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In 2021, the oldest millennials, typically defined as the generation born between 1981 and 1996, began to turn 40. Historically, this is an age when you’re supposed to “have everything figured out”: a successful career, family, homeownership.

But for many women, easing into 40 this year has been overshadowed by the challenges exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic: caretaking responsibilities that have disproportionately fallen on women, higher health risks and stress, increase in unemployment, stagnant wages. For many, big questions like paying off student loans, having children and finding professional fulfillment remain as urgent as ever at 40.

The Lily spoke to about two dozen women across the country who began turning 40 this year about how they’re making sense of this milestone amid their unique circumstances. Each story, told in the woman’s own words, is a snapshot of a millennial redefining herself in an unprecedented time.

Here are five women’s stories of what 40 looks like today.

‘Maybe I was put on this Earth to be the best auntie possible’

Cassandra Sanchez-Barrera is a marketing specialist for the Texas Association of School Boards. She lives in Austin with her husband and dog.

Cassandra Sanchez-Barrera at her home in Austin. (Courtesy of Cassandra Sanchez-Barrera)
Cassandra Sanchez-Barrera at her home in Austin. (Courtesy of Cassandra Sanchez-Barrera)

In September, the evening of my 40th birthday, I had a breakdown. Never in a million years would I ever think that I’d be turning 40 in the middle of a pandemic. We didn’t have a big party, because we were in the middle of the delta variant surge. I was texting my friends that night — what is my legacy going to be? I don’t have children — and that was a conscious choice. I was thinking, how am I going to leave my name on this planet?

As a kid, I was never the girl playing house and thinking about having children or what my husband was going to do. I wanted to have a house, nice cars, go places and do things. I was 31 when I got married and I had a lot of health issues that popped up that year — none to do with fertility, but things that I needed to watch if I got pregnant. Then, I was laid off. I never really felt financially stable; I’m still paying off my student loans.

Also, seeing a lot of my friends get divorced after having kids made me question if I had it in me to do it. When you have children, they are your No. 1. And I’ll admit, I’m a very selfish person, and I like sleeping in, and I like spending money on things that I like. So another year would pass and I’d tell my gynecologist: not this year. So it just never happened.

That night before my birthday, my friends were very wonderful to emphasize that maybe I was put on this Earth to be the best auntie possible to all my friends’ children. We’ve always been the house that throws the Christmas party, the Halloween party, we do the July Fourth party. So maybe my legacy, it’s these kids who come to Cassandra’s house on the Fourth of July to have a BBQ and cupcakes and light the sparklers.

Not having children has given us a lot of freedom to handle what we need to. When things go wrong with my friends, I’m going to be there. I have responded to the 2 a.m. phone call of: “Hey, my car broke down, can you come get me?” My closest group of friends I’ve known since I was 15, I’m usually the friend who reminds them: “I knew who you were before you were a mom.”

I feel like I’m always the one who says: Let’s go for a coffee and get our nails done. I try to remind them that they were somebody before their kids were born, they were their own individual person.

‘I’m concerned about my individual rights, which is a new experience for me as a trans person’

Leigh Finke is a documentary filmmaker, writer and founder of Totally Gay Productions, a full-service video production company. She currently works as a multimedia storyteller at ACLU Minnesota. She has two children and lives in St. Paul, Minn.

Leigh Finke poses for a photo in Two Harbors, Minn., at a friends' wedding in October. (Kim Hover)
Leigh Finke poses for a photo in Two Harbors, Minn., at a friends' wedding in October. (Kim Hover)

I think President Donald Trump’s election was really instrumental in starting my transition. I almost came out to my family when I was 15, and instead, I became an evangelical Christian. The church essentially functioned as my closet for 20 years until I began transitioning four years ago.

I’ve realized that we’re going to have to adapt to and cope with the repealing rather than the advancing of rights, and that’s going to be hard. I’m particularly concerned about my individual rights, which is a new experience for me as a trans person. I didn’t used to have that fear — that my own access to health care and ability to thrive would be threatened — and that’s very much on the table right now.

There is a mix of emotions that comes with aging during or after transitions. People who transitioned later in life talk about it being like the second adolescence. There is a real sense of putting together your own excitement about living this new life, and also recognizing that you’ve lost all these years to live that life: the experiences of having a girlhood or being a young woman in your 20s. I was married and I have children and I’m grateful and love all of that, but I would have loved to be a married woman. There are just parts of life that probably are done.

I have pretty bad depression, and I have panic attacks and they have gotten worse. But I’m trying to concentrate my attention on my immediate surroundings. I like to make films and I like to paint. I’m trying to find joy and meaning in the people who I surround myself with, especially because I tend to have a pessimistic view of culture and the future. How do we find meaning in our lives — that’s what I consider the most important part of my day-to-day life and I do that with art, friends and work, and participating in the political protests and the fight.

I feel like I’m just hitting my stride in terms of my professional and personal creative capacity. Despite everything, I feel more capable and more clear about what I can be doing.

‘I feel like it’s a rebirth of sorts. I’m kind of phoenixing out of a lot of struggle’

Kasha Smith-Poynter grew up in a military family in Anchorage, where she lives now with her husband and two children. She is an African- and hip-hop dance instructor.

Kasha Smith-Poynter poses for a photo for her 40th birthday celebration in Honolulu. (Don Poynter Jr.)
Kasha Smith-Poynter poses for a photo for her 40th birthday celebration in Honolulu. (Don Poynter Jr.)

