“I am going to be fortyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy,” wails Meg Ryan even as a mystified Billy Crystal tries to console her in When Harry Met Sally.
“When?” he asks. “In eight years?”
“Yes,” she blubbers. “But it’s there, waiting around the corner… like a dead end.”
And then, she proceeds to explain how in a nutshell her life will end at forty, unlike say Charlie Chaplin who was spawning heartily at 73. No, Charlie Chaplin didn’t have to worry about turning forty. Sally did.
We are all Sallys. We have been trained to believe from birth that life as we know it will end, sometimes horribly at forty. Of course I see things changing all around me, I see women who come into their own no matter what age they are at, but this belief system is entrenched in our tired bones. You must be married by forty. You must have children before forty. You must have a stable job before you hit that number because otherwise no one will hire you. It is the age when the woman will cease to exist.
For one, we will develop the superpower of invisibility. All the attention, opportunities and jobs will go to the women in their twenties and early thirties. We will also develop skin that can fold itself neatly (unlike the laundry we are supposed to be experts at, if Indian ads are to be believed), crinkle inconveniently around the eyes (and sometimes around the mouth and neck) when we smile and our breasts will be less inclined to believe in themselves and become uninspired, sagging lumps. We will also be told to watch out for that horrid Baba Yaga named menopause (even if it is fifteen years away for most of us) and her evil sisters – hot flashes, irritability and breathlessness. And then of course there is the threat of dryness in our special parts, grey wilting hair and a constant murmur of “Are you sure you want to wear that at your age?”
The way the forties are painted for us women, we might as well order a coffin and lie down in it right away. “Oh, you don’t really want that nice purple lining do you dear, because well, you are invisible, saggy, menopausal – read dead – and you don’t really need nice things.”
When did the forties become a bastion for everything that was a deadend and done for the generations before us? The twenties are okay, they signified you had to pretend to be an adult now that the teens were left behind. And the mid and late twenties are frequently heralded as a sort of ominous palate cleanser for the thirties. And oh my, now that you are thirty please, oh please, won’t you do a better job of pretending to adult?
But the forties… this particular age group demands that you actually adult. You can’t pretend anymore. You have to be grown-up in a certain brave, wise, well-kept way. And if you are one of those poor unfortunate souls who haven’t used
their feminine glory to procreate yet, then you must know how you would like your eggs.
Frozen or fertilised?
I am frequently reminded my eggs are dying. By my well-meaning mother and concerned gynaecologist. Not to mention friends, relatives and the world in general who think I am missing out on the greatest gift of life – having children.
“But Madonna had a child at 42,” I occasionally try and weakly interject.
“But you are not Madonna. She is rich and famous and can do as she pleases.”
Right. That’s one life choice shot down brutally then. I can’t be Madonna.
“Your grandmother was 40 when you were born.”
‘That is true. She was 40. You will be 40 in a few months.”
“And your eggs are dying.”
And as if to magnify the clickety-clock nature of one’s eggs is the advent of Villain Grey. Now, if you are lucky like me then you will chance upon your first grey after you’ve turned 35.
“Madam, your hairs are grey. Shall I do the global?” For a teeny second I have this vision of my ‘hairs’, grey, glorious and hellishly wavy, journeying around the world in 80 days, accompanied by my sagging boobs and dying eggs, all dressed to the nines, a scene right out of Sex and the City.
After some further questioning I am informed the Global is a sort of hair colouring procedure that is designed to save my entire head from the clutches of Villain Grey. I peruse the shade card which preens a shocking pink and I immediately want that.
“But ma’am,” my salon stylist mumbles, “Usually college girls are getting that.”
Well then, I’ll have what they are having.
Two hours later I walk out, my head a shining halo of elegant auburn Global with a streak of pink in the front.
“Aw, now your hair is pink and your eggs are dying.” #whatwillpeoplesay?
So I am 39, and I am definitely not anywhere close to being a grandmother yet. And going by what the world will have me believe I now have a short window before I can somehow revive my dying eggs, accomplish great things, produce offspring, and grow old gracefully while raising them right.
Of course I can shut out all the external voices and try to listen to my own inner voice. Except, it’s like my head is filled with the cast of Sarabhai vs Sarabhai and everyone is talking at once. But don’t you want to travel more? Not that you are travelling so much now, what will change in three years? Don’t you want to write that trilogy? That is at least seven years of your life. Hey, if J K Rowling can do it with kids around, I am pretty sure I can, okay. Hey, what about that part of you that is happy being child-free? But then who will order my dentures online when I am 80 and rheumatic? Oh well…
Was it Elizabeth Gilbert who said that ours is the first generation that can have it all? Perhaps she is right. We can have it all. Or choose not to. The key I think, lies in the freedom to make that choice. Perhaps I can have it all… perhaps having it all includes pink hair, dying eggs and the conscious decision to not regret being child-free 30 years from now. Perhaps it is the choice to freeze those damn eggs if I must and deal with their destiny later. After all we do live in an age where alarm clocks can make coffee.
Because having it all also means the freedom to not kill yourself over not having it all. It is okay. Madonna doesn’t either.
Sukanya Venkat is the author of the recently published fantasy novel Dark Things. She has worked with publications like Filmfare and Marie Claire in the past and is currently cooking up her next work of fantasy.