‘Who said women should be fear­ful of age?’

It took years of hard-won ex­pe­ri­ence to find her voice – and now there’s no stop­ping her. In her first col­umn, ac­claimed nov­el­ist Eliz­a­beth Day in­tro­duces her­self – and her opin­ions

The Mail on Sunday - You - - New Column - PHO­TO­GRAPH JENNY BROUGH

Hello. It’s nice to meet you. I’m your new colum­nist. It sounds strange to say that be­cause un­til re­cently I never thought I had par­tic­u­larly strong opin­ions. But I’ve just turned 40, and things are be­gin­ning to change.

In my early 30s, I wasn’t sure what I thought. I would find my­self at din­ner par­ties where the geopo­lit­i­cal ten­sion in the Mid­dle East was be­ing earnestly dis­cussed by peo­ple who had all watched the same doc­u­men­tary. I would sit there feel­ing ut­terly clue­less, wish­ing I could go home and catch up on The Real Housewives of Cheshire.

It was al­most al­ways the men at these din­ners who voiced the loud­est opin­ions. I would watch them pon­tif­i­cate, ges­tur­ing like politi­cians, and I would sit there sti­fling my yawns with tepid pinot gri­gio, and think, ‘What must it be like to be so cer­tain?’ I was never cer­tain of any­thing. I’d have one point of view, then change my mind ac­cord­ing to who sounded the most con­vinc­ing. I had no faith in my own in­stincts.

For a long time, I al­lowed my­self to be shaped by oth­ers. I was a monogamist who couldn’t make sense of her­self un­less she was some­one’s girl­friend or wife. When I got di­vorced at 36, I was forced to con­front the re­al­ity of who I was on my own. I had to take some time to work out what I ac­tu­ally thought – not just about the Mid­dle East, but about my­self. Who was I, ex­actly?

And so I grew into my opin­ions. I didn’t read about them, I lived them. The older I got, the more I had to say about what it is to be a woman in this par­tic­u­lar time.

My mother’s gen­er­a­tion had fought for equal­ity and I’d grown up be­liev­ing I could pur­sue any ca­reer I wanted. Chil­dren, I thought, would fall into place along the way. All of my sex ed­u­ca­tion at school was fo­cused on not get­ting preg­nant. Our teach­ers for­got to tell us – in our col­lec­tive rush to take the pill – that hav­ing a baby is not a given. Some­times it can be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult. Some­times, as with me, you have re­peated cy­cles of IVF, a mis­car­riage at three months, and then your mar­riage breaks down and you’re di­vorced, hurtling to­wards 40, and left won­der­ing whether moth­er­hood might never be part of your life.

So yes. It tran­spired I did have opin­ions. It’s sim­ply that, un­til my late 30s, I hadn’t thought them worth­while. It’s funny how of­ten a specif­i­cally fe­male ex­pe­ri­ence is marginalised like that. And by ‘funny’, of course, I mean not funny at all. I mean the op­po­site.

Forty is a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for a woman and I spent the first half of this year in de­nial. In an at­tempt to stave off the age­ing process, I booked my­self into a per­sonal train­ing ses­sion at a gym. Mid­way through a set of squats, I told the trainer I was near­ing a sig­nif­i­cant birth­day. He looked at me, squinted, and said, ‘Your 50th?’

It’s tricky to give some­one a death stare while squat­ting at knee-level, but I think I man­aged it. In the days that fol­lowed, I ex­am­ined my face in the mir­ror, search­ing for liver spots and frown lines. But as my birth­day ap­proached, my think­ing shifted. I be­gan to won­der why it was so bad for some­one to as­sume I was turn­ing

50. Who de­creed women should be fear­ful of age? Who said that youth equated to beauty?

It wasn’t me. It cer­tainly wasn’t my fe­male friends. The more I thought about it, the more I re­alised it was a mes­sage that no longer held true.

When I look back on my 30s, I see them as the decade in which I fi­nally un­der­stood my­self. It was the decade in which I got mar­ried, then di­vorced; the years dur­ing which I wrote and pub­lished four nov­els; the time in which I re­alised my friend­ships were my long­est-last­ing love af­fair. Even if my life did not look ex­actly how I imag­ined it would, it was in­cal­cu­la­bly richer be­cause of the think­ing I’d had to do and the ac­cep­tance I’d had to learn along the way.

At 40, I feel stronger in my own skin. I am em­pow­ered to make the choices that are right for me. At 40, my friends and I have dis­pos­able in­come, self-knowl­edge and a buck­et­load of hard-won ex­pe­ri­ence. We are ready and able to change the world. And yes, we have opin­ions.

So what if we em­braced our age as some­thing to be cher­ished? What if we cel­e­brated the fact that, by be­ing around longer, we un­der­stand life bet­ter? We might have more wrin­kles, but we also have more guts. I wouldn’t want to trade.

In the end, I threw a 40th birth­day party and danced for three hours straight. And it was there, sur­rounded by friends and fam­ily, that I re­alised 40 was noth­ing to be scared of. Age gave me the abil­ity to learn from my fail­ures and to grow into the per­son I am. There is no num­ber of squats that can give me the same thing.

So I will have lots of things to talk to you about on this page ev­ery week. I’m look­ing for­ward to it. At last, I’ve found my voice.

‘ THE OLDER I GOT, THE MORE I HAD TO SAY ABOUT WHAT IT IS TO BE A WOMAN’

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