This is a submission in our monthly contest. December’s theme is Growth. Enter your own here!
You could say we’re each experiencing a kind of “middle-age.”
First there’s my son, Ryan. He’s nine. He’s in the middle years of his childhood, halfway to adulthood. He’s loving this time in his life. Each birthday brings more things for him to do, to learn, to experience. Just within the last few years, he’s mastered new skills – riding a two-wheeler, tying his shoelaces, typing without looking at a keyboard. They are big accomplishments, and accomplishments that were only possible because he was developmentally ready for them; he had gotten older.
Ryan has many more things he’s looking forward to. He’s eagerly awaiting his next birthday, the year he reaches double-digits. He’s longing to be old enough to watch PG-13 movies and to ride in the front seat of our car. To one day own his own phone and computer. To shave like the men in his life. To one day know for certain that he’s grown up to be “fuzzy” like his Daddy or smooth and bare-chested like his Grandpa.
Ryan is excited about this time in his life. And he should be. He’s a happy, healthy, secure boy who regards his future with hope and possibility.
Then there’s me. A middle-age woman who doesn’t look at aging with the same optimism as my son. Because even though I’m only 41 years old, there are many moments when I feel more “senior citizen” than “middle age.”
I think back to the book (and movie) “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” The protagonist, Stella Payne, is a 40-year-old woman, who describes herself as being in the “prime” of her life.
I don’t feel like a middle-age woman in her prime. I don’t even know what the “prime” of my life is. Did I already have it? Did I miss it? Was I so busy going to school, working part-time jobs, earning my degree, becoming a teacher that I missed the “prime years” of my life? And then there’s the most scary question: Is the best part of me done and over with and all that’s left will be downhill from here?
I’m already retired from my teaching career. I retired days before my 37th birthday. It was a premature retirement, after only 12 years on the job. But a necessary retirement under my doctor’s advice. My rheumatologist informed me that the stress and exhaustion involved with teaching 30-plus students each day was not going to help the daily pain, weakness, and fatigue I felt. My autoimmune disease would only worsen if I kept pushing myself and continued to teach.
In many respects, I feel as if I’ve hit fast-forward a few decades. I’m already reliant on a fixed income. My disability check arrives each month, with no possibility of a promotion or raise unless the state of California grants me a cost-of-living increase. There is a disabled placard in my car’s glove compartment. A line-up of prescription bottles on my kitchen counter. And I have a growing sense of weariness and fear as one ailment leads to another; each unanswered medical question leads to another doctor, another test, another scan.
Like Ryan, I want to keep celebrating birthdays. But, I feel so much more trepidation than Ryan.
Ryan has questions about the future. He wonders what it will be like to go to middle school and have different teachers for different subjects. He wonders when he’ll take his first airplane ride. He wonders where he’ll go to college, and if he’ll live at home or nearby or in a completely different state.
I have questions too. Will I maintain my independence, my “tough chick” attitude that got me through college while commuting on six public buses a day?
I think about the next half of my life, and I’m frightened. My body feels as if it has prematurely aged because of my autoimmune disease. What will happen as I continue to age and my body naturally weakens, slows down, and in some shape or form changes even more than it already has?
I don’t have the answers yet. No one does. I do know that I can’t stay in this place of fear and pessimism. Because of Ryan. On the floor completing a puzzle, riding our bikes together, dancing around the living room, day-long excursions to the museum. Even if the activities increase my pain, they bring my son and I happiness and shared moments together.
In a sense, having a child gives parents a second chance. A second chance to experience moments from a fresh new perspective. But more than that, I’m realizing that Ryan is my prime. Together we’re on this journey. The prime of my life is Ryan’s childhood. His milestones become mine.