(CNN) -- I was always certain that I'd have my life worked out by the time I was 40. I'd somehow magically awake on my 40th birthday filled with the wisdom of the ages: a solid financial plan, inner peace and a tastefully appointed yet attractive wardrobe that wouldn't just make me feel like I was playing dress-up at work.
As it happened, I did wake up that August morning possessed of new insight -- mostly about how mortifyingly delicious birthday-cake-flavored vodka turned out to be, and how hangovers come on harder and stronger as the years pass. I shut the blinds and went back to sleep. An old lady needs her rest.
No one under 38 really considers what 40 and beyond is going to look like for them. They plot the ambitious beginning ("I'm going to become a successful ___") and the triumphant denouement ("Then I'll retire with my beloved partner and we'll spend our well-funded free time by ___"). But they gloss over the mushy middle, where all the day-to-day doing happens.
Our 40s aren't demographically glamorous. If one were to take all the pop culture commentary on the subject to heart, it would be downright dangerous to leave the house clad in anything more revealing than head-to-toe beekeeper garb covering our wrinkly, dorky, dowdy, dumpy selves. It's a decade, according to sitcoms and comedians, of slight but constant humiliations -- aches and spread and odd hairs and a fundamental cluelessness about anything cool.
On the other end of the temperature spectrum, haven't you heard? Forty is the new zOMG HOT -- at least in the entertainment sphere, where aging actresses are no longer relegated to regional theater until they can re-emerge on screen as comically oversexed grandmas and swearing octogenarians. Nope -- now we have Gwyneth Paltrow, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Garner, Jennie Garth and Sofia Vergara looking tight-abbed, hard-armed and wrinkle-free, despite the handicap of their birth year.
A lady of that shameful age could also opt to bust the girls out in a balconette bra, hit the tanning bed a couple hundred times, and go cougar-slinking around Fraternity Row in search of fresh meat and a reality TV deal. Which is a bad call, at any age.
There's not a lot of middle ground, at least in the larger cultural conversation, and frankly, I began to panic when I hit 39.
When I was growing up in suburban Kentucky, way back in the 1970s and '80s, that birthday was borne in on black wings, with signs cawing "Lordy lordy, look who's 40" pounded into the lawn by mischievous friends under cover of darkness. I recall my own mother bemoaning the indignity of gray hairs' arrival while she was still having to weather visits from the pimple fairy. Her twin sister, Polly, ruefully displayed a fridge magnet proclaiming, "After 40, it's just patch, patch, patch."
The baby boomer women around me seemed to sigh and lean into it -- maybe even with some degree of relief at not having to struggle so hard to remain au courant. They'd worked hard for their families and careers, and there was no reason on earth not to reap the rewards -- and do so in a comfy sweater and roomy jeans like their husbands.
And as for the upstart MTV brats they were raising, in the narcissism of our youth, the very worst invective we could think to sling at someone was: "Eeewww! She looks like she's 40!" "OMG, that guy checking you out looks like he's 40. Gross!" "Gawd, stop acting like you're 40."
Funnily enough, that same sentiment boomeranged back at me several decades later, but couched as comfort: "You don't look 40."
I heard that a lot in the months leading up to the dreaded birthday, when I took to mentioning my age as frequently as possible, in an attempt both to neutralize its power and to gauge reaction to it. It was a comically distinct divide: Those well under 40 responded with a sharp intake of breath and an immediate attempt to soothe, and those past it offered assurance that all doesn't fall to tatters on the other side.
My elders were right. Dare I say -- my life even got better.
There are drawbacks, certainly: back spasms, skirts best left to 20-something thighs, pillow creases that now take half the morning to fade from my face, and an inability to comprehend the aesthetic appeal of Ke$ha, Skrillex and One Direction (though I suspect that might have happened at any age). The indignities are more than made up for by the increasingly deep and wonderful foundation of not-giving-a-crap with which I conduct my life.
I know who and what brings me joy, and I am more free to pursue that as avidly as I can, while doing the best I can by others -- putting my own metaphorical oxygen mask on first. I try not to sweat the inevitable screw-ups and, yes, I do look 40 because I am 40.
Angst over social slights, chipped nails, minor mess-ups and apologies for my own tastes have lessened monumentally. And while I don't have it all worked out -- though I think I have finally figured out what to do with my hair -- I am strangely OK with that. I've fallen down, gotten up, scarred over and started over enough times that I almost relish the challenge. And I know I won't have to go through it alone.
The greatest of all these pleasures has been seeing the girls I have always loved metamorphosing into women. The warmth, humor, grace, style and passion that burned brightly in youth has intensified and concentrated. My dear friends bring that, along with the confidence of experience, to every facet of their lives -- work, causes, relationships, amusement, and, markedly, child-rearing. Their kids will only ever know 40 as an empowering, vital time in a person's life. If they ever forget -- I am quick to remind them how incredibly cool their mothers were and forever shall be.
Even if they once poured birthday-cake-flavored vodka down my throat on one long and crazy night in Vegas.
Magazines and websites abound with lists of "40 things to do before you're 40," and not being a person inclined to jump out of airplanes or have an affair (seriously -- some suggest that!), mine would be this: Learn what makes you happy in the kitchen, the bedroom and the library and make those things happen as frequently as possible. Share your list in the comments below.