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Advice For 'Grown-Ups' In Their 40s: 'Just Do What You Want More Often'

May 31, 2018
Originally published on June 1, 2018 9:52 am

When you watch The Graduate, do you identify with the parents? Do you grow impatient scrolling to your birth year in online drop-down menus? Is a night of continuous, unmedicated sleep one of life's greatest pleasures? If so, Pamela Druckerman says, you might be in your 40s.

Druckerman thought that being in her 40s would be a "delicious secret." But, it turns out, others noticed, too. Salespeople steered her toward anti-aging creams. Her daughter observed: "Mommy, you're not old, but you're definitely not young anymore."

So she decided to write about this "confusing place in the lifespan." Druckerman's new book is called There Are No Grown-Ups: A Mid-Life Coming-of-Age Story.

Druckerman has lived in Paris for the last 14 years. Her 2012 book Bringing Up Bébé observed cultural differences in parenting in the U.S. and France. In her new book, she explores the French approach to aging. (Writing a book about being in your 40s while you are in your 40s is "quite a 'meta' way to age," Druckerman says.)

Being 40, she found, isn't about meeting any big milestone — it's an "accumulation of lots of small experiences." Druckerman took careful notes on her own experience, and shares her observations on a decade Victor Hugo called "the old age of youth."


Interview Highlights

On being in between

The people who used to cheer us on — our parents, our mentors — who said, "good job ... you're building an adult life." Those people are now kind of preoccupied with their doctors' appointments and getting their knees replaced. And then there's this whole other generation of people below you who you're supposed to be cheering on. Whether they're your kids, or people that are working for you.

On getting better at saying "no"

In your 40s, you kind of know how things are likely to go and you're better at saying: You know what? That just doesn't suit me. ... I remember thinking in my 30s: I should go to Burning Man. I could be a Burning Man person. And in my 40s I'm like, you know what? I'm never going to go to Burning Man. ...

Another kind of tip that I tell myself is: Prioritize your own projects. ... People are going to call you and they're going to say: Please, can you help me? ... you're the only one who can help me. ... And if you don't prioritize — if you're not a little bit ruthless about your own life — nobody else is going to be.

On following your own instincts

Just do what you want more often. Don't be so worried about what other people expect. ... Nobody's going to be that disappointed that you don't want to have lunch with them. They'll get over it. ... Take as much as you want from the buffet. Go back for seconds. Nobody's going to be offended. ... Just follow your own instincts and things tend to work out better rather than being self-conscious.

On taking stock of your life in your 40s

I think in writing a memoir you kind of give order to your life. And so the process of pulling this information and these memories out of myself helped me give some order to what I experienced.

... Even if you're not writing a book ... [in your 40s] you sort of have enough distance from your life and from your family and from your friends to see patterns and to kind of rise above it a little bit and understand yourself more. I think it was [philosopher Arthur] Schopenhauer who said the first 40 years provide the text and the next 30 provide the commentary. I feel like I had entered, in a way, the commentary phase and that made life a lot more interesting.

On her cancer diagnosis

When I was 41 I had a very bad back pain and it turned out to be Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I had three little kids and husband and a book about to come out ... and I was suddenly confronted with ... death. ... I really had to confront a lot of ... very dark possibilities. ... I think a lot of people say after they're ill that they changed their whole life — that they realized what they really wanted. And for me, it was a process of realizing that I love my life. And it kind of deepened everything.

On self-fulfilling prophecies about aging

In America we have the story that ... your sex drive evaporates. ... Nobody wants to sleep with you, but you don't want to sleep with them either. ... And it turns out that that is really much more of a cultural story than a biological story, and ... people's behavior responds to this cultural story. ...

In France there's a slightly different narrative. ... Women in their 50s and 60s in France are much more sexually active than women in America are. So I don't think you can ... snap your fingers and switch cultural narratives. But just knowing that it's not biologically inevitable I think gives you some power over it.

On the difference between the French ideal of a becoming a femme libre (free woman) and the American ideal of becoming a "free spirit"

Women [in the U.S.] will say ... "As I got older I stopped caring what anyone thought and I could just do whatever I wanted." [That] always felt a little bit false to me, and a little bit sad — that you would reach the stage where you didn't care about other minds ... and it felt sort of unnatural.

The French have a slightly different version, where you get to know your own mind more ... you're trying to please yourself with the way you dress, and the way you act, and who you are. But you're also engaged with other people — you care how you look, you care how you dress. So it's a more interactive version of aging. ... It's about being free thinking, it's about organizing your life to correspond to who you really are, but it's also a social model — it's about your relationships, too.

On being "comfortable in your own age"

In America the idea is you try to look as young as you can, for as long as you can. And when that stops working you kind of blame yourself and feel like a failure. And the French have this slightly different ideal, which is to be the best version of the age that you are — to be comfortable in your own age. And that was both more calming and a lot more realistic.

Selena Simmons-Duffin and Becky Sullivan produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

You know you're in your 40s when you become impatient while scrolling down to your year of birth, you watch "The Graduate" and you identify with the parents, when you have bought a scale with a bigger digital display so you won't have to weigh yourself wearing glasses. You know you're in your 40s when you have decided that eight hours of continuous, unmedicated sleep is one of life's great pleasures - actually, scratch unmedicated.

Those words of wisdom from Pamela Druckerman. She writes about turning 40 in her new book titled "There Are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming-Of-Age Story." And, Pamela Druckerman, first of all, definitely scratch unmedicated.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: I will take hours any which way these days. Second of all, welcome to the program.

PAMELA DRUCKERMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: Talk to me about your title, "There Are No Grown-ups."

