“Life really does begin at forty. Up until then, you are just doing research.” — Carl G. Jung
I lied about my age many times, sometimes purposefully but other times unintentionally.
Up until last year, when people asked me how old I was, I often froze. It wasn’t an answer that came naturally to me. Once I was off by three years, I only realized it when my husband corrected me, another time I had to calculate my age by subtracting 2014–1979.
My daughter is the opposite, she’s already quite aware of her age even though she’s only 3. Last night, when I said that she was ‘almost 4’ she screamed, “no, I’m 3,” even though she couldn’t wait to turn 4 because her friends called her ‘baby’ (she is one of the youngest in her class).
She and I are Scorpios celebrating birthdays in November. Mine was three days ago on November 4th, hers is on the 16th. Her extreme excitement in anticipation of her birthday is the ultimate opposite of my extreme anxiety.
Maybe I was the same when I was her age. I don’t know when I started becoming anxious about my age. I think it started when I turned 30.
When I turned 30, I felt much younger than what 30 suggested, so maybe I didn’t want to remember it. Truthfully, I think I didn’t want the people around me — who were often younger than me- to know it, so I avoided the topic and my mind cooperated with me by helping me forget.
I avoided celebrating my birthday so that people wouldn’t ask about my age. The last birthday celebration I had was probably 10 years ago. I also hated going to other people’s birthdays because the topic of age often came up.
When I turned 39, I suddenly stopped forgetting my age. The upcoming doom of reaching mid-life was all that I could think about. The numbers 4 and 0 were constantly lurking in the corner of my eyes, tick-tocking their way into my life, and reminding me that I needed to step it up. I needed to finish the book I was — am — writing. [At least I finished a draft]. I started to plan grand ideas for my 40th birthday (in the end it wasn’t what I planned at all).
I also began lying about my age intentionally for the first time and chose to be 32 years old. When a young man in his early 20s asked me if I was 22/23 years old, I laughed so hard I think I may have peed a little. He continued to guess but never made it past 27. When I told him that I was ‘32’ his eyes fixated on me as though I said my hair was made up of spaghetti. After his initial shock he managed to say, “wow, you look so much younger.”
I guess I should have taken that as a compliment, but I knew that I looked younger, it wasn’t an accomplishment, it was just genetics, as both my parents look much younger than their age. His shock at what 32 meant only increased my anxiety about what 39 and subsequently 40 meant to people.
The fear of aging
I don’t know why I was ashamed of getting older. Maybe it was because aging reminded me of the inevitability of mortality. Maybe it was because of the dominant mainstream culture where aging is equated to some horrible disease, or maybe because I didn’t want people to box me in that ‘old’ category because I felt damn young. (except when I couldn’t stay up all night, then I remembered that I wasn’t 20 anymore).
Back in 2011, as an activist in Yemen’s ‘youth’ revolution, people designated me as part of the ‘youth’, since I was one of the people in the street, and it stuck in the media that I was a youth activist. While I disagreed with the title, a part of me must have liked it, because I never asked them to change it. To be youth again — even if just on paper — felt good.
Maybe I also wanted journalists to take me seriously. If I wasn’t part of the ‘youth’ my words wouldn’t matter, my voice wouldn’t matter, my ideas wouldn’t matter to the media. So I was youth and I embraced my ‘youth’ status. I justified it by pointing at other activists who were older than me and called themselves youth too. They defined youth as 15–40 years old.
A couple of years after the revolution a researcher I know well asked me to verify the information in her book, my age was incorrect, and even if I knew it, I pretended that I didn’t notice, and told her that everything was correct. I didn’t have the courage to tell her how old I really was. If you read this, I’m sorry.
The shame of not being youth was partly about belonging, validation, and maybe as much as I hate to admit it, about the need for attention.
As I got closer to 40, the fear of aging intensified. It wasn’t a fear of being sidelined, but rather a fear of facing myself and accepting that I haven’t accomplished what I thought I would by 40. I should’ve been somebody important by now, with a big title and a corner office. I think as children many of us believed that we would be somebody big one day, I grew up with a parent who truly thought I could become the President of Yemen, not that I wanted to, but I think that was his way of encouraging me.
