Most people attribute the “awkward phase” to something that happens to kids teetering on the verge of puberty, and I most certainly experienced the awkward phase back then. For me, it was 6th grade. While most of the other girls were experimenting with either makeup or making out, I, on the other hand, chose to bring my Cabbage Patch Kid to school for the day. Why not? I thought. Daycare is costing me a fortune! All kidding aside, I really did bring my Cabbage Patch Kid to school. And I didn’t think this was weird.
In fact, I remember being quite proud as I smelled my little Pammy’s head at recess. (Cabbage Patch Kids all had that same smell like baby powder mixed with rubber, which was like catnip for kids–and apparently tweens.)
What else did I bring to school you may wonder? My 6-inch-thick file folder full of the adoption papers of my imaginary friends. Yes, I had imaginary friends. In fact, my best friend and I created a whole imaginary friend community. They all had backstories and we mapped out their relationships in elaborate family trees. They weren’t actually people, though, they were creatures we created–most of them in some way fluffy–as well as some animals thrown in there for good measure. At recess my friend and I would discuss what was happening with our imaginary friends like we were discussing the plot of some bizarre soap opera or reality TV show. All of this, of course, with my Cabbage Patch Kid looking on, dotingly.
My 6th grade school picture really seems to capture the essence of my awkwardness. I had apparently tried to feather my hair (It was 1983), but hadn’t blow dried it or anything, so I didn’t really pull it off. Instead, my hair was parted down the middle, with my cowlick, or “rooster tail” as my mom called it, taking center stage, and the rest was a half-wavy, half-straight mess. I wore, in the photo, a pink polo, and of course had intended to pop the collar like all the cool kids, but since instead of it being an Izod with an alligator on the chest, it was the Sears Catalog-brand knock-off with a dragon on the chest, the collar didn’t have the stiffness it was supposed to and only part of it would actually stay up. And of course I wore no makeup, which is fine except for the dark circles under my eyes that looked like eye black like football players wear. It is a sight to behold.
So when one of the boys came up to me before school and said, “Brian Reece wants to know if you’ll go with him,” (which is what we called being boyfriend/girlfriend even though we never “went” anywhere) and knowing Brian was one of the “cool kids,” I probably should’ve realized that something was amiss. And yet when Brian came up to me later in the day and told me his friend had just said it as a joke, I was heartbroken, like we had broken up after seven years of living together or something. To this day, Brian defends himself by saying that he was being a gentleman by telling me the truth, but I just tell him that he’s lucky I said yes when he asked me to marry him 10 years later.
So back to my present-day awkward phase. It’s this whole 45 thing. I know some people say the 40s is when you feel like you’ve really hit your stride, but I just feel like instead of striding along confidently, I’m doing this half-walking half-galloping thing, not really sure what I’m doing.
I feel very unsure of how I’m supposed to feel at 45. Am I young? Am I old? What exactly is “middle-aged” supposed to look like? I don’t want to be one of those women who’s 65 and wearing a tight babydoll t-shirt that says “Bae.” I don’t want younger women to look at me and think, “Who does she think she is,” and I don’t want older women to look at me and think, “Who does she think she is.” I mean, at what point do I realize my shorts are too short or my style is too Forever 21? At what point do I start wearing culottes and sensible shoes? Will I know when it’s time for me to head straight for the Alfred Dunner section when I walk into Younkers?
And then there’s the hair. So many women cut their hair short when they get older, and this terrifies me. I’ve tried it several different times in my life, and each time, no matter the style, I looked utterly ridiculous. I envy the women who have the face to pull off short hair. This face, however, cannot. But someday soon am I going to wake up and find that I’ve let a well-meaning stylist cut it all off? Or will the opposite happen, and I’ll be 60, refusing to let anyone near my Crystal Gayle-length locks, trying way too hard to look young, which ironically, just ends up making you look old?