When I was 15, I remember feeling like 40 was a pinnacle year, when people started taking themselves seriously. I kept making the same New Year’s resolution to get healthier every year, but two years ago, I decided to attack it a little bit differently. I didn’t put a timeline on it. I think I approached it with grace for myself and realized that my best is going to look different every single day. After not dancing for seven years, I got back into African dance. Then it became going to the gym. I just crossed 1,000 days of working out every single day.

A lot of the reason why I was on the heavier side was that I have an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s. Up here, the doctors are limited, so they really just treated it with prednisone, which is a steroid that just made me gain a ton of weight and changed my mental mood. No matter how much I danced or worked out, it didn’t matter, my weight wouldn’t budge. I was just angrier, because I felt kind of trapped in my own body. That mental discouragement that was happening was really frustrating, especially because I knew internally that I was driven. I didn’t want to be perceived as lazy or unhealthy.

As I laid out every excuse I’ve ever used for myself, it allowed me to realize that where your mind goes, your body follows, and the depth of motivation and dedication that you have is really internal. Once I started working out every day, my hives outbreaks lessened and I was eventually able to ween off the steroid.

When I started my health journey, I didn’t necessarily set out to achieve any goals by 40. I didn’t necessarily know what that was going to look like.

But it’s been this really beautiful journey of self-love. My really good girlfriends and I will go to the gym, we call it “sister sessions.” We’ll lay bare whatever is in our hearts while we’re working out. We try to work through whatever it is we’re dealing with, whether that’s husbands or work or extended families. We knew that we were growing something, and we’re able to kind of just counsel each other and be there for each other while also making sure that we were making time for ourselves to get our workouts in.

Forty is definitely a milestone, but I feel like I’m 20. I feel like it's a rebirth of sorts. I’m kind of phoenixing out of a lot of struggle. I’m able to finally walk as I had intended to, how I had always seen myself.

‘Maybe this is the right time to have the baby’

Nancy Escobedo is a high school counselor in Las Vegas. After suspicions from her doctors that she may not be able to get pregnant, she is expecting her first baby, a girl, in January.

Nancy Escobedo poses for a photo in Dodge City, Kan., while visiting family for the holidays. (Manny Perez)
Nancy Escobedo poses for a photo in Dodge City, Kan., while visiting family for the holidays. (Manny Perez)

I didn’t think I could have kids. Two weeks before my 30th birthday, my OB/GYN told me if I wanted kids, I should have them now, because my fibroids were just going to cause more problems.

I haven’t been on birth control — I haven’t gone out of my way to prevent getting pregnant, and I’ve never gotten pregnant. And so after almost 40 years of my life of it not happening, it became a natural thought in my head that it may just not happen. I thought without kids, I’d be 40, driving a cool car, living in a high-rise.

So when I found out I was six weeks pregnant in June, it was exciting, but very scary. I was almost 40, I was with my boyfriend, not married. I worked so hard to get my life together and I was really worried not to mess it up. I thought: “I’m going to be 50 with a 10-year-old.” What was I thinking?

Then my boyfriend and I ended up catching covid-19 in August, so we were pretty sick. I don’t know if it was the combination of being pregnant, but I was sick for almost three weeks — feeling like a zombie, basically.

But then I thought, why is it not okay to have a baby now? Maybe this is the right time to have the baby. I have lived my life, I have traveled a lot, I have partied, I have my degree, I have my career, I own my house. If it were five years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready to become a mother. Even though I hadn’t been planning on it at 40, it’s been a blessing in disguise.

And now my life is going to be surrounded with diapers and wipes. My family threw me a birthday gender-reveal party this past weekend. We found out it’s a girl. All of a sudden, all these things I haven’t thought about, I need to plan.

My biggest fear is that I mess something up. I want to do things for the baby, show her things I didn’t get to see as a kid. But I don’t want to have a spoiled kid either. I want her to be a responsible and appreciative person. Even though the baby is not here yet, I think about how to balance that.

‘Now at 40, I’m just learning to be okay with who I am and not apologizing for it’

Sharah’ Nicole is an HIV prevention program manager and the founder of Go4ItCommunications, a PR agency providing support to small businesses and nonprofits. She’s also the host of the GreatHER Purpose podcast. She lives in Valdosta, Ga., with her two children.

Sharah' Nicole takes a selfie.
Sharah' Nicole takes a selfie.

My divorce defined me for a long time. For the last couple of years, I felt like a failure, like I couldn’t overcome it. Going through divorce has been a work in progress — finding a balance of accepting what has happened and not feeling shame about it. My family is in California, so I’ve been adjusting to being a single mom and being in a good, safe space for my kids as much as I can, especially when it comes to school and normal teenage stuff. In the process of all this, I lost my mother, too. Now at 40, I’m just learning to be okay with who I am and not apologizing for it.

When I was married and a mom, and working full-time as well as serving as the president of an organization, I found that I was pouring into everything and everybody but myself. I always felt like I was under the microscope and focused so much on my image, what people thought of me and being a light for everyone else. I had an episode when things came crashing down all at one time. Then, I realized: I have to take time to get myself together. I’ve had to ask myself hard questions, like: Are you going to break these generational curses, or are you just going to wallow in them?

Now I’m 40, and I don’t have forever. I don’t like to waste my time, but I do want to live life. I have more clarity of enjoying the moment versus being so scheduled about everything, being with my kids while I still have them at home. It’s the simple things I encompass more now than before.

I’m looking forward to buying my first house by myself. I’ve never bought anything of my own, so I want to buy my own house and make decisions on my own and not have to worry about what other people think I should do. I’ve always dreamed of having a beach house, so I can go to the beach when I want to, which is funny because I can’t swim. Just hearing the water crashing and walking on the sand, it gives me so much peace.

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