As a child I imagined the age of forty would find me holding a PhD and having four sons loving me from every corner of my world. Oddly enough, I never imagined a husband to make and raise those sons with me; when I was young and dreaming those dreams, the taboo of having children while single hadn’t registered with me yet, and marriage as I saw it from my experience didn’t seem like a necessary or good thing. In reality, I did marry and have two sons (one of whom is currently aiming his considerable rage directly at me from his corner) and an adopted daughter. I am only now writing my master’s thesis, twenty years after my first day of college. It is most certainly good enough—what I have, whom I love and care for, and what I’ve managed to accomplish. I had roadblocks aplenty and high hurdles to jump and still do. I suppose I’m finding out that turning forty is no panacea, no final exorcism of every internal demon.
As a thirty-three-year old divorcee, I slept around a lot. There, I’ve committed it to paper. I own it.
I had married far too young, and I had struggled hard to realize that married (to that man, at least) was NOT what I was supposed to be just yet. I took my hard-won freedom in hand and ran it amok. I take my responsibility for that very seriously, but I know too that this was about more than being a gay divorcee discovering (or corrupting) herself.
With no father—a father who chose not to be there—I grew up thinking that something had to be terribly wrong with a little girl whose father refused her. And during a large portion of my girlhood, a relative sexually abused me, lovingly. That’s a strange thing to say, I know. But more important and unfortunate is that I learned from the abuse the erroneous tenet that sex and love—male love at least—had everything to do with each other.
My marriage taught me otherwise, but I didn’t learn that lesson very well, for there still exists the lonely, sad little girl within me. When the marriage was over, I continued my quest for the love I never had, linking that with the desire I had so terribly conflated with what it was I truly wanted. Now, at thirty-nine (hear the six-week bell chiming?), I’ve had many lovers, but very little love. I’m alone, and most of the time that’s okay with me. As Sula says in the Toni Morrison classic of the same name, “My alone is mine. Nobody gave it to me by leaving.”
But a strange thing happened this very afternoon when a well-loved ex-boyfriend popped up on Facebook with this message: I’m dying to get back between those legs. To this I responded: That’s it?! Go ahead and DIE. And there it was—one of many epiphanies I’ve had this year: I’m tired of being treated like some usable object that can be taken down from a dusty shelf occasionally and used at will. It’s my own fault, I thought through my tears. I will always be treated this way if don’t let that little girl inside me rest.
As she tried to comfort me, my daughter listened to me tell her to never give herself or her body away. She, like me, had no father to protect her from abuse or to teach her what love from a man could be. DON’T, I told her—you want love more than sex. And the two things can be mutually exclusive much of the time if you let them. If you behave like a woman willing to give her body away, you’ll always be exactly that and nothing more: A willing woman.
There’s so much about turning forty that feels good, so many flowers of opportunity in bloom on the landscape ahead. But turning around to face what’s behind me, discovering the unhappy truths of the woman I was before feels like opening the gut with a dull blade. Open it I must if I am ever to reach the forty of my dreams. I want to greet forty with the joy and wonder of a little girl finding herself in a land enchanted. As for the little girl I myself was, I am eyeing her closely and hoping that my nearly forty-year-old hand stretched to hers will appear to her as the one she can trust. I hope to lead her to the land enchanted by the gifts of responsibility and love—the true love—she always wanted.
To share your “40 story” with The Women at Forty Project, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tricia Amiel on Tricia: After ten years of teaching English, I’ve finally begun to live my dream of being a working writer. Lucky me. I have three children 19, 19, and 9…a little poetic. Life is good. I’m also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader available for work. For additional information or to contact Tricia, email us at email@example.com.