Last week, I turned 40. It’s something I’d been trying to put off, but 40 marched up to me anyway, knocked the ice-cream out of my hand, called me bumface and wrote ‘OLD’ on my forehead in black marker pen before mooning and confiscating my Topshop card. Turns out, no matter how fantastic you are at procrastinating, you can’t shove horrid birthdays to the bottom of the to do list.
I even tried running away from my birthday, to Spain, but that didn’t work. It just happened an hour earlier, and on a Monday too, thanks to this year being a leap year. Mega. I used to enjoy my birthday but this one had felt like a long-standing root canal appointment. My brain kept scrambling to find ways to get out of it as it loomed ever closer, the jackbooted march of time growing louder and louder. Nooooooo!
Eventually, I accepted that I’d just have to get through it, that the dismal little cluster of 24 hours – like the 350,400 hours before them – would pass. I vowed to smile, albeit in the manner of a Tory politician forced to attend a messy play session at an inner city Sure Start centre for a photo op.
Besides, I’d dragged my husband, children and parents to Spain in my doomed bid to flee from time, so the least I could do was sweeten my face a bit. It wasn’t too bad in the end. I had a little cry in the morning, thought about the inevitability of death hurtling towards me and all those I love, had another little cry, then ate breakfast on a sunny roof terrace with my nice family, opened some lovely presents, did a bit of work and went out for dinner. It was pleasant.
It certainly wasn’t how I’d envisaged spending my big birthday. But, despite making airy celebration plans for the last decade (and with the exception of the feelings of dread), I found that I couldn’t be bothered to muster all that much of a fuck about turning 40.
Because, while life is ticking along quite nicely at the moment, it’s also a bit shitty and up in the air. Having babies took its toll, I’ll have to work on my recovery for a long time and may need surgery. Having thought I was over the humongously pregnant, struggling, unfit years and could finally focus on somehow excavating my former self from underneath all this blubber and exhaustion, I’ve been told I need to have a total hip replacement, which will probably happen next year and will again mean hospital, invalid status, months of rehab and of course, more pain. I mean, I love adjustable beds and free opiates as much as the next taxpayer but the novelty’s beginning to wear off. In the meantime, I can’t really exercise or even walk that far. It’s a bore. Everything feels a bit… pending, and vaguely ominous.
Plus, now the littlest baby is nearly one, I’m only just starting to freelance in earnest. It’s really exciting and going well but again, a whole sea of uncertainty.
And 2016 has been such a shitter. Jo Cox, Brexit, petty-minded homegrown racism and nationalism, Syria, Trump, attacks in France, vile, soul-sapping trolls, the collapse of Labour, the rise of Batshit Thatcher Mk II, the threat of years more economic misery, and, to top it all off, beloved celebrities being felled on a weekly basis as if DEATH has set up some kind of fucked up splat-a rat game – SO depressing and relentlessly bleak. So many of my friends are having a crap, crap time of it, too. It’s certainly not the right vibe for a party.
Don’t get me wrong, even with the mild health stuff and uncertainty, I like where I am at 40. My husband and children are great, my family are all living close by, I’ve got lovely friends, our house is getting there, I think most of us are sufficiently healthy, I love my job, I bloody love cooking, Radio 4 and 6 Music and I think, I think, I’ve finally found a haircut that suits me. I’ve extremely lucky. I just don’t want to party. Hanging out with my husband and silly kids is enough. Being reminded that time is running out when I feel like I’m only just getting started makes me very sad.
Still, I can’t quite believe the mega-birthday has been and gone, relatively unmarked. I’d been watching friends tip over the edge for years and trying the idea on for size, wondering how I’d play it. A long-standing goal was to hire a villa in Ibiza, but most of my friends are parents and/or skint and also, oh god, no, I couldn’t cope with going to Ibiza right now. I’ve got more than enough sleep deprivation in my life and I’ve been watching Andy on CBeebies for two years straight, my preposterous gurning needs are more than met.
There was the glamorous party option – I’d heard about somebody who had three costume changes at hers. Fabulous. I wanted that. But then, again, money, and also, fat. I only got married a few years ago, there is absolutely no need to have everyone looking at me wearing a dress again, especially 11 months after giving birth, not unless the dress was a large hessian sack that I could keep my limbs inside of. All I could think about was the venue hunt, the catering, the frock-finding, the hair and body anguish, the stream of apologetic texts in the hours before kick off about cancelled babysitters and bouts of flu, then the actual party, standing around in uncomfortable footwear talking inescapably for hours about work or children to the dreary partner of somebody I invited out of duty, both of us locked in horrified politeness, while all the people I wanted to see downed shots at the bar and danced on the sofas. No thank you.
A meal at the Fat Duck was ruled out because I just cannot justify spending 8.5 Lidl shops on one dinner, and a long weekend in New York, which we were on the brink of booking, got the kibosh thanks to the hip replacement shocker.
Could an intimate, hilarious dinner party have been the answer? But ‘intimate’ is hard to do without pissing off everyone who isn’t invited, and there’s enough angst in the world right now without me generating more. No. A meditation retreat? Ohm the shit out of 40? It would have been nice, but I wanted my kids with me, and if small children and mental focus can mix, I’m buggered if I know how.
Ultimately, I concluded, I just couldn’t be arsed. Booking our holiday to coincide with the day seemed like a neat way of sidestepping a disappointing ‘Well, we have to do SOMETHING’ Monday night dinner at a windswept suburban Pizza Express.
And you know what? That decision not to celebrate made me really, really happy. It was a huge relief. One of the consolations of getting older, we are often told, is that you stop caring what other people think and start pleasing yourself. Not wanting – or having – a shindig of any kind was a bit of a revelation.
Chiefly because, in my twenties, I used to go to nightclubs constantly. All my friends were there, I loved the music and we were out every weekend so I must be a party person, right? I wrote about it, so it’s even on my CV. Except, I eventually realised my favourite bit was actually after the club, when you’d go back to somebody’s house and listen to the same music but while sitting on the sofa. In a way, it was a party. More than that, however, it was sitting down.
But, but, I used to get PAID to go to parties, with champagne and celebrities. Get me! Sounds fun, right? But, no. It was actually fucking chronic. Standing around on my own like a complete prick , loitering awkwardly on the peripheries of a chatting group so I could, after an intolerable amount of suspicious side-eye, blunder in (quick, quick, before the merciless vulture from the rival paper gets in there first!) and ask a grimacing celebrity if they wanted to move to LA, have a nose job or go on Strictly – I mean, gah, kill me. Excruciating.
I kept turning it over and over, trying to figure out exactly what kind of party I really wanted until I realised that there was only one explanation for my failure to manifest any enthusiasm. Maybe, just maybe, I didn’t actually like parties after all. I know! AWKWARD.
My 40th birthday gift to myself is allowing myself to accept that actually, I am not a fun club girl, or a glamorous showbiz reporter, or a great hostess, but a dull, misanthropic sofa hugger. ‘You’re getting old!’ you may cry, and you’d be correct. But that’s not why I’ve gone off ‘fun’. It’s just taken me this long to admit to myself that parties make me grumpy and most nights, I’d rather just get the hell under that slanket.