A friend of mine – one who has gone through her thirties and then some – posted this article on Facebook this morning. I clicked, I began to read, and as I did, my blood pressure rose, my heart started pounding, and I started to freak out a little. Here I am, I thought, over a year into this “do or die” decade, and I have yet to really do anything.
I talked myself down off the ledge, reminding myself that I have two masters degrees and was/still am pursuing a career path I see myself following for a long time. I feel fortunate being 31 and having some idea of what I want to do with my life, even if I’m not currently doing it. But once I get to the more logistical things – savings, for example, or my lack thereof – I feel like I’m no better off that I was when I was 22. In fact, I could argue I’ve gone backwards.
My running joke for the latter part of my twenties was that I was doing them in reverse. The past decade of my life progressed like this:
- Graduate from college
- Get engaged
- Move to Europe
- Move back, get “real job,” live in the nicest apartment I’ve lived in yet, get married
- For a brief period of time, enjoy stability in relationship, home, and job
- Develop hatred of job, go back to school, move into less nice apartment
- Start drinking in college bars again
- Get divorced
- Continue drinking in college bars
- Go through slutty phase
- Move to New York, live in apartment with three random roommates from Craigslist
- Go back to eating ramen noodles the way I did in college because sometimes there is literally $4 in my checking account
- Lose job
- Move back in with parents
When I look at that progression, it feels like my life peaked at 22-26 – the years in which I was in a happy relationship, literally living on a Greek island or an apartment with central air, a dishwasher, and a washer/dryer. (These things feel just as luxurious as the Greek island now.) But I refuse to believe that, and I also refuse to believe that my life will be defined by what I do in my thirties.
I hate the idea of your age as an indicator of where you should be in life. Perhaps that was true 50 or 100 years ago, when options for most people were limited – when you couldn’t easily pick up and move to a different city, when you had less freedom to choose a career, or hell, any freedom at all for women. But the beauty of living at the turn of the 21st century is that we do have options – perhaps too many, but that’s another post – and the definitions of where you should be at a certain age are blurring.
I look around at my peers, and I see a variety of ways to be in your thirties, and I don’t think any of them is right or wrong. I see friends with growing families and houses; others who rent apartments; moms who stay at home and moms who work; friends who said they wanted to be doctors or lawyers at 18 and are doctors or lawyers now; friends who said they wanted to be doctors who are now English teachers; friends who have pursued passion projects which have taken them into really interesting careers; friends who have sampled a variety of jobs and have the unique experiences that go along with it; friends who live abroad and friends who live in the town in which they grew up; married friends, divorced friends, and single friends; friends who live paycheck to paycheck and friends who buy expensive cars.
The point is, there’s no benchmark – no boxes to check to make sure you’re on the path you should be, because there are so many different paths today. But that’s not to say that every now and then, particularly reading an article like this, I start to get anxious and wonder if I’m doing the right thing and moving in the right direction. Articles like this one don’t help.
What’s going on, I think, is the path-diverging choices that come with growing up. The thirties aren’t wildly different from your twenties, except for the part where the stakes feel so much higher. The carefree feeling of going out every night is replaced with a nagging voice that now reminds you of the repercussions, of what you should really be doing instead, and of the choices that may be slipping away, whether they are career, family, or fun. You are suddenly, irrevocably unable to waste time in the same way without chastising yourself.
Sure, the stakes are higher, because time seems so much shorter now. I’ve developed a sense of my own mortality in the early days of my thirties – a realization that, oh shit, I may not actually have time to do all the things I want to do. But when I’m older and looking back at my life, I highly doubt I’ll say, “I wish I’d stayed in more often and concentrated on the choices that were slipping away.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condoning going out every night of the week and spending all of your disposable income on alcohol. But the point of living is to live. And living, to me anyway, is about feeling fulfilled and learning new things, as much as possible. If raising children is giving you fulfillment, then go for it. If it’s working long hours to finish that big project, do it. If it’s having a night with your friends where you throw back more martinis than you should, even though you know you’ll regret it the next day, I will not be the one to stop you. I hope I don’t change that perspective, whether I’m 31 or 41 or 51, and we should never feel that how we’re living is the wrong way to live based solely on the number of years we’ve been alive.
But what about the things that actually have a tangible deadline attached? Kids, perhaps? Sure, there will come a point at which our bodies physically can’t produce children anymore, and so yes, some of my friends may feel anxiety and pressure to get it done before then. But again, we live in an era where there are so many options, and so not having kids by 35 doesn’t need to be the end of that dream. At 51 I may decide that children really will bring me happiness, and you know what? I can adopt them then.
I guess Jezebel does have one thing right – that your thirties are a transitional decade between youth and whatever adulthood is – but I don’t agree that if I don’t “do” something in this decade, I’ll “die.” Nor do I agree that your 30s are mundane, just a decade in which you tread water waiting for your glamorous 40s. I don’t believe that this decade is my “awakening” decade, because I did a hell of a lot of waking up in my 20s.
Age ain’t nothing but a number, as the beautiful Aaliyah once sang. So can we please stop trying to define an age and just start living it, regardless of what the number is, instead?