“What age you is mummy?” asked my three-year-old recently. A topical question, when the internet is full of How Old Do I Look photos (clever Microsoft!), hitting on the mild obsession some (many) of us have with how old we look versus how old we are, and how publicly we’re prepared to discuss the topic.
I hesitated for a millisecond before telling my smallie my age. I’m not sure why I hesitated. I wasn’t going to lie to him – his sisters already know how old I am, and apart from anything else, three-year-olds have very little concept of age. He probably wasn’t going to start judging me, or looking at me differently.
Maybe it’s just ingrained in some of us to feel a little uncomfortable disclosing age? Is it something that’s passed down through generations? I remember my parents telling us they were twenty-one again every year, and for a long time, we believed it. Even after I finally worked out that it was unlikely that they were capable of stopping the passage of time at each birthday, I still didn’t know what age they really were. So I guess that’s at least partly why I’m slow to disclose my age unless I’m pushed – it’s something I learned growing up.
But still, it doesn’t fully explain it. Age isn’t something to be embarrassed about – it just is what it is. Are we afraid people will look at us differently if they know what age we are? That doesn’t make sense – if people are surprised – if they think we’re younger than we are, that’s a compliment, right? (Even though of course it doesn’t actually make sense to applaud someone for looking young – but that’s a whole other topic.) Is it a simple privacy concern? We don’t shout out the personal numbers that come in lbs and ounces or euros and cents either.
Recently, I was at a dinner with some new friends – all of us know each other just a little. At one point during the wine-soaked meal, one woman mentioned her age. Those around her were very surprised – they told her she looked much younger, and they’d never have guessed. Her neighbour then confessed her age too, and similar comments followed. In the end, we went around the whole table – all of us fessed up. And everyone was complimented. And truly, everyone meant it. Every single person at the table looked younger than her age. Which is either a massive coincidence, or says something about our perceptions of what late-thirties and early-forties look like.
Perhaps this generation is more open about age than our parents were – now we have thirtieths and fortieths and fiftieths – it’s hard to invite people to your fortieth without mentioning age. Or maybe this is just my memory playing tricks on me (getting on a bit, you know) – maybe celebrating significant birthdays was just as popular a generation back. We also have a proliferation of public information about age that probably didn’t exist in the past – any website or newspaper article will quote ages for Angelina Jolie (39) or Bradley Cooper (40) or Cameron Diaz (42) or Russell Crowe (50).
And maybe on the flip side, this public information adds to our self-consciousness – if Charlize Theron and Christina Hendricks are both turning forty and look like they do, perhaps I don’t want to be telling everyone my age?
Anyway, I decided against fibbing to the kids about my age, as a significant birthday approached last year (my twenty-fifth, ahem) so they do know the truth. And they seem most unperturbed by it really. They were more concerned about a friend’s mother recently. My seven-year-old said, “Mum, Jessica’s mum is twenty-one and Jessica is seven – that’s mad that she had her when she was fourteen isn’t it!”
Yes. Maybe truth is the best way after all. And hey, maybe someone will say, “Wow, you don’t look that old at all!” Or perhaps a computer will…
What do you do – do you tell your kids your real age?