About ten years ago I watched an episode of Dr. Phil that changed my life.
Well, maybe not my life exactly, but it changed a lot about how I feel about myself, which for most women is pretty much the same thing.
Dr. Phil was talking with a young couple who were about to get married. The woman was really, really pretty—slender with long legs and a short skirt—and she was worried that as she got older her fiance wouldn’t be attracted to her anymore, that he wouldn’t think she was beautiful. She complained he noticed other women.
Well, this is going to be good, I thought to myself. I had been nursing Jack in our old blue recliner, and I settled back into the chair and waited for Dr. Phil to light into the guy and tell him to straighten up, that he had a beautiful girl in front of him and he should stop admiring women who walked by him on the street or in the store.
But he didn’t.
Instead, Dr. Phil turned to the beautiful young woman, and in his Texan drawl he said, “Girl, there is always going to be someone prettier than you out there.”
After that episode, every time I felt fat or ugly or insecure or old or whatever, I thought about that line. There will always be someone smarter and prettier and thinner and younger than I am, so I might as well just get over it and get on with it.
Yesterday I turned forty.
When I think about being forty, I feel a combination of giddiness and relief and joy. I feel as though I am finally here, like I have arrived at some long-awaited destination.
This is my body and this is my face. My feet are long and skinny and my second toe is bigger than my first. I don’t like peas and my favorite color is bright pink. I like to exercise in the morning and I can’t pass up a video about dancing flash mobs.
I am in bed by 10:00 almost every night. And I’m not going to feel bad about that anymore. I’m not going say dumb things like, “Oh, I have to go to bed early because I’m old.”
I don’t go to bed early because I’m old. I go to bed early because I wake up at exactly 5:55 pretty much every day. The first sound I hear in the morning is Jack slamming his drawer after he takes out his clothes. As soon as he closes his drawer, Wolfie starts to bark from his crate. Even on the weekends this happens, because neither puppies nor autism care much about sleeping late on Saturday.
And through the course of the day, I sweat and I kiss and I laugh. I wave to people and I sing with people and I switch the laundry from the washer to the dryer. I argue with Joey about why he should do his homework before he rides his scooter and I quiz Rose on her spelling words and Charlie on his math facts. I try to teach Henry how to whisper.
I go to bed early because I fully live my day, a day that begins with the closing of a drawer and a short, sweet bark.
To me, forty means no more apologies.
I am never going to have six-pack abs. Want to know why? Because I don’t care about having six-pack abs. Research shows that having a washboard stomach has little to do with whether you do Crossfit or Bikram, and everything to do with how many cupcakes you eat on your birthday. (Two, in case you were wondering.)
I choose the cupcake over the abs. I choose this.
Besides, me and my no-pack abs made people. Almost forty-five pounds of people – actually, forty-four point three five pounds, if you want to be exact about it.
I made a boy who has the same long, skinny feet as me. And he runs like the wind.
I made four brothers and one sister. I made a group of children who are fresh and naughty and funny and alive. And whenever I feel restless or nervous or overtired, I remind myself that I am the mommy.
This statement is so simple, and yet such a profound example of my truth. I am the mommy.
I am the only person who can do this job; who can teach them what it means to be a family and show them how to fold a fitted sheet and feel their warm foreheads in the dark of the night. I am the only one who can tell him your autism makes me smile.
(Okay, okay, the truth is at forty, I still do not know how to fold a fitted sheet. But I don’t care anymore.)
I made a girl who loves peas.
I’ve lived with autism for ten years now. This is a quarter of my life. Twenty-five percent. One fourth. Three thousand, seven hundred and sixty-three days, if you want to get all spectrum-y precise about it.
And you know what? It hasn’t killed me. In fact, in some ways it has brought me to life. It has awakened every instinct I didn’t know I had. Because of autism, I listen when there’s silence and look harder in the darkness. I hold my breath for each new word, new phrase, new expression. Mom. Wolfie is for me good.
I made a boy who thinks in color. I made Jack.
Lately it seems like I can’t watch ten minutes of television without Oil of Olay coming on to remind me I have crows feet and wrinkles and laugh lines.
And every time I see the commercial I think to myself, laugh lines? I’m going to worry about those? They are from laughing. I smiled and laughed and giggled and for each and every line. For a few of them, I laughed until tears rolled down my face.
Besides, both my parents were heavy smokers. I’m lucky my face doesn’t resemble a beanbag chair, considering all the hours I spent in the back of our orange station wagon while they puffed away on their Marlboro Lights and Now Ultras.
I’ll take the laugh lines.
Right about now I think I’m supposed to say something about how I married my best friend. But to be honest, Joe and I aren’t really friends. We weren’t friends when we met and we weren’t friends when we got married and we especially weren’t friends when he ate all those Oreos.
I’ve been married to this man for sixteen years and I’ve known him for twenty. I don’t want to go showing off with my math skills, but this is half my life.
I married him because he was tender and kind and strong and very, very handsome.
I married him because my stomach did a little flip whenever he walked in the door.
Twenty years later he is still all of those things, and my stomach still flips whenever he walks in the door.
And with a lot of laundry and Bisquick and patience and no patience, we propel this little family forward every single day. We do it together even when we don’t feel like doing it together. We argue about it and we compromise over it and we laugh until our sides hurt.
You know what? Maybe we are friends after all. At forty, I’m still figuring it out.
I wonder what happened with the couple on Dr. Phil. I wonder if they ever wound up getting married or having kids. I wonder if she feels pretty. I hope so. I hope she came to terms with the idea of aging.
To me, reaching forty means going to sleep early so I can watch Jack mix the batter for his beloved waffles in the early hours of dawn, with a round soft puppy on my lap. It is rolling the long, smooth sheet into a ball and stuffing into the closet, because life is too short to spend folding. It is forgiveness and peace, friendship and marriage.
It is knowing my truth and choosing the cupcake. Or two, if I feel like it.