, 48 and separated but with someone new

“I’ve noticed that I am spending more time with friends and less time with family. I have an awesome group of friends and we have so much fun together. There is much less drama and it seems like my friendships now are with people that I actually want to spend time with — I’m not forced to spend time with them because our kids are friends. ” — Holly A., 41 and living with her partner

We know our intrinsic value in relationships

“There were times in my late 20s and early 30s, when I’d go out of my way to avoid confrontation or making anyone uncomfortable — I’d bite my tongue if I disagreed with someone, suck it up at work if I got stuck with crappy projects. Now, I make it a policy to be at least as considerate of myself as I am of others. It feels good. ” — AJ, 43 and happily remarried after a divorce

“I have built much better boundaries between myself and the people I love. I don’t absorb their feelings and moods as much as I once did. I’m also trying not to cling to my friends as hard. I know I am lovable JUST for being me and not because I do certain things or don’t do them. I don’t need to shrink myself down to make others feel big.” — Emily, 43 and married

We aren’t responsible for other people’s happiness

“I wish I’d figured out much earlier in life that it’s not my job to make anyone else happy — not my parents, not my lovers, not my friends. My job is to be a good person and do my best to be a supportive, loving presence in their lives, but their happiness in the world is their responsibility.” — AJ, 43 and happily remarried after a divorce

Dealing with our aging bodies is a challenge

“Aging is…harder than I expected. I have chronic neck and back pain and it completely sucks. I gain weight more easily, I lose weight more slowly, I get tired faster. I run half as much as I did in my 30s and my knees hurt twice as badly. Chocolate and red wine both give me heartburn. I’m getting these faint spots on my hands and arms that aren’t freckles — WTF? I had to increase the font size to 16 on this message to see what I’m typing. I’m seven years younger than my husband, but his brow is completely unlined and mine looks like a before picture in a Botox ad. So, yes — I’m thinking of Botox.” — AJ, 43 and happily remarried after a divorce

“Staying positive about the inevitable changes of growing older is hard. My boobs will continue to sag, my hair will go gray (maybe/maybe not), my child-bearing years will end, menopause will begin, wrinkles, etc. etc.” — Rachel W., 42 and married

“I feel hungover every damned day! Herbal tea makes me pee and even if I drink tons of water all day, I feel hungover in the morning. May as well have the cocktail, amiright? I am starting to feel my age physically. There are a lot more noises coming out of me as I stand up and sit down than there used to be!” — Katherine, 45, married

Dealing with our aging parents is also a tough adjustment

“This has been the hardest thing I’ve experienced thus far. Seeing them getting older/slower/declining etc. has been selfishly hard for me because I see my own mortality but also mainly because I feel pressure to take care of them. I am trying to be better about this because I cannot control them, but as an only child I do feel like a lot of the decisions will at some point be mine to make and that is scary.” — Emily, 43 and married

“I am waist-deep in the time of life where peer’s parents are beginning to die with more and more regularity not due to extenuating circumstances like an early death due to illness. And I will say that I live in perpetual fear. My mom lost her parents when she was in her late 30s to mid/late 40s. My dad did not lose his until he was in his late 60s/early 70s! So I am entering what will hopefully be a very large window of time remaining with my parents, but the fear of the loss is already getting heavy. Being 45, I feel like I should be able to bear the burden more stoically or something? I don’t know. But I am entering a new phase of life, certainly, when it comes to life and death. I am quite sure I will begin to hear about old classmates passing from heart attacks or cancer and things as well and I am NOT prepared.” — Katherine, 45, married

Our career focus is shifting toward thinking about the final stretch before retirement

“My career has taken a much more important role in my life than ever before. I need to make the jump from middle management to senior/executive leadership right now if it’s going to happen at all — and, frankly, it’s not looking good. Establishing an executive presence is really hard as a woman. Is my hair too long (probably)? Should I let some gray show (no idea)? Am I polished enough (no)? Are my clothes up to the mark (mostly)? Should I get Botox (probably)? I don’t think my male colleagues are thinking about any of this. I’m in before them, I leave later. I have twice the staff, manage twice the budget. But I’d bet money that one of them will get the next promotion in my department and it’s pissing me off already.” — AJ, 43 and happily remarried after a divorce

“Coming to terms with having not as much money as I thought I would by now is difficult. Raising four kids alone without support though – well I probably did okay, but there’s this little voice that says I should have done better. I also ‘bought in’ to the line my parents and others told my generation growing up – if you get an education and work hard you won’t have to worry about money and you can have nice things and travel. Not even close in my case. I have seven years of University, and I’ve worked my butt off in my career while raising my kids, but I’m barely holding it together financially covering basic things. Now I realize there is not much time left for my career and I need to save for retirement. There is no pension plan to save me.” — Emma, 48 and separated but with someone new

Being a mother – or not being a mother — informs some of the challenges we feel.

