10 Things to Know by Age 40

I have always known
That at last I would
Take this road, but yesterday
I did not know that it would be today.

Narihira, 9th century

I wrote, “Mom’s 29th birthday” on the calendar for today, but some ungrateful kid crossed it out and put, “40th.” Et tu, brute? I think the youngest did it on orders from the oldest.

Anyway, I am happy to be 40. You know why? You have two choices: get older, or die.

And things are just getting interesting! 40 feels like a wiser more Zen space than 20. I’ve already had my children, we’re much more financially stable, and I think I am actually more intelligent than I was twenty years ago.

So I did a little self-assessment of my life at age 40:

Body: not nearly as decrepit as I thought it’d be, back when I was 20 thinking ahead to 40.
Wrinkles: fairly negligible (thanks, Japanese mom!)
Husband: attentive. Still love hanging out with him.
Kids: Mostly well-behaved. Diligent workers. Still funny.
House: Purchased
Career: going well
Life: good

This is me now:

still life with black fan
I know what you’re thinking when you look at this photo. Why on earth does she have a white carpet? Because it was on sale for really cheap.

This is me in 20 years (I’m pretty sure her DNA will be available for sale on eBay soon):

I also thought about some things I’ve learned by now and tried to write them down.

1. To not care about what other people think about me.

I’m not talking about when people express concern for really important life-and-death things, like, It concerns me that you have worn the same sweatsuit for three weeks and haven’t showered in four.

No, I’m talking about the peanut gallery, the cacophony of folks, who may be friends/relatives or strangers on the Internets, who love to chime in and tell you that you’re crap at your job/motherhood/writing/cooking/whatever, or you should be doing X instead of Y.

But it’s hard to ignore people! Especially for women, who are conditioned to monitor others’ feelings and worry and fret over them as if they were seedlings, and feel BAD badbad when we don’t please someone.

This is a fact. Ready?

Some people—strangers or family members— will never be pleased with you, no matter what you do or how perfect and wonderful you are. These are not people whose opinions should matter to you.

If you please everyone, you will get some kind of really big trophy because you will be the only person in all of space and time to do it.


Do you hate my language? My looks? My books? My opinions? (I could turn this into a Dr. Seuss rhyme.) Clears throat.

Do you hate how I write?
You can just go fly a kite.
Am I as ugly as can be?
Please feel free to climb a tree.
I do not care. I do not care. I do not care here, or anywhere.
You’re not worth the breath it takes
To give my head two big shakes
You’re the poo beneath my shoe
You can’t even spell the word “knew”
I do not care. I do not care.
Now take your comments
And go somewhere
Or I’ll punch you in the throat
I swear.

I’m so proud! I literally just made that up (Um, I totally can’t tell, say my wonderful lying friends).

2. To be grateful.

I am grateful when I wake up in my bed in my own house with my family snug inside it. Yes, the house is in various states of remodeling even though somebody (not naming names) swore that he would do 100% of one project before moving onto the next. But it’s our house (or it will be in like 30 years).

Every time I go to Costco, I feel thankful that I can get almost whatever I like to eat there PLUS a full tank of gas. (Not that I should get everything I like there, that’s just crazy). Yes, the trip still annoys me– I hate having to shove aside elderly ladies to get to the ultra-important pigs-in-a-blanket samples– but I feel damn grateful about the opportunity to slam my cart into theirs.

3. To let go of anger
Ok, unnecessary anger.
OK, some unnecessary anger.

Like every Irishman, I am what you might call hot-blooded. But, lately it’s been an easier emotion to turn around. (unless it’s super serious. Then watch out!). Like last night, Cadillac and I had a huge blowout (read: minor) over a saucepan. I was making dinner and needed a pan to cook noodles in (Item 3a: Have TWO large pans big enough for spaghetti noodles, not one). He wanted to cook long spaghetti noodles in a little saucepan, because the big pan was dirty with the asparagus I’d burned the previous night (to be fair, he said he’d clean the pan, but it was really bad and we didn’t have any Brillo pads, so it’d been soaking). Anyway, he’d nearly finished cleaning the big pan and said he was going to use the little saucepan NO MATTER WHAT. I said we should use the big pan and he said no. “I can make it work. Step back and watch my magic,” he said.

Well, these are quinoa noodles and they get sticky fast. If they were in a small pan, they’d be a big lump. I said it wouldn’t work and explained why, and he said yes it would, and I said no, and he said YES IT WOULD BACK OFF, and I said, I’M COOKING HERE, YOU BACK OFF, and he said no. I thought of the most dramatic thing I could say. “If you use that pan,”I said, “I’m throwing this box of pasta away.”

Mexican stand-off.

Admittedly, some people (us in the past) might have rather died than lose this battle royale.

He thought for a moment, I assume about the high probability I was making an empty threat. He was swishing water in the pan like a miner panning for gold and something about that struck me as funny. So I laughed and he laughed and I cooked the noodles how I wanted and they were perfect.

Of course when transgressions are bigger than noodles (hmmm that sounds slightly Freudian) forgiving is easier said than done. If someone has done something egregiously wrong, I might technically forgive them, understand the circumstances leading up to it, even cop to my part in it all—but it’s hard to forget it. Then if I happen to remember the incident, the feeling I had when I was hurt keeps bubbling up, just as fresh as when it first happened.

What do you then?

I let myself experience that feeling, then…I let it go. Instead of obsessing about it and thus wasting the next 1000 hours of my life. Try it first with something small, work your way up.

4. To eat healthy

I wish I’d done it earlier.

Eating well is easy after you’ve done it for a couple of weeks and you realize, “Holy shit, I don’t feel like shit anymore!” And if you’re a conspiracy theorist like me, you’ll be avoiding all those hardcore addictive chemicals that food manufacturers put in their “food,” and then suddenly you’re like, “Hmm, I’m eating things because I’m hungry and I don’t need as much food as I used to. Maybe there’s something to this!”