I know, 45 is not old. But it’s not exactly young either. It’s funny that when some of my students first find out I’m 45, they don’t believe me. “You don’t look that old!” they say, which at first feels like a real compliment, but then it hits me — Wait, but I really AM that old. And I just hope that I “don’t look that old” in the “I’m-not-trying-to-look-young-it’s-my-genetics” way and not the “creepy-old-woman-wearing-Daisy-Dukes-and-pigtails” way.
I want to look young, but I don’t want to look desperate to look young. And I’m really unsure where that fine line is.
This 45 business is also confusing when thinking about how to act. I don’t really fit in with the younger crowd. This becomes obvious to me when I’m with a group in their 20s and 30s, and they’re all relaxed, maybe having a drink or two, and I’m thinking about the laundry I really should be doing and trying to calculate in my head the latest time I can go to bed without feeling like I’ve been run over by a party bus for the next three days. (And usually that time is well before midnight.) The other day one of my younger friends mentioned how she’d been up partying until 4 a.m. a few nights prior and my body nearly went into shock for her. I had to consciously make myself shut my gaping mouth because I didn’t want to make her feel bad or let on that I’m a total wet blanket. But I just couldn’t stop thinking about how nonchalant she was about it. 4 a.m.??? Usually I am awake by 4:15 after having to get up for my third time to pee. What is wrong with me that my palms were sweating and I had to do a little discreet Lamaze breathing just to calm myself down from just imagining partying until 4 a.m.? And then after the shock wore off, the curiosity set in: How in the hell did she not fall asleep? I drink half a Blue Moon and I can barely keep my eyes open, no matter if it’s 2 in the afternoon or 8 at night. I found myself studying her, wondering what her secret was — and then I realized her secret was that she is at least 15 years younger than I am.
Being a parent of a 12-year-old at age 45 isn’t any less awkward. Sitting at ball games and band concerts, I look around and realize that some of these parents are barely 30, which means I am much closer to those children’s grandparents’ age than their parents’. Sometimes I wonder if I am supposed to look like the expert, this wise old parent who has lived through it all and can share her tips on how to raise kids. But then I look around again and realize that most of these younger parents have got it together way more than I do and I really should be taking notes from them, or at least tracing back my steps to see where I went wrong. One thing I do know is that these parents have way more energy than I do, and I feel like I really owe my youngest son an apology. “Sorry that Mommy used to really care and actually made meals for the family, which were eaten at the kitchen table. Now if Daddy doesn’t cook it’s every boy for himself to scrounge around in the refrigerator and cupboards and then eat in the living room in front of the TV. Or, if we’re keeping it real here, in your room in front of the XBOX. Mommy’s just too old and worn out to argue.”
Caught somewhere in between the age where bar-hopping every weekend makes you the “fun friend” and not the “friend who someone really needs to have a talk with,” and where scheduling colonoscopies for both you and your husband on your wedding anniversary sounds like a sensible way to celebrate, I’m stuck here in Awkward Land, where I’m just not sure what’s a good idea and a really, really bad idea anymore. Much like my deteriorating vision, everything seems just a bit on the fuzzy side. But the weird thing is, I don’t think my husband, who is only 10 days younger than me, seems to be in the same awkward phase. He’s much more confident in his 45-ness than I am and doesn’t seem plagued by the same concerns. Is this because men take longer to mature than women, so my 45 is really equivalent to his 40, or because I am just neurotic? Perhaps a little of both.
I was having a conversation the other night with some friends who are the same age and all of a sudden I blurted out, “Oh, God, on our next birthdays we’ll be 46!” Yep, just call me Captain Obvious. Perhaps at 12:01 a.m. on February 24, the person I feel like will magically be the person I’m supposed to be at my age. Perhaps I’ll experience a rush of confidence and will finally feel comfortable in my own skin. Maybe, just maybe, this awkward phase will have run its course.
But until then, every time I pass a mirror, I’ll see that girl with the half-feathered hair and half-popped collar, trading scratch-and-sniff stickers one minute and sneaking peeks in Danielle Steel romance novels the next. I may be a few years older, but I’m no more sure of myself and definitely no less awkward.