“My biggest challenge is lack of time. I am a single mom working a full-time job and a part-time job and my kids are all involved in different activities and always going different directions. I never have time for myself. But I don’t complain about it too much because my kids are all in middle school or high school and I know that soon I will have way too much free time.” — Holly A., 41 and living with her partner

“I don’t have a dating life. Part of that is being a 41-year-old woman with no children or a desire to have children. People can’t believe I don’t want to be a mother and see it as mistake and consider it ‘weird.’” — Beth, 42 and single

“A big surprise has been the fading out of friendships. As people moved on to next steps in their 30s, some had kids, others moved away, etc. As a mid-40 something with no kids, I find myself a bit orphaned in terms of social relationships. Even if I meet someone at a class or volunteering, they often have to get home to their kids or have other demands on their time. It’s been a development I wasn’t prepared for.” — Katherine, 45, married

We have some good advice for younger women

“Let it goooooo! Seriously. Stop dying and buffing and scraping and starving yourself. Drink water. Eat well. Sleep” — Katherine, 45, married

“Your kids will grow up; you’re still going to be mom. Your body will change; you’ll still be the same inside. Watching your parents age will be hard and you’ll think about your own mortality; It’s okay. Forty isn’t even middle age anymore; is it really? Who cares… tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone, so live today. Continue to be kind. In doing so, you’ll need to learn to distinguish genuine kindness from kindness with an agenda and make sure to avoid the latter. Karma can take years, you’ll see. Still, it’s better to not be the one Karma comes for unless it’s to repay a kindness. Most importantly, drink more water – you’ll thank me later.” — Rachel W., 42 and married

25 comments… add one
  • avatar

    ktfran October 3, 2019, 4:33 pm

    RE: Our career focus is shifting toward thinking about the final stretch before retirement…

    Granted I’m not 40, but I will be in a few months and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want my career to look like for the next 15 to 20 years. I’m traveling more. I’m in more meetings with executives. Now is a good time to act, especially since the husband and I are child free. Last night, I dropped a pretty penny on a few new business staples. I do a pretty good job dressing the part already, but I needed to elevate my look. Anyway, for the first time I worked with a stylist to cultivate some looks and I finally felt like a real adult. And I’m 39. It was a good feeling.

    Intrinsically I know that it shouldn’t matter what I wear, but I feel more confident when I feel like I’m dressed appropriately. I always try to dress one step nicer than probably what is necessary.

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    • avatar

      Rangerchic October 3, 2019, 4:47 pm

      But that makes you feel good! Then it’s not about them it’s about how it makes you feel. I get that. Sometimes I just want to dress up (not dressy or anything but more than my usual) because it makes me feel good, even if I’m staying home!

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    • Copa

      Copa October 3, 2019, 5:05 pm

      A friend of mine has an interview next week and was stressing about whether or not to move her haircut up a couple days. I told her to just do it because it’ll boost her confidence… she’ll feel good and it will show. Should it matter how we dress? Probably not (within reason). But I also don’t think it goes unnoticed.

      Out of curiosity, where did you find a stylist?

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      • Copa

        Copa October 3, 2019, 5:08 pm

        Meant to add, I think dressing nicely is similar to having a fresh haircut for an interview. It’s something that may be unnecessary, but it’ll make you feel great!

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      • avatar

        ktfran October 3, 2019, 5:13 pm

        I went to MM LaFleur. I’ve wanted to for ages. A project I was given where I have to present to the president of my company gave me a push to finally go.

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  • avatar

    Rangerchic October 3, 2019, 4:50 pm

    I’m 43 and tired of doing the same kind of job I’ve had for the past 20+ years. My husband is also tired of doing the same kind of job he’s had for more time than that. I think as soon as our youngest is out of the house (she’s a sophomore in college) then we are going to sell our house and buy a bed & breakfast somewhere and run it for awhile. We need a change! That’s what we’ve realized about careers in our 40’s. At least for us.

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    • Dear Wendy

      Dear Wendy October 3, 2019, 4:54 pm

      Yeah, I think that makes sense and is keeping with the idea of thinking about the final stretch – or like the third and final act if your career were a play – before you retire. A B&B sounds like a great adventure – and third act!

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    • avatar

      ktfran October 3, 2019, 5:07 pm

      That would be amazing, opening a B&B!!! When we go to Calistoga, I love the little B&B we stay at, Wine Way Inn. It’s my favorite place I’ve stayed away from home.

      I’ve been at the same company since I graduated college in 2003. I always think, what else could I be doing?!? I have no idea what else! I’m lucky in that I get to pick the projects I want to work on and my company does meaningful work. Earlier this year I was meh and wanted out. I’ve since been reinvigorated, hence the wardrobe splurge, but I’m sure I’ll hit the “what’s next” again.

      Also, you’re right about your comment above.

      Reply Link
  • Copa

    Copa October 3, 2019, 5:07 pm

    Since Botox was mentioned in one response… Has anyone here had any experiences (good or bad) with Botox? I’m still early 30s but have been thinking about doing it.

