40 was a big thing. I learnt about this from an Australian boss years ago when I was in Singapore. In one of our conversations then, she spoke of working with a professional event organizer to throw a really big 40th birthday party, where there would be a theme and decorations and where she would give a speech in front of an audience. Yet the thought of turning 40 didn’t register in my mind: I was just 30. Growing up in Vietnam, I had never heard of anyone talking about 40 or observed any of such celebrations either.
A few years later when my family moved to America and when I had just established a new career in the new land, I heard a friend bragging about her 40th birthday celebration plan that her husband would spoil her with a special vacation for just the two of them. It is a big thing in this part of the world too, I realized. Why is it a big deal, I wondered and did a quick Google search. 40 was said to be the year of transformation. It was said to be the year of transition. It was said to be the highlight of our life where we were supposed to have hit big goals before passing this middle point. Yet it still sounded like a distant future: I was just 35.
Then suddenly, as if time had just been collapsed by a fairy, I turned 40 last Friday. Despite all these reminders and despite the fact that I had many years to prepare for it, my 40th birthday celebration was not at all filled with glitters. It was even the opposite. On many accounts. First, I was under the weather with a bad cough and a runny nose. Second, my babysitter couldn’t come so I found myself among many babies at a playground. Third, my husband didn’t say Happy Birthday to me till my daughter said it, let alone gifts and cards and flowers. Fourth, the birthday dinner at an Italian restaurant I had been diligently researching for, on my own, turned out to be a disaster when my husband unearthed a big piece of porcelain from his plate, my son went to the bathroom for so long and my 13-month baby persisted on walking around the tables. At one point, only my husband sat there, looking at the bare tablecloth, still irritated by the incident. So we decided to head home instead of ordering dessert and blowing a candle. “It’s a failure!” I announced when stepping to the door.
On Saturday, however, we had a makeover, per what my husband and son proposed. We enjoyed an easy and slow morning before going to a supermarket to buy a cake and all the groceries needed to make a Vietnamese dish we all loved. In the afternoon, we gathered in the kitchen, chopping mushrooms, bean sprouts, and onions…, mixing over ten ingredients and rolling dozens of nem. For a break, my husband played Canon in D on his guitar and the three kids flocked together over a game in the corner of the kitchen. I simply basked myself in this very scene, in the coziness of it. Then the house was soon filled with the mouth-watering aroma, the table was laid out, adorned with a vase of fresh flowers from the garden, the delicious food was devoured, stories were exchanged, jokes were cracked, and candles were finally blown. We ended the night by watching Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a choice otherwise never made by the men in the house. Yet everyone agreed it was an absolute delight. That night, I went to bed hearing my own voice so loud in my head, “Mrs. Harris, I have followed my dream too,” and seeing happiness glitter in my soul. All these years, I have indeed prepared for my 40, I thought, closing my eyes to recall the journey.
When I was 33, I left my job, a dream of many. I loved what I did back then; however, the psychological manipulation in the form of discrimination against an Asian mom of young kids and the pressure of being asked to deliver a mountain while being deprived of all the support I needed forced me to, once and for all, think about who I was and where I belonged. The eight-month-long inner search resulted in my decision to be the CEO of myself, embarking on a mission to uplevel happiness for women, especially mothers, in a new field. It also happened that my family moved to New York. So at 34, I had a triple transition.
Despite starting everything from scratch and juggling everything new, I also found everything truly possible in the city of “achievement” (a word for New York mentioned in Eat, Pray, Love, a book that was my companion in our first road trip in America). I woke up everyday feeling so excited and making the impact I wanted to see, quiet — one life at a time — yet deeply meaningful. Totally living how I am innately wired, my Happiness Infinity (HI) Zone — composed of my natural talents, life purpose, true passion and core values — I quickly reached the highlights of my new career: becoming an official member of the Forbes Coaches Council, named to Business Insider’s most innovative career coaches, being among the youngest or the only Southeast Asian woman in different channels. Lifewise, I could not only better enjoy watching my beloved kids grow but also use my professional skills to nurture them.
Yet amidst all these, I faced a challenge in the relationship with my husband, stemming from our new life, evoking painful emotions rooted in my childhood, and threatening to break our family. One more time, I had to reflect. This time, it was from different angles. This time, it was about the motifs that stood in the way of a happier marriage. With deeper self-understanding and brain-training skills conveniently used from my profession, I started my own growth process, which led to his, and we were able to find our ways back to each other’s heart.
