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first person

Illustration by Adam De Souza

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I just turned 40 and I have to say, it feels really weird.

I wouldn’t characterize my unease as panicking in the traditional “over the hill” sense, but these days it seems like no one from my generation would admit it even if they were.

Popular culture now espouses the importance of acceptance, self-love and positive thinking, so being anything but utterly delighted about turning 40 is entirely out of fashion. Particularly for women and particularly for women with active social-media accounts.

My mom had the luxury of turning 40 without having to post an Instagram story about it. Joking aside, her 40th birthday is a day I remember really well.

We went out for dinner and my mom’s best friend gave her a mug that adorned the phrase, “Lordy, Lordy - Look Who’s 40.” It was white with purple bubble letters and it had a cartoon on it of a lady who was positively shrieking. Her eyes were bursting out of her face.

My mom opened the box and while she certainly laughed and smiled and was appreciative for the gift, that evening back at home she sipped her nightly cup of tea rather sheepishly from her new mug. I remember sitting beside her on the couch wondering what it could possibly feel like to be that old.

I turned 40 a week ago and with it the memories of my mom and her mug take on new meaning.

I don’t know exactly how I feel about this milestone, but I can easily surmise how my mom must have felt about it all those years ago. She was a single mother raising two little kids on her own, hours away from the help of her siblings, in a city that was entirely new to her. I can only imagine that the milestone must have felt mildly terrifying, certifiably shriek-worthy even.

There is a marked difference between how the milestone is, well, marked today by the modern birthday girl. Thirty years ago, my mom sipped tea from her new mug on the couch with her kids like she did every other night. But today, the celebrations are far more elaborate. The expectations far loftier. So much so that the milestone actually has its own hashtag.

The pressures of #ThisIs40 mean that my social-media feeds are literally inundated with over-the-top status updates and photos upon photos of fancy dinners, extravagant parties, multitiered birthday cakes and oversized balloons.

But even more striking – the trips! Oh, the money we’re spending on trips to Vegas and tours of Spain, on spa getaways and bike tours in wine country. As a woman who isn’t married and who doesn’t have kids, the expectations feel even more heightened for me.

I have fielded questions about my plans for well over a year. Without the responsibility of a family, somehow a trip to Vegas is insufficient. Have I thought about swimming with sharks or stomping grapes or riding a camel to christen in this new era? I really should, apparently.

The funny thing is my unease about turning 40 is not entirely about the “shoulds” of my peers or my ability (or inability at times) to sift through all the pomp and circumstance. It feels both dramatic and cliché to admit, but as a woman who is unmarried with a great job and a healthy savings account, I felt like I had an actual responsibility to celebrate.

Generations of women, my mom among them, made sacrifices so that I could live the extremely privileged life that I do. A life that wasn’t possible for many even one generation ago. With the blessings of physical ability, time and means, the concept of not going all out for 40 somehow felt obtuse. Was I uneasy about turning 40 or just struggling to understand what exactly my generation is trying to prove?

What seeded my hesitation to swim and stomp and ride in the name of my big birthday, when swimming and stomping and riding are what I love best every other day of the year? I love a good photoshoot on the beach with my girlfriends (I truly do), but #ThisIs40 feels like a whole lot of nonsense and needless showboating.

I put more thought into this birthday than I have any other. What I’ve come to understand is that feigning delight about the milestone feels weighted, when really all that I want is for time to stop passing at increasingly lightning speed. I am delighted with my life just where it is.

I went back and forth about what I’d like do to mark the big day, and the more I thought about that silly hashtag and all the expectations associated with it, the more I realized that perhaps my mom was onto something 30 years ago.

In the end I spent the evening in, surrounded by the people I love most. Although instead of tea, we filled our mugs with Champagne, thank you very much.

Lordy, I guess this is 40.

Sarah Van Lange lives in Toronto.