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    • avatar

      Kate October 3, 2019, 5:28 pm

      Never had it. I think a little can be good, but I know women who have had way too much and just look crazy. I have thought I might want it, but when it comes down to it, I am not going to bother.

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    • Dear Wendy

      Dear Wendy October 3, 2019, 5:44 pm

      I haven’t tried it yet, but I have a friend who’s a nurse and gives botox as a side gig she’s started. She’ll do it for me if I want – she gets it done herself and it looks totally natural and great. I’m definitely thinking about it but haven’t pulled the trigger yet. The upside to botox is that even if it’s too much, it disappears in a few months.

      Reply Link
  • avatar

    Kate October 3, 2019, 5:39 pm

    Career-wise I am done trying to achieve. At 40 I got the promotion I wanted, and I never wanted to get farther than that anyway. That job turned out to be total bullshit anyway; they restructured everything right after I got it, and long story short, it blew. I made the most money ever, but it wasn’t worth it. Now I’m back to doing the least I can possibly do for the most money. That’s where it’s at. I’m like, hey, how can I help ya? Instead of, how can I be the baddest bitch?

    IMO, dressing well doesn’t correlate that much with success. Looking at women who do really well, I don’t see them looking like they stepped out of an ad. Kinda frumpy, actually.

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    • avatar

      Kate October 3, 2019, 5:41 pm

      I think jackets can be good though! I’m not a big jacket person, but I admire them.

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    • avatar

      ktfran October 3, 2019, 7:34 pm

      That’s not the case in my industry. All the women I aspire to be, and all have made VP or are “rising stars” are stylish. And I work for a mega architecture/engineering firm so you’d think you’d deal with more frump. Maybe at the doer level. You don’t at the management and executive level.

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      • avatar

        Kate October 4, 2019, 5:09 am

        I was expecting to see it in finance, but I don’t. I have mostly been around the consumer packaged goods industry and market research. And tech. Typically the really successful women look adult and competent, but not like their style is the point.

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      • avatar

        Kate October 4, 2019, 5:19 am

        Our CEO is a woman, high up on the “most powerful” lists, and she has a sensible haircut and a lot of jackets and slacks. Or like the salespeople I’ve worked with who make a ton of money and call on high level execs, or SVPs who manage teams. They look appropriately dressed (usually), but not like “wow, look at her outfit” nice. I think the key is just to look businesslike. But yes, it is never a bad idea to dress how the women in positions higher than you dress.

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      • avatar

        Kate October 4, 2019, 5:45 am

        Actually, New York is the exception. I’ve definitely seen some style in NYC.

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  • avatar

    Sea witch October 3, 2019, 8:45 pm

    “I worried about becoming invisible as I aged…but what I didn’t expect is what a relief it is.”

    Yep. Don’t miss attention from random men on the street one bit. I can just go about my business.

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  • bittergaymark

    Bittergaymark October 3, 2019, 11:00 pm

    Eh… If I’d know my forties were gonna be this bad — I’d have simply skipped ‘em entirely. Honestly? I would have been a very wise decision. Oh, well.

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    • bittergaymark

      Bittergaymark October 3, 2019, 11:26 pm

      Glad it’s better for everybody else.

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    • avatar

      Emily October 4, 2019, 7:42 am

      My dad says his 50s were the best decade. Maybe that is more true for guys. Hope it gets better!! One day at a time. <3

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      • bittergaymark

        Bittergaymark October 4, 2019, 9:08 am

        Thanks. But that seems rather doubtful. Especially if you’re gay, flat broke, and utterly failed in EVERY career.

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  • avatar

    Kate October 4, 2019, 8:58 am

    I do get attention from randos on the street still. Like, just in case anyone enjoys that and thinks they’ll miss it, it doesn’t necessarily go away. Like I get honked at by trucks and told I’m beautiful (I’m not).

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  • avatar

    allathian October 7, 2019, 7:59 am

    Can’t say I have any complaints about being past 40. I have a steady job (in government, where they basically can’t fire me unless I commit a felony), a good and stable marriage, a great kid and a mortgage. Granted, I wouldn’t mind having the body I had at 20, but I wouldn’t want to be without the experiences that make me who I am at 47. I’m certainly more comfortable in my skin than I ever was in my teens, twenties or thirties. I love having the confidence to just not care about what other people think of me, at least up to a point. Sure, I care what my nearest and dearest think, but random strangers? Forget it.

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    • avatar

      _s_ October 7, 2019, 12:10 pm

      Yes, being much more comfortable with myself, both outwardly and inwardly, is a major plus. Case in point, it’s been hot AF here, and the other day I (size 16) wore a crop top and shorts to run errands – something my much thinner 20-something self would NEVER have done. Now I’m just like who gives a shit, it’s too effing hot and I look cute.

      Reply Link

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