By Jacy Topps
Oct 17, 2018 @ 9:00 am
Uyen Cao

I usually love celebrating my birthday. I look forward to the phone calls, text messages, Facebook wishes, unexpected cards from family I haven’t heard from in years and a celebratory dinner with friends. But now? I’m turning 40.

Turning 40 can be emotionally fraught for any woman — often triggering anxiety, depression, and feelings of inadequacy. Our culture tells us that by 40, we should be homeowners, happily married with kids, succeeding in our careers and saving for retirement. When we’re missing any part of that equation, a sense of failure can creep in. That’s all legitimately stressful, but focusing on it obscures the unique struggles faced by black women approaching the milestone, particularly when it comes to career development and earning potential.

“For black women, 40 is considered to be a personal and financial milestone. It is supposed to be the age where the family and dream career have been established,” says to Dion Metzger, M.D., psychiatrist and co-author of The Modern Trophy Wife: How To Achieve Your Life Goals While Thriving at Home. “I often hear my patients discuss their feelings of inadequacy and anxiety with the 40th birthday looming. As they’re waiting for their careers to reach its peak, they feel frustrated that it’s not reaching the birthday deadline.”

Uyen Cao

Though the pay gap between men and women is slowly decreasing, the disparity between black and white women has been rapidly increasing. According to a report from Economic Policy Institute, in 1979, black women earned only 6 percent less than white women, but by 2015, that gap tripled to 19 percent. And in 2016, black women only earned 79 cents for every dollar white women took home.

“Black women are seeking wealth and affirmation from a system that wasn’t designed for us to succeed,” says Anne, a 49-year-old television producer. “I have to work twice as hard as white women at my job. But I don’t get paid nearly as much.”

Racial disparities in the job market not only disproportionately impact how much money black women earn — it  can affect our career trajectories, too, leaving us with less opportunity to advance in the job market. For example, I’m a journalist, and have been for six years. According to a report from Women’s Media Center, women make up 32 percent of staff in U.S newsrooms, but women of color represent just 7.95 percent.

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Black women are also underrepresented in science and tech, publishing, marketing, film and the medical and legal professions, according to recent reports. Currently, there are only three black CEOs running Fortune 500 companies; not one is a woman. A study from Women in the Workplace found black women are underrepresented at every level in corporate America.

These disparities can impact every area of our lives. Purchasing a home and saving for retirement is quite a bit easier if you make more money, have access to employment benefits, and are advancing in your career — all things it’s demonstrably harder for black women to do by 40.

“Black women at 40 have to re-examine what success looks like,” says Lindsey, 43, who wanted to remain anonymous fearing ramifications at work. She started working in the service industry after the company she worked for folded during the recession. “I may never accomplish what my white friends accomplish or have the same things. Black women don’t have the same opportunities. We start out in different places in life.”

Of course, what Lindsey is referring to is the root problem of being a black woman in America — privilege, or lack thereof. Historically, black people were excluded from quality education, denied mortgages, credit and access to government safety net programs that created opportunities, all of which gave white families more of an opportunity to build generational wealth and increase their upward mobility. According to Center For American Progress, in 2016, white households held 10 times more wealth than the average black family.

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And, with black women facing greater adversity, but less opportunity in the job market, we can find ourselves facing mental health issues.

“I didn’t always compare my accomplishments to other women’s until I turned 40. I started to internalize what I thought were failures and became deeply depressed,” a 46-year-old former corporate executive named Jaclyn, told me. “I was divorced and laid off from my job. Eventually, my anxieties about measuring up started affecting my self-esteem. Every time I thought about talking to a professional about my depression, I became even more embarrassed about where I was in life.” Jaclyn currently works part time but was unemployed at 40.

Over 7 million black Americans have been diagnosed with a mental illness and it’s likely over 7 million more are affected by mental health issues but are undiagnosed. And research finds racism, sexism, and lower incomes put black women at a higher risk of mental health issues. To add insult to injury, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health, black Americans face more challenges accessing quality mental healthcare due to stigma, cost of health insurance and unconscious racial biases.

“I remind my patients that, as minorities and women, we encounter more barriers and bias. Those barriers don’t make things impossible,” Dr. Metzger says. “I advise them to embrace 40 as a celebration of how far they’ve come instead of dreading it as an alarm.”

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In light of all of these factors, it’s not surprising that I haven’t been looking forward to this particular milestone. I spent my 20s and 30s trying to keep up with other women — it’s been emotionally exhausting. But reaching out to other black women and hearing about their similar experiences and feelings of inadequacy has helped me feel less isolated. My self-worth shouldn’t be defined by my career trajectory or my ability to meet cultural milestones, particularly milestones that weren’t designed for women who look like me to achieve in the first place. And so I'm redefining success and examining myself outside of the narrow expectations our culture has set for 40-year-old women, starting right now.

Birthdays are meant to be celebrated; my 40th shouldn’t be any different.