It’s my birthday tomorrow!My thirtieth birthday. I’ll freely admit that I’ve always been the type to enjoy my birthdays. As my parents were quick to remind me recently, I used to celebrate the entire week, sometimes the entire month. Therefore it has come as quite a surprise that under the expected level of excitement (which, I will also admit, has waned with each passing year), there’s a creeping sense of dread this time around. Okay, “dread” may be a bit hyperbolic, but it’s apprehension at the very least. I don’t feel anywhere near 30; it completely snuck up on me.
As these feelings have deepened over the last few months, I’ve been extraordinarily contemplative. At first, the idea of this “birthday anxiety,” for lack of a better term, seemed absurd enough that I dismissed it outright. But here I am, hours away from the big day and the trepidation has only increased.
Rationally, I know it’s just another year. Despite the seemingly advancing pace of my life, I also know that each year feels faster because its relative length is shorter as I add more years to my life. (This article sheds more light on the psychology of time.) Surely part of my melancholy can be attributed to how damn fast everything is going by these days. As a human being, especially in the age of constant activity, it’s hard to remember to stop and enjoy every moment. Life does pass quickly. And though I don’t think of it this way often, its rapid pace can serve as a reminder that each year brings you closer to the grave. Part of me wonders if my discomfort with this milestone is because of this, but if I’m being honest with myself, I know there’s more to it.
Unlike the past few birthdays, 30 feels different. Thirty is fully within adulthood. I feel comfortable calling myself a woman now instead of a kid or a girl. In fact, I hate when I’m referred to in those ways. I’m not a spring chicken anymore, able to excuse reckless behavior, mistakes, or just plain idiocy on being young, naive, and carefree. The truth is that I’m no longer any of those things.
I often still feel 22, but, let me tell you, paying a recent visit to my college campus with the two kids in tow was the quickest way I could have imagined to confirm that I do not, in fact, have much in common with 22-year-olds. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t grieve my college years. I genuinely miss that freedom, lack of real-life responsibility, to-die-for metabolism, and youthful appearance. I look back very fondly at that time, which, as a friend recently told me, must mean that I did it right. Part of my birthday reflection has made me realize that, especially in a society that unabashedly–and foolishly–values youth as much as it does, it’s hard not to feel, at least a little bit, like you’re growing more irrelevant and less attractive just by doing what nature intends you to do.
Then that college nostalgia subsides and I look in the mirror to see the creases forming around my eyes, mouth, and forehead that betray my extra years. The extra years of living a full life. I am more experienced now, in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated just eight years ago.
At 30, my modicum of hard-earned wisdom is starting to earn respect from society, albeit a fickle one that has, ironically, simultaneously started to devalue my appearance. No longer am I treated like a clueless child. If I am, I no longer tolerate it. Each year brings a new level of confidence in myself, in my voice, and in my ability to speak my mind. Run-of-the-mill highs and lows aside, I feel confident, proud, and accepting of who I am. Happily, this includes a newfound respect for my brain, my heart, and my body (human bodies are amazing things and I’m determined to be more reverent of mine). I may not be perfect, but I love who I am. And, at 30, I’m finally ready to move on from people who don’t, without looking back. My energy is for positive influences only, please and thank you.
On the flip side, I recognize that I’m not old yet either. Thirty is a nice little sweet spot of vivaciousness where I have the energy and wherewithal to live life fully but not stupidly. It’s sweet, that is, until I’m around a teenager who looks at me like I’m the Cryptkeeper.As refreshing as it is to finally feel so comfortable in my own skin, turning 30 has made me realize there’s a strange dichotomy to growing older. On the one hand, you know yourself on a deeper level. On the other, you realize you don’t know a single damn thing about anything.
Like most kids, I guess I expected I’d have a lot more figured out by 30. While I take comfort in the fact that I don’t think anyone ever has anything all figured out (if nothing else, my 29 years have taught me this much), I think it’s natural to feel a little uneasy when you realize life doesn’t exactly come with a road map.
The trajectory of my life is something I wouldn’t change for the entire world. Here I am, about to turn 30, with my health, two incredible kids, a phenomenally supportive husband, an adorable–if occasionally irritating–dog, two sets of devoted parents, two loving grandparents, and a whole host of family and friends who would drop everything for me. I’ve had great work experience, even if I’m temporarily pausing from it, I’ve traveled across the world, I’ve gone on crazy adventures, and I’ve generally lived with no regrets. Needless to say, I recognize that I’m fortunate, privileged, and I have a whole hell of a lot for which to be grateful.
I’m lucky, that is for sure.
In the last few months, though, I’ve been thinking hard about the expectations I had for my life when I was still a fresh-faced adult. I never would have thought I’d marry young or have two kids by 30. Yet here I am, married for seven years with a baby on my hip and a toddler scream-singing “Let It Go” in the next room. And I’m loving it. I’m not even sure what exactly I thought life would be, but I look back at that kid and just think of how endless my opportunities were. I could have studied and become anything I wanted. I could have lived anywhere, done anything, been whomever I wanted. My future was largely a blank slate. There’s something to be said for being 18 with the world at your fingertips. You may be a bit wet behind the ears, but you still have so much ahead of you.
It was while reflecting on this limitless potential that I finally figured out that part of my uneasiness with turning 30 was realizing that I’m now officially old enough that some doors are just plain closed. To a certain extent, the course of my life has now been solidly established. It’s a strange thing to explore, because I love the way life has turned out so far. But there’s still a small part of me that wonders, “What if?” What if I hadn’t met my husband in college? What if I had lived abroad post-graduation? What if I had chosen a different career? What if I were still working?
I’m inspired by people who make huge life changes later in life (like, later in life; I know 30 is not that), because I still wonder what I want to be when I grow up. Add to that uncertainty the whole back and forth between expectation and reality, what I thought I’d have accomplished by now versus what I actually have, and it’s no wonder that I think often about my life’s purpose and future legacy.
In having this constant inner dialogue in the back of my mind, I’ve come to realize that some of this dilemma is simply related to being in the trenches of early parenthood. When you’re taking care of another person’s every need, it’s easy to feel like you are a little lost. Even more complicated is mixing in the realization that, though you devote your entire life to your children, they are young enough that they wouldn’t even remember you if you were to die. It’s morbid, but it’s true. These thoughts are so heavy, it’s easy to sometimes feel like I’m drowning in an existential crisis, trying to complete a puzzle that is inherently incompletable and ever-changing.
The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that I’d probably be asking myself the same questions regardless of my life path. I’d still be wondering what would have been, it’s just that the content would be different. Talking to friends who are experiencing these same feelings, despite living completely different lives, has validated to me that this is normal. I guess by 30, you’re smart enough to perform some regular self-evaluation and introspection. You’re also smart enough to release a sigh of relief with the decisions you’ve made.
While I’m not sure what the future holds, one thing is for sure. It’s pretty awesome to be satisfied with the person you’ve become and the life you’ve built so far. If I had to choose to do it all over again, I probably wouldn’t change a thing (well, maybe fewer tequila shots and cookie binges). I may not be curing cancer or winning the Pulitzer (yet!), but I am proud of my sphere of influence as it stands. I like to think I make a small difference in the lives of those around me, and if that ultimately becomes my legacy, then I’ll be proud of it.
Unless I somehow get to travel across the multi-verse, I’ll never find out where life could have taken me. But I’m realizing now that turning 30 is not only about trusting your body, your heart, and your mind, but learning to trust that you are where you are meant to be as well.