Opinion: Why am I so squeamish about this latest milestone?

Staring down the barrel of her 40th birthday, writer Ciara McVeigh seeks out stories of women who are still growing and realising their dreams in their 40s, 50s and beyond to make peace with her own approach to ageing...

A 40th birthday pink in a pink circle on a green patterned background
(Image credit: Future/Getty)

As I stare down the barrel of my 40th birthday, age has become a touchy subject for me. For the first time in my life, I no longer feel young. I’m not old either; rather entering what has traditionally been a bit of a hinterland for women. I swing between feeling fortunate to have lived this long, and shocked that it's finally happening to me. Like jury duty, turning 40 is something that's always happening to other people. 

I’m far from alone in facing this next stage of my life. The Office for National Statistics (opens in new tab) reveals that our older population is growing. In England, people aged 65 and older are expected to comprise 20.7% of the total population by 2028, a not insignificant 13% increase. 

As of 2020, women aged 65 can expect to live on average 22 more years. So if I can have a longer, healthier life than my grandparents or even my parents, then why am I so squeamish about this latest milestone? 

"Like jury duty, turning 40 is something that's always happening to other people."

According to psychologist Dr Lucy Ryan, the stigma around women ageing is deeply rooted in our culture: “Stigma for older women is historically embedded across the centuries. We can take this right back to Aristotle who described women as ‘deformed males’ and believed women over 50 shouldn’t exist."

Dr Ryan, who is also a women’s advocate and author of the upcoming book, Revolting Women: Why Midlife Women are Rewriting the Rules of Success, adds that the intrinsic link between women and motherhood also adds an extra layer to how we view ageing: “As so many conversations about women are embodied, so it is with older women - once no longer ‘useful’ as a reproductive body, what is our use to society?”

Finding and becoming a role model

I find myself devouring stories of women continuing to achieve and grow as they age, uplifting me more than any capsule wardrobe refresh or facial peel. According to Dr Ryan, older women should embrace this potential to act as guiding lights to their younger counterparts.

"Older women have a job to do to be great role models to younger women, to talk positively about ourselves and the opportunities age brings. All my research shows that this includes extraordinary opportunities - wisdom, humour, experience and social intelligence."

These great stories are all around us. What about the latest series of Mastermind being won by 66-year-old Alice Walker, the oldest woman ever to win the long-running BBC show? Ms Walker not only won by a six point lead in the final, but scored a perfect 14 out of 14 in her specialist subject, the Peak District.

Or actress Joanna Scanlon, winning her first BAFTA at 60? In her thirties, she was suffering greatly with chronic fatigue syndrome and had all but given up on her dream of acting. Her GP advised her to give it one more go, or risk regret making her ill for the rest of her life. That ‘one more go’ led to March of this year, where she won a BAFTA for 'best leading actress' for her role in drama ‘After Love’, beating rival nominees including Tessa Thompson, Emilia Jones, and Lady Gaga.

Joanna Scanlon, after winning her first BAFTA

Joanna Scanlon, after winning her first BAFTA earlier this year.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

There are also so many examples away from the silver screen, right next to us, amongst our friends and our family. Like creative agency co-founder Clair, who felt that other people were far more concerned about the 40th milestone than she was.

“It seemed like a bigger deal to people around me than it was for me. I just felt ready. My thirties had seen a lot of change and I felt a bit relieved, to be honest. I was ready to own a new decade, and all the experience and knowledge that comes with it.”

How did she mark the occasion? “I ran 100km across the Lake District! My fiance and I took on the Great Lakeland Three Day Challenge, which involved navigating a route, camping each night, and brutal runs up and down mountains each day.

“I wanted the lead up to my birthday to be an empowering period of training, getting physically strong, and feeling as good as I possibly could.”

Joan Mulvihill, digitalisation and sustainability lead at Siemens agrees: "I loved turning 40! I had a moment of clarity, recognition, appreciation and gratitude for who I had become. There was something in this recognition of my ‘enoughness’ of myself that allowed me to be bolder and braver, because I was totally unfettered by fear of judgement, failure or rejection."

Joan is already preparing for her next decade. "Honestly, the past decade has been the most extraordinarily transformative. I am 49 next month, and yet I am now the closest to my 18-year-old self I have ever been as an adult."

Joan’s words remind me of the wisdom of writer Mary Gaitskill, that ‘as we get older, we become more ourselves.’ The cyclical nature of life is beginning to make itself felt to me, for the first time.

"As we get older, we become more ourselves."

Mary Gaitskill

If you’re still in doubt that life at any age is a gift, a friend recently gently reminded me that her sister died in her thirties, helping me realise that the only alternative to ageing we have is an early passing. It’s sobering but important to embrace our mortality when we’re floundering around with the business of living.

For my part, I don’t think I’ll be running up any mountains as I approach 40 but I do feel quietly reassured that wisdom, courage and experience are the spoils of age, and that everything amazing can still lie ahead of me. If nothing else, I look forward to becoming ‘more myself’.

Ciara McVeigh
Freelance writer

Ciara McVeigh is a freelance writer and creative copywriter who has been published in The Irish Times, The National UAE and IMAGE magazine, and 2022's '100 Voices' - an anthology of women's stories from across the world. Her essays on life, work, people and place can be found at ciaramcveigh.com (opens in new tab).