A handful of years ago, when I turned 40, I remembered feeling a bit lost and confused. For most of my life, I had been told that your 40s were something to dread. That it was all downhill from here. That now you were officially “old.” But as I moved through my 30s and inched closer to that milestone birthday, I started hearing a different message. Now people were telling me just how amazing your 40s are. That this is an exciting and liberating time of life when you really embrace the I-am-who-I-am attitude. 

Then I turned 40 and I realized that most of this was a lie. Well, not necessarily a lie, but a misrepresentation. Neither of these portrayals of what it’s like to be a 40-year-old mom were accurate. The overwhelming feeling as I turned 40 wasn’t one of dread or liberation; it was confusion.

Related: To the mid-30s mama—our time is now 

I thought, why isn’t anyone talking about this? Why are we spreading these stereotypes without actually digging into what it means to be a woman and a mom in your 40s?

As a mom in my 40s, I’m here to tell you this: There is a lot that people don’t understand about being a mom in your 40s:

1. Your 40s can be lonely and your friendships might change

No one warned me for just how much my friendships would change at this stage of life. When the loneliness set in, I thought it was just me—it wasn’t.

There are a lot of reasons friendships change. With our kids getting older, it can be harder to vent to our mom friends about the trials and tribulations of parenting. Our kids start to develop friendships of their own. And we can no longer share the gritty details of motherhood, because these aren’t our stories to tell. There is something infinitely more vulnerable and private about your child’s therapy and struggles with school than potty training challenges.

Related: Raising a tween is hard—but so is being a tween

On top of that, we start to take on this new role of “chauffeur.” Even though our kids no longer need us to manage their social calendar, they still need us to drive them everywhere and they are busier than ever. Getting together with our mom friends requires ninja-like scheduling skills and a whole lot of patience. When you do have time to get together, your conversations change. The scope of things you can talk about with other moms gets smaller. You save some stories for a handful of really close friends. But even though you spend a lot of time wondering if others are as lonely as you are, the friendships you do have become stronger than ever.

2. Those studies about the ‘40s slump’ don’t tell the full story

There’s no shortage of research regarding the U-shape of life happiness, with studies showing that we are most unhappy during our 40s (the low point is age 47) before happiness rising in our 50s and beyond. And we don’t need a study to tell us the reasons why this might be the case. We’re consumed with childrearing, striving to advance in our careers, making really big decisions about things like mortgages and whether to move across the country, and worried about aging parents. None of us are getting enough sleep. It’s no wonder we’re stressed and burned out.

But despite all the data to the contrary, and my own feelings of confusion at times, I can honestly say that I am the happiest that I have ever been. Some of this comes from years in therapy to focus on my mental wellbeing. Some of this comes from an acceptance of who I am. And some of it might attributed to an acute awareness of just how short life really is. My dad has advanced Alzheimer’s and I’ve had to face the stark reality that the same fate may await me. This is absolutely terrifying. But it also creates an unwillingness to waste time on things that don’t really matter to me. And let’s be honest, doing only those things that really matter to us makes us happy.

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In your forties, you stop caring so much about what other people think and more about how you feel. You know who you are and you make no apologies for it. And with this realization a whole new world opens up. You might dye your hair pink and get a new tattoo. You may embrace caftans and learn to love Taylor Swift music. You skip the night cream because “anti-aging” is a lie and five extra minutes of sleep is just that precious. Or you learn to play the violin or train for a marathon. Your 40s are filled with possibility.

3. Your 40s are more confusing than most people admit

Life in your 40s can best be described by these three words: in your feelings. All of them. You might spend a lot of time thinking, what the heck is happening? Your career might be taking off, or maybe it’s changing directions entirely. Your relationship with your kids is a roller coaster ride. With teen/tween angst and perimenopause colliding, your home might feel like a hormonal house of cards some days. And the anger…where did all this anger come from? One minute the mom rage is so fierce you want to scream until your throat are hoarse and then next you want to curl up in the fetal position and sob. 

Most days I feel some mix of fairly content, profoundly grateful, low-key terrified, a teensy bit lonely, and utterly exhausted by all of it. There is a constant tension between wanting to soak up what little time I have with my kids before they leave the house, desperately craving a few minutes of alone time, and impatient for the freedom I imagine will come during the empty nest years. I trust my intuition more than ever, but I also regret my mistakes more too. Some days I want to focus on my career; other days I want to go off-grid, rescue a few dogs and tend to them. See what I mean? It’s confusing. 

Whether you’re feeling that angsty, empowered, hopeful, scared, or free…it’s all normal and you aren’t alone.

4. All of that chatter about it being the “least happy decade” might be a self-fulfilling prophecy

As Sophie Brickman writes in the Guardian, “I am, it seems, statistically fated to languish in the nadir, next to other sad, anxious, sleepless swamp creatures also living in the squeeze, with ageing parents and young children, and a veritable potpourri of stressful situations to sprinkle throughout my days.”

When I read this, I felt like someone had jumped inside my head. Honestly, I feel that in my bones some days. But I also can’t help but wonder if some of the “unhappiness” comes from people telling us contradictory—and often inaccurate—ideas about what it means to be a woman in her 40s. We’re either told that it’s this ahhh-mazing time in your life when you fully embrace the “you do you” attitude. Others, including researchers and their studies, tell us it is the unhappiest decade of our lives. Yikes. 

Nothing sets off an I’m-about-to-turn-40 panic like hearing you’re headed for the worst ten years of your life. Just as true, however, is the disappointment that comes from realizing your 40s are the blissful utopia you were promised.

Related: The secret to a happy family is holding space for unhappiness

In my experience, neither of these extremes, are accurate. Most days I feel pretty calm and content, mostly happy, and grateful to experience it all.

Our 40s—or any decade, for that matter—aren’t defined by anyone else or what they tell us. No matter what anyone tells you (myself included), don’t forget that you get to define what it means to be a mom in our 40s, no one else. 

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