DRUCKERMAN: It kind of was born from turning 40 and feeling like, wow, everyone is treating me like a grown-up, but I don't yet feel like one, or I don't feel like what I imagined a grown-up would feel like. And yet there were all these, you know, signs - some of them you just mentioned, like, you know, I couldn't wing it anymore on coffee and six hours' sleep. I needed my eight hours.

KELLY: Right.

DRUCKERMAN: Or I walked into a shop and the saleswoman would kind of gently steer me to the anti-aging cream.

KELLY: (Laughter).

DRUCKERMAN: I couldn't believe people knew - you know, I thought my 40s were going to be this kind of delicious secret that only I knew about. But it turned out, like, everyone else could tell, too.

KELLY: Yeah. You - I mean, one of the things you point out is that your 40s can be strangely devoid of milestones, like, the big milestones by which we mark our life. And by our 40s, they seem either to be all behind us or all still to come.

DRUCKERMAN: Yeah. And the people who used to cheer us on who - our parents, our mentors - who said, good job; you're becoming a - you're building an adult life, those people are now kind of preoccupied with their doctors' appointments and getting their knees replaced. And then there's this whole other generation of people below you who you're supposed to be cheering on, whether they're your kids or people that are working for you. So it's a kind of new, very confusing place in the lifespan. Victor Hugo called it the old age of youth. And my daughter once just said to me, Mommy, you're not old, but you're definitely not young anymore.

KELLY: (Laughter) What was your response?

DRUCKERMAN: We were in a very well-lit elevator at the moment. And so I glanced in the mirror and thought, oh, my God, you're right.

KELLY: Oh, my God, you have a point. Part of what you write about in this book is how to say no because your 40s can be so busy. I mean, as you say, you've got your - your career is often in full swing. If you have kids, they need you. Your parents often need you. You have a couple of pointers in here for how to edit your life. Give me your top one or two.

DRUCKERMAN: One of them is definitely to be able to disappoint someone. I think especially for women there's a kind of fear of saying no, a fear that, you know, if you say no too often, you're going to shut down all your possibilities. And in your 40s, you kind of know how things are likely to go. And you're better at saying, you know, that just doesn't suit me.

Some more advice that I got from someone which I thought was great was just do what you want more often. Don't be so worried about what other people expect. No one's going to be that disappointed that you don't want to have lunch with them. They'll get over it. And if you do the things that you want to do, those things go better. You know, eat what you - take as much as you want from the buffet. Go back for seconds. Nobody's going to be offended. You know, just follow your own instincts, and things tend to work out better, rather than being self-conscious about them.

KELLY: This book is also very personal. I mean, you write about your childhood in Miami. You write about your marriage. You write about your sex life within that marriage. In other words, this is not some distant treatise where you're approaching this as an academic. And I wonder kind of how did you walk that walk, trying to write a book that is, in part, journalism but is also a memoir?

DRUCKERMAN: It's a very complicated hybrid to write. I really - I very much wanted the book to have a beginning, middle and end. I wanted it to be a story. I wanted there to be suspense. I wanted you to wait to find out what would happen. I read somewhere - someone said if it doesn't hurt when you're writing a memoir, then you're not doing it right. And this one definitely hurt.

KELLY: I mean, if I could press on that one, in what way?

DRUCKERMAN: Well, when I was 41, I had very bad back pain, and it turned out to be non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. And I had three little kids and a book about to come out - my previous book. And I was suddenly confronted with death. I mean, I think in the 40s, you are confronted with that. You've reached this kind of now-or-never phase of life. But for me, it was quite an advanced diagnosis, and I really had to confront a lot of - some very dark possibilities.

KELLY: I guess the possibility that your 40s might be the end.

DRUCKERMAN: Yes. But thank God the treatment worked. I was fortunate that there are lots of new treatments. But it was a - I think a lot of people say after they're ill that they change their whole life, that they realized what they really wanted. And for me, it was a process of realizing that I love my life. And it kind of deepened everything that I just want it all more.

KELLY: Yeah. You live in France. You've been in Paris for more than a decade now, right?

DRUCKERMAN: Fourteen years.

KELLY: Well, your previous book, "Bringing Up Bebe," was all about how the French are really good at raising kids. And in this book, you do seem to argue that the French, along with annoyingly being thinner and better cooks and better-dressed than the rest of us, that they also do middle age better.

DRUCKERMAN: Well, one difference I found, which I - it's a small adjustment, but I found it quite inspiring - is in America, the idea is you try to look as young as you can for as long as you can. And when that stops working, you kind of blame yourself and feel like a failure. And the French have this slightly different ideal, which is to be the best version of the age that you are, to be comfortable in your own age. And that was both more calming and a lot more realistic, I thought.

KELLY: And are you able to do that? Have you lived long enough in Paris that you've succeeded at embracing this philosophy?

DRUCKERMAN: You know, I'm only in my 40s, so ask me again in a decade or two if I'm doing it. But, yeah, I try to focus on that.

KELLY: Well, Pamela Druckerman, it has been a pleasure. Thank you.

DRUCKERMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: Her new book is titled "There Are No Grown-ups." And, Pamela Druckerman, I wonder if you would read us out. You've got a closing thought on page 259.

DRUCKERMAN: Sure. (Reading) There are stages of becoming a grown-up. First, you definitely aren't one. Then you pretend to be one. Then you're sure that there are no grown-ups, that they're mythological and don't really exist. And then finally, maybe one day in your 40s, you just are one. This doesn't feel anything like you'd imagined. It's not all-knowing, omnipotent and large. It's humble, solid and small. But at long last, it feels like you. And you think just then that this is the best age of all.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUSHY SONG, "THERE'S A LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.