Don’t tell me you can’t do it or whine that it’s too hard. I will for real punch you in the throat for real! (Apparently 40 also = violent tendencies.)

5. Choose goals that seem too ambitious

I always choose the harder goal when possible. Some people might think that’s stupid, but it works for me. That way, if I fall short of my big goal, I tend to fall at least in the middle. This is how you do it:

  • Choose lofty goal
  • Write smaller goals that lead up to big goal
  • Write steps to accomplish first small goal
  • Start doing the first steps

Warning: this type of ambitious attitude may cause people to say, Who do you think you are? You’ll never do that. You’re not talented or smart enough.
If this happens, go back to number one.

6. Being pretty has less to do with actual features than with your attitude.

So cliché, right? Isn’t that what your parents tried to tell you, but you stopped believing them and believed the magazines who told you you needed moreMOREMORE?

But it’s absolutely true. I never believed it before.

Do this experiment.

Make yourself up really really nice and go out someplace public. Don’t make eye contact or try to talk to anyone. Do not smile. Count how many people smile at you. Take your picture while thinking about nothing.

You will, I bet, not find yourself attractive in that photo. You will see every line and every weird quirk that you hate about your face right there.

Now, dress in the same clothes. Go out with a spring in your step (a smile in your heart, whatever) and be warm to people. Smile a lot. Look for nice things in the people you meet, and mention them aloud. How many people smile at you? How many people respond warmly?

Take a photo of yourself, thinking of the warmest, happiest laugh-out-loud memory you can.

I bet you’ll like that one.

Without fail, if I am in a positive good mood and make an effort to treat people well, they respond in kind (unless there is something gravely wrong with them). When I was younger, I was too self-conscious about too many things to realize that. And yes, ohmygod, sometimes that takes some work for me, and sometimes I don’t do it. Because like Mr. Bates, I tend to be a brooder, a brooders brood. I actually like skulking around and thinking my deep thoughts. It’s my entertainment. But sometimes that leads into a darker mood, which leads into a really darker mood, which is harder to shake.

Bonus: it makes it easier to manipulate people into doing your bidding, so you can take over the world!

7. To have friends who will watch your back, and friends to do stuff with

Cadillac says in man-world, men can be friends even if they never talk about anything but football. I think in woman-world it’s different, at least for me. I didn’t count someone as a friend unless we can talk about non-small-talk things and be real with each other.

I’ve learned how to call more people friends– people with whom I only do certain activities with, maybe business-related or maybe just knitting or whatever. Which is fine. But you also want a core group, the ones who will help you when you need them the same way you’d help them. Which is not always easy to find.

8. To worry less about being a “good parent.”

Everyone wants their kids to grow up right. We worry and watch over their every little fart and morsel of food and parse every word they say for hidden trama. But–you had a rough day. You’re tired, you’ve driven literally 100 miles schlepping kids around and to and from work. Is it okay to have cereal for dinner?

Damn right it is. (If it’s good enough for breakfast, it’s good enough for dinner. I’ve told that to at least two people so far)

Sometimes, you gotta do what it takes to power through until bedtime. Sometimes, it’s okay to have stacks of clean clothes baskets lining the hallways and giant dustbunnies under the coffee table. The world will not end. Trust me—I already would have caused it to end.

9. To like my body

Hey, body. I’m sorry I was so mean to you when I was younger. I’m sorry that I thought I was too fat to wear a bikini when I was about thirty pounds lighter than I am now. I’m sorry that I ate so little that my head looked like a giant lollipop on a stick. I’m sorry I was too lazy to put you through your paces until after I had kids. Now you’re kind of scarred up from said kids and not everything works the same, and things look a bit different; but I’m different now too. I like you. I mean, love you. I love how you got me through that six mile hike the other day though I was growing some pretty big blisters. Arms, I love how you didn’t let me down, even when my hands and elbows tingled from nerve compression after driving all day. I like your health. I like your curves and your muscles. From now on, I promise, we’ll have a caring relationship.

10. To enjoy everything in the here and now

Without doubt, this is the busiest point of our lives. We are busy from sunup to sundown. It is easy to feel stressed and to feel like you’re never going to put away the 12 baskets of laundry and get all your other tasks done.

So take a breath and stop thinking ahead to Task #152. Be present in the task at hand– something as mundane as folding laundry can be like a meditation. Talk to the people you care about.

Because this– all this we have right now, good and bad– won’t last.

This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it as like
the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day.


Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

9 thoughts on “10 Things to Know by Age 40

  1. Happy birthday! Just yesterday, I was thinking about how freeing it is to now be 40. So much better than the anticipation of it. I like to think it will keep getting even better!

  2. Great post! I am 10 years your senior so I am curious how this topic will change when you write it at 50…

    Love your books!

  3. Margaret,
    Just had a moment to spend with this post! I’m saving to come back and read over slowly to absorb. It’s not that I have such a busy life but I’m old and on my way to the Social Security office. Yeeks. Did I say old? Anyway, can’t wait to get back and read this. I see good tips my daughters could use. And I must say as to the photo, didn’t notice the carpet until you pointed it out.
    You look incredible. God bless, I’ve been where you are with kiddies, husband, house to take care of and all of that. That’s a busy life. You’re doing a great job. Back soon! Off to fight the other old people!

  4. I love your honesty, wisdom and humour. “Parsing their every word for hidden trauma”… The mama/writer gig is a world unto itself and even though I still want a writer’s cottage of my own I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have learned so much even how to write and collage in the middle of the dining room with three generations of family in various pursuits around me. Something my still childless 20 something self could never have imagined possible!

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