The Call of the "By the Time I'm 40" List

by ParentCo. January 18, 2022

woman reading a book

We all have one. The list. A list of dreams and goals that we hope to have accomplished by the time we are 40. The list usually makes an appearance at some point in our early to mid-20s. We may journal it, think it through, and tuck it away in the back of our minds, or perhaps write it down on a piece of paper, fold it up, and stow it away in a safe place. That's what I did. I can't tell you where that list is now but I can still go back into my mind, unfold that piece of paper, and read the words written on it as easily as if I was holding it in my hand. I can see my old handwriting and the neatness of youth and remember the feeling of having so much time. I can feel the passion and determination of year 21. The absolute certainty in my mind and the fire in my heart when I wrote it.

We choose to cross the items off of our list by age 40 because it's a safe age. To someone in their early 20s, 40 is far enough away that we are certain we will have enough time to accomplish our goals by then. I mean 40 is years and years away. Isn't it? Then life goes on. The list sits in the back of our minds. Like a gentle whisper it quietly reminds us of its existence. But we are in our 20s and we have nothing but time so we silence the whispers. We will get there. We have time.

Suddenly 30 is upon us. The whispers become a bit louder. They tug at our sleeve, tap us on the shoulder. Remember us? Don't forget your list. But life gets real, in the gritty and unexpected way that life does. You find yourself navigating stormy seas that the sunny blue skies of 21 could have never prepared you for. You learn what it means to choke back your emotions and do what must be done to get by. To pay the bills. To care for the children. To survive. You make sacrifices, and you take detours, and you tell yourself: One day I will get to the list. One day.

Then 35. Those whispers are now a wind, rustling leaves and shaking branches. And we pause. Oh yes, 35 is always a time for pause. We listen for a short while. Maybe as we blow the candles out on our cake. Or perhaps after an extra glass of wine lowers our defenses and allows those whispers to be heard. Detours have taken us so far away from the words of 21, but that's okay. We have time. But the leaves continue to rustle, and the branches creak.

We turn 39. Those winds become a tornado. They grab our thoughts, twisting and turning them and demanding attention. The list. What about the list?
At least, that's what happened to me. One month away from 39 and those whispers became a scream, demanding to know: If not now, when? Life becomes so very real in your 39th year. You have watched loved ones and friends lose battles with illness and lose their lives. Time becomes such a concrete thing. It’s no longer something that you think you will have forever, but something on loan with an expiration date. Something so much more precious than you could've ever imagined before. And that list...

Don't get me wrong. I have crossed things off the list. I desperately wanted to be a mother and have a large family. Check and check. But what I haven't yet crossed off are the things that feed my soul and fill my heart with a different kind of fulfillment. Those 21-year-old passions may look different, but they don't change. Not really. The trouble is life comes along, reads the list, and tells us (in the logical and matter-of-fact way that life talks) that the list is unrealistic. How can the dreams of a silly-hearted 21-year-old with stars in her eyes make any sense in the very real and harsh light of life? Then we make the sacrifices and we take the detours because we have to. But that list is like a song from your youth. It plays over and over and over again, in the back of your mind. Just like true passions, they don't change, and they won't be ignored.

Suddenly I was facing the reality of 40 looming at the end of my 39th year, and that damned, persistent, familiar list was absolutely refusing to be ignored any longer. It consumed me. Because again, if not now, when? My 39th year. It was time.

I decided to pay my 21-year-old self a visit and take another look at that list. Two items jumped out of my memory and into the present:
1 | Become a writer. Write your book.
2 | Follow your dreams. Don’t let this world make you forget who you are.
I had always written. Words were my sanctuary when I was filled with emotions that I couldn’t express in any other way. But over the years I had stopped writing. Sometimes the emotions became too much for paper and often being a wife and a mom was so consuming that I simply didn’t bother to write. I was suffering for it. I had forgotten that before I was a mom and a wife, I had been a writer. I realized that my list wasn’t so much about accomplishing goals and dreams as it was remembering who I was.

So I wrote. The words flowed and my heart soared and I realized that I needed to remember who I was. I was missing that piece of myself that I had let go of over the years.

Revisit your list. Don’t wait too long. You may have left some important pieces of yourself behind. Find them, and cross them off. Your list is waiting.



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