In May I turned 40. My partner, Ty, and I were planning a trip to Europe to celebrate. Instead, in lockdown, he ordered take-out and he and our kids got dressed up, set the table, lit candles and waited on me as though we were in a restaurant.
On the wall behind me, a sign said, “Happy 40th birthday, HILARY!” in rainbow colours, the product of a week of “home-school” in Ty’s woodshop where he had set up our kids with an enormous piece of paper and some paint. They even made my name into an acrostic poem: Hilarious, Imaginative, Loving, Amazing, Resolute, Yay mom! (They may have had help with R.)
Birthdays don’t usually bother me, but I had a lot of anxiety leading up to 40. It seemed like an age at which I would know what I was doing. Instead, I’ve failed to achieve most of my goals, both large and small. I did not become a professor. I’m still on a term contract in my job with Parks Canada. I’m only on chapter four of a book I’ve been wanting to write for years. I can’t touch my toes without bending my knees. I have never been able to do a cartwheel.
When Ty and I met 20 years ago in a tree-planting camp in Northern Ontario, he was working in Canada in the summers and spending the winters in Guatemala. He had built a small house there and thought he might stay, live the expat life. Instead, after we got together, he went back to school, got a master’s degree, found a real job and got promoted.
Ty never feels like a failure. He had no grand idea of what he would do with his life and it’s turned out better than he expected.
Our daughter, Hazel, is like Ty – content with herself and her life, not plagued with self-doubt. She thinks of something she wants to draw, gets right at it, finishes it in one go and displays it on the fridge.
Our son, Arlo, is more like me. He sits at his art desk, marker in hand, paralyzed. When he finally works up the courage to put his marker to paper and draw, if it doesn’t turn out how he imagined, he crumples the paper up and throws it across the room, crying, “I’m the worst artist in the world!”
I recognized the similarities between Arlo’s and my personalities while we were cooped up together in the early days of the pandemic. As I coached him through his feelings, I caught myself saying things I needed to hear: “Why do you think you need to be perfect?” “It’s normal to feel scared.” “How about we take a break?”
One night the week before my birthday, we were in the kids' room getting them ready for bed. As Arlo climbed in beside Ty to read stories, he put his entire weight on Ty’s testicles. Ty yelled out in pain and curled into a ball. Arlo burst into tears.
After he recovered, Ty put his arm around Arlo. “It was an accident, buddy,” he said. “I know you didn’t do it on purpose.” Arlo started sobbing even louder.
I scooped him up into my lap. “Hey, kiddo,” I said, “we need you to stop being so hard on yourself. You’re a great kid – kind, funny, easygoing – and we all love you so much.”
“I don’t know why anyone would love me,” he replied. “I’m a terrible kid!”
“I can be hard on myself, too,” I said. “You know how I’m turning 40 next week and I feel like a failure?”
“Yes. But you’re not a failure.”
“And sometimes I feel like I’m a terrible mother.”
“No, Mom, you’re a great mom.”
“And I’m a terrible home-school teacher.” (We’d been having a lot of conflict that week.)
“No, you’re not,” he said. He’d been avoiding my eyes, but he turned toward me then, grinned and said, “Actually, Mom, you are a terrible home-school teacher.”
We all laughed and Arlo climbed carefully into bed to read with his dad.
As I tucked Hazel into her bed on the other side of the room, I felt a new lightness in my chest. I smiled as I thought to myself, “Actually, Arlo, you’re a terrible home-school student.”
His cheeky dig somehow knocked me out of my spiral of insecurity. I reminded myself I left academia on my own volition, that I’m lucky to have a job at all, especially one I love, and that I’m finally making progress, however slow, on this book I’ve been thinking about for years. And of course, the world will not end if I never touch my toes or execute a perfect cartwheel.
After months of perseverating on 40, the actual day came as a lovely respite. I was sick of lockdown but grateful for the excuse not to hold a party. Ty and I took the day off work. I went for a run in the middle of the day. Our kids were in great moods; they didn’t get in a single fight. I felt grateful to have them in my life.
My goal for my 40s is to worry less and enjoy life more. This begins with trying not to think too much about the future – how long this pandemic will go on and whether we will build a more just world with the pieces.
Instead, I’m keeping my sights on the day ahead. The e-mails I will send, the report I will try to finish, the bike ride I will take Hazel and Arlo on. After they fall asleep, I may even finish this imperfect essay, print it out and put it on the fridge.
This is it, I think, success.
Hilary Thorpe lives in Haida Gwaii, B.C.
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