Turning 40,Or 30, Or… by
(24 Stories)

Prompted By Rites of Passage

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I’m going to have lunch with my pregnant sort-of-step-daughter, Annie, in San Francisco today. We will wear masks (though I haven’t yet mastered the art of eating with a mask on) and social distance. No hugs. Nor am I sure where we will find a place to eat. But we need to talk. Or rather, I sense that she needs to talk. Sadly, her mother died 5 years ago. I think she needs a mother. Figure. A mother figure.

I was well on my way to my second successful divorce.

I can tell she needs to talk because her father has always been her favorite person in the world, and vice versa, but she has been really nasty to him lately, behavior I’ve only seen before from her younger, bratty sister. Anyway, when a kid starts being nasty to the person who loves them the most, they’re asking for attention. For connection. Right? It would be nice if her father wanted to provide this attention, but he’s a lawyer.

Annie is just turning 40. A milestone of sorts. Is 40 the new 30? She’s about to have her second baby. She is married to a man with no ambition other than to make a killing with his investments. He is, however, a wonderful father. And he’s cute. And maybe he will make a killing. But it would be nice if, in the meantime, he earned some money. She, on the other hand, is an ambitious and talented attorney who could have made a killing working for one of the biggest law firms in the country but chose, instead, to work for the public good in the Department of Justice. Of course these days one has to ask oneself if working in the DOJ is still serving the public good. Still…

When I turned 40 I was well on my way to my second successful divorce. The first one had gone well enough, meaning he and I remained friends and shared our daughter. I could see the second divorce on the horizon. I was looking forward to making a go of it on my own in my new career. My daughter, my only child, would soon be graduating high school, attending college, and I was ready to be free, to travel and have the adventures I’d passed up by marrying early. For me, 40 would be the start of something big.  For Annie, I fear it looks to her like the end.

Gail Sheehy, the author of the long-ago book Passages, talked about how 40 was the time you reevaluated everything. All the decisions you made. Who you’d married, what career you’d picked, where you lived. You re-evaluated and made some big changes. This was old hat to me. At 30 I’d done all that once. Not only had I left my first marriage, but I’d also left my career as a psychiatric nurse to become a journalist, and moved from Olympia, Washington to Oakland, California. So at 40 I was totally comfortable reconsidering my second husband, and also a new career. I was fearless. The future was all about new beginnings.

But for Annie? In today’s world? In a country whose promise is fading fast, with a belly ready to pop out a second child into a state (California) that is burning up, and a home that’s getting too small for her growing family. And a husband, well…she needs to talk. I just need to listen. This is a new kind of passage. My advice –my world–is outdated.

Profile photo of Penny K Penny Righthand

Characterizations: moving


  1. Thanx Penny for your take on our Rites of Passage prompt. I well remember the Gail Sheehy book and it’s impact on our generation of women.

    Annie is one lucky sort-of step daughter to have you listening in her corner!

  2. Suzy says:

    Penny, I really enjoyed this story about you looking at Annie’s potential Rite of Passage and thinking back on your own. My favorite sentence is “When I turned 40 I was well on my way to my second successful divorce.” You pack so much into that one simple sentence.

    Dana is right, Annie is lucky to have you around to listen to her.

  3. Wow. Love this story, Penny. It contains a lesson I’m trying to learn myself. While it’s true that our advice is most likely outdated in terms of specifics, I keep thinking I do have broader wisdom to share, and my knee jerk reaction is to try to provide answers or at the very least direction when talking with my daughter or granddaughters. But I can tell they’re not really hearing me because what I’m saying doesn’t feel relevant to them. It’s a little hard to swallow, but I’m finally realizing that just listening is the best thing I can do. I think realizing that is where the wisdom lies now. Thanks for a thought-provoking story.

  4. Marian says:

    Penny, you have put your finger on why we feel so helpless when trying to help the next generation. I, too, had my “30 crisis” at 30 (well, 28), with a major breakup, career change, and the like. People in their 30s and 40s seem really stuck. We were very fortunate in many ways. Thanks for putting this out there.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    Your story touched me in so many ways, Penny. I remember reading Passages and thinking of it as my bible. At 40, I did embark on a new career and a new life, minus the divorce. My children were in grad school, finishing college, and finishing high school. I felt free. But 40 year olds these days are more like Annie — just getting started with young families in tough times. For them, 40 is a very difficult passage.

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