Then came our third child, when I was 39. Being a mother again brought me a strong and deep sense of happiness, joy and gratitude. My achievement had a new measure: I loved myself better and I did more life. It was felt when I saw the little life growing within me each day, when I was so much in my flow delivering my baby through a VBAC (vaginal birth after C-section), when I enjoyed those two tiring yet intimate nights in the hospital with my husband and our new born, when I came home to be warmly welcomed by my mother, my aunt and my kids, when I learnt to listen to my body so closely during the healing time, when I fed my baby, smoothed his hair and looked into his bright big eyes. It was felt when I allowed myself more time to work on fewer projects, those with better “why” behind them, instead of chasing goals after goals, and when I leaned into more fun from parasailing to ziplining to paddle boating to diving into the cold water of a river. It was felt when I no longer ignored the mundane logistics of life that seemed not to give me any professional validation. As a mom of three, I felt a day was never long enough but I immensely enjoyed this new season.
Last month, I travelled back to Hanoi with my baby for four weeks, with the purpose of completing a project. Yet, I didn’t pull it through. To the younger version of me, this was surprising: I was deeply wired to achieve, at almost all costs. I would have spent all that time on the computer typing away. However, the trip was a great success, in my nearly-40-year-old eyes: I learnt how to love others better and listened to my yearning more. I still made progress with my work but I also made time to connect with my loved ones, from playing with my nieces and nephews, to having a walk with my mother-in-law around the Sword Lake, to spending a day at an arts museum and a cafe with my mom, to immersing in my parents-in-law’s daily flow of their life, to unravelling more stories with my family and to doing all these with my baby. I tended to what my soul longed for: walking again, after about 20 years, on the small village lanes, visiting my elementary and secondary schools, dropping by a bookstore I paid regular visit as a student, and listening to the sounds and colors of life in the old quarter of Hanoi. I enjoyed mini adventures by discovering a few lovely cafes that brought me more inspiration for my project and bumping into people of adorable talents and missions. Most satisfactorily of all, I was finally able to, despite a bit of shyness, tell my mom, “I love you!” to realize it was actually so well received with a tight big hug.
Now as I sat at the little creative nook in my home in New York, happiness at a deeper level arrived. Just like the golden maple leaves joyously dancing and elegantly landing in my garden. Last Friday was not a failure at all. It was indeed among the best days of my life. My loving husband cared in his own simple and down-to-earth way. My daughter fondly gave me not only one but two hand made cards with so many hearts drawn in them. My son wrote me a sweet poem very early: last birthday. My baby showed me his big happy smiles when he was on the swing and the slide for the first time in his life at the playground. And my garden gifted me beautiful dahlia and daisy in many colors so I could have a truly fresh bouquet. The Monday after was a bonus. We both took a day off and had a date, as we often did on our birthdays. This time, we walked around a lake in Central Park, lay on a rock looking at the blue sky and chatted, had Pho in a nearby restaurant, and bought a cup of pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks before driving home. Well, these were the flowers. These were the gifts. These were the balloons.
And in the bigger span of time, 40 is the highlight. I have a loving husband and adorable children, a big dream I longed to actualize since I was a young girl. I have a dream home in a close-knit peaceful neighborhood, one that is similar to a village mentioned in Outliers that I have so adored for years. My families across the world, from Asia to Australia to Europe, are all healthy, pursuing their own dreams and caring for each other. In my inner world, there is the pure fulfillment that I have been living in my HI Zone. There is also the contentment that I have significantly conquered my LOW Zone by healing my core emotional pain from childhood at some level and disrupting the unhelpful patterns that it accompanied. Oh, this doesn’t mean I will go against my tendency; I will still achieve and serve, but much more selectively. (One of them is challenging and meaningful enough to realize in the next 40 years.) And oh, this also doesn’t mean my inner struggle has totally gone away; I am just getting better at managing it. The home inside me now has much more room for love. For more different layers of feelings.
So 40 is indeed a big deal. The low point in my career that set me on the journey of self-discovery nearly eight years ago and the low point in my most important relationship that forced me, five years ago, to look into my interior deeper both led to that deal. There, in the middle of my inner home, my 40 threw a glamorous party to thank my 33 and my 35, the gift of Happiness Infinity laid in the very center. And well, to a big party out here, I am still open, even belated.