I have no doubt that I am happier today than I would’ve been in that corner office yet I still feel unaccomplished. Is this because capitalism equates happiness with how much we produce or the titles we have? And no matter how much we do produce, there are always people producing more?
Age is a construct
I know that age is a construct, but emotionally I haven’t yet internalized it. I try to remember that many people don’t even know their age. Are they free from the social pressures that come with age milestones?
In Yemen, 83% of children do not have a birth certificate, and most don’t know their real age. Age categories don’t have as much significance there as they do in other countries. It’s problematic when it comes to proving a minor is really a minor in a criminal case, or for medical purposes. But socially, it doesn’t seem to make a difference in people’s lives (except for unmarried women, then it matters a great deal).
If you have Yemeni friends on Facebook, I’m sure you noticed how an enormous amount of them have birthdays on January 1st, that’s because many didn’t know when they were born exactly and selected January 1st. What they were probably told that they were born the year an aunt delivered their cousin Mohammed, or the year the war broke out, or the year where they were blessed with so much rain. [For a hilarious take on this, listen to comedian Ali Sultan’s Happy to be here]
My grandmother who never knew when she was born, wasn’t bothered by not knowing her age, but it really troubled me. I spent many days calculating her age based on two clues: first, by guessing that if she had her first child at 15 — because back then that was the norm — then she would probably be 85 today.
The second clue was the fact that she was born “during a locust plague”. In my research, I found the locus desert plague of 1926–1934. I was ecstatic when I told her that she was most likely born in 1934. She found it amusing but wasn’t as excited about this discovery. Knowing her age didn’t mean much.
Like my grandmother, my parents didn’t register my birth because I was born on the third floor of my family’s two-hundred-year-old home in Sana’a on Eid day. Mama’s midwife — like all other midwives and doctors — was away in her village to celebrate the holiday. Luckily, my dad found another midwife — 22 hours into Mama’s labor — just in time to wrap me in an un-sanitized blanket from the cabinet. The same cabinet where the neighborhood cat slept. Despite the fact that I was premature, and wasn’t put in an incubator, and despite my subsequent full-body rash, I survived, and yet I still had no birth certificate to prove it.
Unlike my grandmother though, I knew exactly when I was born thanks to my parents’ handwritten documentation in the inside cover of their Qur’an. That’s where they stored all our siblings’ births, even though my younger siblings were born in America and were given official birth certificates.
So based on their diligent work, I can verify with almost 100% certainty that I was born on Sunday 13 Dhul-Hijjah 1399 in the Hijri calendar (4 November 1979 in the Gregorian calendar). I have no doubt that I have lived for four decades on this planet, 480 months, 2,087.1 weeks, 14,609 days.
Embracing my 40s
If I hadn’t known my age — like my grandmother — would I have had this existential crisis about where I am in my life? Maybe, but it wouldn’t be linked to age but rather to circumstances.
I hope that in my forties I am able to learn to be fulfilled with my life journey and not think back to where I thought I would be. I hope to accept my current reality — whether they are shortcomings or not — and to accept my age and finally admit it to myself and to others.
For the past three days, I already feel different. The inevitable has happened. I’m no longer anxious about its arrival. It’s here. I am now forty years old and I know with utmost certainty that I don’t care for these titles and the corner office. My ego is just bruised, but that is ok.
What I need to remember is that like everyone in this world I’ve had my share of difficulties, but I’ve also been extremely blessed. I am grateful for the chance to live in many different countries, for all the beautiful people I have met, and for all my adventures.
I hope to teach my daughter to enjoy the process instead of running towards the goal. I hope to be able to teach her that joy lies in the now, not in anticipating a potential future.
But I can’t control how she will see the world. I can only hope.
I can, however, control my actions. Today, I choose to let go of pointless shame. I am fucking 40 years old for God’s sake. I will not waste my energy being ashamed of something I cannot control. I will own my age. I will embrace it, and I will unapologetically be who I’ve always wanted to be because I am fucking 40.