Big Birthdays & Being Brave

Round my neck of the woods, you’d have to be up pretty in the morning to work out that I’ve just had a big birthday. A VERY big birthday.

There were celebrations of course – when it comes to commemorating the day I came into the world, you’d have to live in a cave not to know when it is. Ideally I’d flypost the country and hire skywriters. But when it comes to the year, well, don’t push me.

Blame my Mum (Again. Sorry Mum). She routinely lied about her date of birth, occasionally accidentally adding ten years thanks to faulty arithmetic. When she died some friends had no idea what decade she was born in.

Luckily for her, her appearance belied her years right up to her final days. And that, of course, was why she lied. Her advice to me stuck. “NEVER tell anyone your age, however young you look. Oh they’ll probably be genuinely surprised when you tell them, but you’ll notice they’re looking at you that bit closer and thinking to themselves, “Ah yes, now I see it!””

For years I have worked in companies where the average age would have been slashed to about 22 if I’d been off the books. I tell you, THAT makes you pretty aware of milestone birthdays. They simply assumed that anyone working in the 1980’s, was used to commuting in a Hansom cab.

But now I’m definitely old enough to know better, I’m a little ashamed. Why was I so coy? What was I afraid of?

I think it was all part of the low expectations and sense of precariousness women of my generation felt about what was then a very different work place. Men ruled the roost and in many professions, women were simply a curiosity. Women walked a tightrope where we felt as if, at the slightest excuse, our achievements could be ripped away because things were probably more comfortable without us around. So many important decisions were decided around the urinals in the meeting breaks.

When I first left advertising, I was considered a bit of prodigy: the only woman on the board of my company at 27. After a few years I had my first son and left. When I returned to agency life seven years later I was a mother and no longer quite the same spring chick . Never mind I had experience coming out of my ears, I was at a very different life stage. I felt the fact I was approaching 40 and a woman and a mother, made me vulnerable. I was worried I would be disregarded. And the people I was worried about being disregarded by were usually older men.

It was an odd world in the 90’s for a working woman with kids. Half my friends stayed at home with their babies because that was still something you could feasibly do and still eat. Meanwhile in the office, other women bragged about how little time they’d taken off. One successful ad woman claimed to have insisted on a Caesarian and installed a fax machine in the maternity ward so she could keep downtime to a minimum. I learned very quickly that if I needed to run off to the nursery Nativity play, I’d be far better off pretending I was taking my car for a service.

I see now that all of this came from fear. One of my bosses had a ‘quiet word’, cautioning me not to “go on” about having kids. It made me look unprofessional, he said. Any pleas to avoid travelling over kids birthdays or interrupting holidays for ‘crucial’ meetings were greeted by very frowny faces by men who had wives in the Home Counties taking up all that slack. The women who succeeded seemed to be the ones without kids. Or at least the ones who never mentioned them.

And then came the age thing. Once I’d passed 40, I noticed it was not uncommon in some places I worked to hear older people (ie over 45) dismissed as ‘in the exit lounge’ or ‘over the hill’. It was a gossipy world and I dreaded being put in that same Venn diagram, stamped “Past It”. I liked the younger people I worked with and I hated the idea that my knowing age would change the whole dynamic. So silly. As if they couldn’t deduce I was quite a bit older than they were. And as if people in their twenties distinguish at all: for them you might as well be 75 as 45.

So I feared frumpiness; I was dodgy about dates and I found places to hide if I ever had to recite my date of birth on the phone. Reader, I was more desperate to be Lamb then, than I had any need to be. In the words of the great age-defier Cher, “If you think 40’s bad, try 60!” When challenged by someone other than a doctor or a magistrate, I would fob them off: “I’m younger than Madonna”, I would say, “but older than Britney”.

Even, recently when one of my bosses asked me in a “Getting to Know You” session, what I planned to do when I retire, I was completely freaked out. Was it a barbed comment? A warning? Or just a revealing question? Perhaps I should have told my lawyers? (She absolutely meant it. I should definitely have told my lawyers!)

But now I feel ashamed I lived in such fear, as if I had a terrible secret no one must ever discover. I know so many wonderful, attractive, cool, happy, busy, clever women of around my age and older. What I realise is that they were wonderful, attractive, cool etc etc thirty years ago. Except perhaps ‘happy’. Many would say they’re much happier now. I agree. It’s easier to prioritise when you’re older. One of the only areas where my sight has got sharper is in spotting the wood for the trees.

After all, we all stay basically the same. The years really don’t make a lot of difference to anything – except knees and unexpected, sprouting hairs. Those it plays havoc with.

And that is why I feel denying our age lets us all down. There are so many people out there giving a good account of older life. And, as the old joke goes, it’s far better than the alternative. So, sod it. None of us are just a number. Getting older takes balls. Let’s all enjoy the ride.

(PS. Don’t tell a soul, but Mrs Mutton has just turned 60)

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