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39 is a pivotal age for women - as Meghan Markle is about to find out

The Duchess of Sussex's 39th birthday celebrations today are likely to be a low-key post-lockdown affair – a trip with the family, perhaps, or a beach break with Covid-tested friends in the Californian resort of Montecito.

Cases of the novel coronavirus are still high in the Golden State, and Meghan and Prince Harry have been taking social distancing very seriously.

What is certain, however, is that the Duchess will be using this milestone to reflect and make some decisions for the future.

Meghan Markle is just one year off the milestone of turning 40.

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/Getty Images

Meghan Markle is just one year off the milestone of turning 40.

"My mom has always said that birthdays are your own personal New Year," she wrote on her now defunct blog, The Tig, in 2016. Her past resolutions have included “more giggles” and delicious meals.

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But turning 39 calls for a deeper life warrant of fitness.

You see, however hard you try to ignore it, 40 is an unsettling deadline for women.

God knows why – or who came up with it – but by the end of your 30s you are expected to be “on track” with both your career and personal life.

As I discovered when I turned 39 during lockdown, this feels like the last roll of the dice when it comes to achieving what you aspired to in your 20s and 30s.

It's a year for ticking boxes and making decisions about work and relationships.

It doesn't matter how sorted you appear – I have a husband, children, a dog and a house – but 39 still makes you question your modus operandi. I feel as if I've got one year left to get my act together and become sleek, organised, older me.

"My mom has always said that birthdays are your own personal New Year," Meghan wrote on her now defunct blog, The Tig, in 2016. Her past resolutions have included "more giggles" and delicious meals.

Simon Dawson

"My mom has always said that birthdays are your own personal New Year," Meghan wrote on her now defunct blog, The Tig, in 2016. Her past resolutions have included "more giggles" and delicious meals.

Sure, there are amazing role models out there to prove that you can be successful at any age, but to an unfinished article such as myself, such women are as intimidating as they are inspiring.

It means there can be an element of denial about the whole thing –and not just your own.

It was a slap in the face when, on my birthday in April, my father wrote "happy 38th birthday" in my card. Clearly, he can't believe how old I am, either. It meant that turning 39 left me feeling anxious about being an almost-40 daughter – one who still relies on her parents for advice – and I'd guess Meghan, who's close to her mother Doria, may feel the same.

She might be one of the most frighteningly sorted 39-year-olds out there: the successful actress, humanitarian and feminist icon who married a prince.

But Meghan has had a lot to contend with this year: a reported rift with her husband's family, two court cases, and the fallout from the publication of unauthorised biography Finding Freedom. I expect she will be experiencing the same suffocating feeling I did on this landmark day – a panicked glance back into the past, and a feeling of trepidation about the future.

The past few months would suggest that Meghan has already been doing some serious soul-searching. First there was the career change – she quit her job as a serving member of the royal family and moved, with Harry and Archie, to a mansion in California. This was following an interview in October last year when she told ITV's Tom Bradby: “You've got to thrive; you've got to feel happy.”

Meghan Markle, Prince Harry and baby Archie.

Chris Allerton/SussexRoyal/Getty Images

Meghan Markle, Prince Harry and baby Archie.

The good news for Meghan is that United States research in 2017 found that women hit their highest earning potential aged 39, which bodes well for her career pivot in the short term.

But having forfeited her royal bank account, she might be wondering where this leaves her future.

Then there was the new hair. No matter how much yoga she practises or green juice she drinks, Meghan's 39-year-old body will have started to hint at its mortality – frown lines and the first wisps of grey (I speak from experience).

After the lockdown, however, she emerged with sleek, waist-length hair that, according to her celebrity hairdresser George Northwood, is a statement of intent. “It represents strength and a sense that she's really got everything sorted,” he says.

More pressing for women at 39 can be questions of love and family.

I don't think it's a coincidence that Princess Anne separated from Captain Mark Phillips in 1989, a little under two weeks after her 39th birthday. Wallis Simpson was 39 when she decided to file for divorce from her second husband in 1936, ahead of her romance with the Duke of Windsor becoming public knowledge.

Then there's the baby issue. If you're still deciding whether or not to have one (or another one), you have to start accepting that quite soon you won't have a choice – or at least conceiving will be much harder and any fertility doctor would be advising you to get on with it. And there's the M-word looming – I'm now as terrified about the menopause as I ever was about pregnancy.

There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel. Speaking to friends, it seems that 39 is the storm before the calm.

“I spent the year agonising over every aspect of my life only to breathe a sigh of relief when I turned 40 and realised I was fretting the small stuff,” says one.

“If your 30s are a race, your 40s are when you begin to settle into your life,” confirms another. “Whatever that may look like.”

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