Terry turns 40 on Saturday. But she’s not bemoaning the fact that she’s on the cusp of middle age. She’s planning to party.
“Turning 40 is a pretty big deal to most people,” says Terry O’Donnell, the mother of two, ages 3 and 6.
Since she and her sister-in-law Melyssa Watson both turn 40 within two weeks of each other and are good friends, the families are celebrating with a beach vacation. “On my actual birthday, my request is that I have a spa day,” says O’Donnell, who works for a non-profit.
She’s not alone by any means. Many of today’s Gen X women see the Big 4-0 as the midpoint of their lives, and are embracing it with a new zest. They’re celebrating with girlfriend getaways or exotic no-kids vacations with spouses, or making special family memories.
In many cases, it’s a party. Whether a lavish spread or a gathering at home, these soirees are almost like a new Sweet 16. But rather than a coming-of-age statement, the 40th party is a way to proclaim they’re healthy, they’re sexy and they haven’t lost their mojo.
“What we did is pretty decadent,” says Christy Swildens of California, who flew to Mexico with her friends for her 40th last fall. “My mom thought it was pretty ridiculous. … Very few people were flying to Mexico with their friends just because they were 40. It is a very different time.”
Sociologist Richard Settersten Jr., a professor at the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University, attributes the attitude to societal changes such as marrying and having children at older ages. What used to happen in the 20s and 30s is moving into the 40s, he says.
“It naturally means your 40s are completely different. For many, the 40s are active years of child-rearing. Just a couple of decades ago, the bulk of childbearing and child-rearing was done by 40.”
And Settersten says the culture isn’t always fair. “We’re still a society that has some pretty serious double standards,” he says. “Wrinkles and gray hair make men look distinguished, but those very same things make women look over the hill. The 40th birthday parties seem to be a reflection of that — to show they’re not yet old.”
Economist John Shoven of Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., says perceptions about middle age have changed.
“Forty doesn’t mean what it did a generation or two ago,” he says. “When a woman turns 40, she is not the same age as when her mother turned 40. She’s in better health. She has a lower mortality risk. She has more healthy years to look forward to. A 40-year-old today, relative to, say, a 40-year-old in 1960, is going to live approximately five or six years longer.”
Lisa Wilkins, who has two sons, ages 7 and 9, hosted a catered “grown-ups-only” party at her Chicago home on June 11 to mark her 40th on June 21. “I always knew I wanted to have a party for my 40th,” she says. “I do think it’s a rite of passage.”
Even those who have had a tough adjustment to the reality of 40 don’t necessarily want to miss an opportunity to party. “I thought turning 30 was bad,” says Deena McCreath, who lives in Tampa and New York. “To me, this is 10 years worse. They say 40 is the new 30, but to me, it’s 40 and now you’re approaching 50.”
Still, she and her husband, Gillie, both recently celebrated their 40th birthdays, with a getaway to Italy for her and to Wimbledon for him. McCreath, a stay-at-home mother of 17-month-old Carys, turned 40 on June 26.
“It could be half of our life is over, so we want to celebrate,” she says. “That’s why we rented this house in Tuscany, so we can be a little self-indulgent the way we used to be when we were 16 years old and maybe forget for two weeks that we are 40.”
She says she and her friends waited to have children, and are now raising infants and toddlers. “When we were 30, none of us had kids,” she says.
Not everyone parties, though.
Cathy Qureshi of Pittsburgh wasn’t convinced she wanted a celebration for her 40th, but there was a lot of talk about a gathering of her high school friends, who are turning 40 this year.
“We never got the momentum together,” she says. “I was going along for the e-mail ride.”
Psychologist Laura Carstensen, director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, says societal norms about “when to get educated and when to retire” haven’t changed, but should. “We’re still living our lives around these cultures when life was not as long.”
Does this sound like you? Is 40 the new party-time?