On Turning 30

It’s my birthday tomorrow!

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Oscar is my spirit animal. [Source]

My thirtieth birthday.

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Hah hah heh hoo h-what?? [Source]

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.

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Incidentally, this is also how I felt as I walked around campus. When did college kids start looking like middle schoolers? [Source]

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.

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Motherhood: The First Year in Review

First and foremost, I’d like to apologize for my recent absence. We’ve had a slew of gorgeous family weddings and get-togethers that have happily taken me away from my computer. In the meantime, I hope you’ve been reading some of my summer book suggestions. If so, I’d love to know what you think so far.

Secondly, and more importantly, in my time away, Baby Brown Bear turned one! Over the last few months, I’ve anxiously awaited–nay, actually felt apprehensive of–his first birthday. It’s hard to say why exactly, but I think it’s because it’s a rather significant milestone in a mother’s life. It’s important for the baby too, I suppose, but it’s not like he cares or will remember it. In fact, I’m not sure he has any sense of time at all at this point, aside from the difference between daytime and nighttime (and thank God for that). But for a mother, it’s when you earn a metaphorical “hey, you made it” sticker.

You made it!

At a year, at least outwardly, it seems like most mothers have found their stride. Though a baby constantly changes and a mother must adapt her parenting tactics accordingly, she at least has an idea of what works well. She doesn’t sweat the small stuff to the same degree she did just twelve months before. She also knows that she must add at least 20 minutes to a given time frame to account for any number of baby-related delays.

She has relaxed into her parenting approach and no longer hears that constant nag of self-doubt (or, at least, she can ignore it). And, most importantly, she’s kept her baby alive and well for an entire year. Though, to be honest, it really freaks me out when people congratulate me for that. One, I don’t like to think of the implication that I might not have been able to keep him alive for a year. Two, it makes me feel like they are jinxing our good health. We all know how fragile life continues to be well past a year (and all those horror stories in the news certainly don’t help). As a mother, I don’t think I’ll ever fully settle without worrying at least a little bit about baby’s well-being.

Better yet, a year marks a full rotation around the Sun. If anything, that’s why we should congratulate each other. We’ve just traveled about 584 million miles!

Take that, Executive Platinum status.

In all seriousness, a year is an easy milestone because it’s one of the most prominent measures of time. It’s a natural reflection point. “A year ago right now…” is an exercise that appeals to the emotional side of nearly all human beings. Mothers especially. Engineers less so (I say this with love, Papa Bear).

In the last few days leading up to Baby Bear’s birthday, I was in an incessant state of reminiscence. Down to the hour, I reminded Papa Bear what we were doing a year prior. “Today was my last work day and I had no idea!” “This is when I took the dog to the beach; our last time alone together before baby came.” “Right now  I was having brunch and poured almost an entire bottle of Cholula on my eggs.” “This is when we were driving to [a friend]’s house and my water broke but we didn’t realize it yet.” “This is about when I had that delicious glass of wine. What a great way to settle into a labor.” “Right now is when my water started to gush in my parents’ kitchen. Remember that picture we took together and it was our last as a childless couple?”

Imagine how many of these Papa Bear heard over the course of the day and a half that was my labor. It was never-ending, but it helped me cope and digest my bewilderment that an entire year had passed.

“Remember that time at band camp the hospital?”

I remembered everything from those 36 hours, more so even than the ones that followed, with such crisp detail, with more clarity than I ever remember anything. It’s like my thoughts, actions, and emotions were crystallized to ensure I never forget how it felt to stand on the precipice of complete and utter change. Like those mosquitoes forever stuck in amber in Jurassic Park, my pregnant self feels frozen in time.

Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the Earth.

But, as much as that is true, it’s incredible to me how different I feel, too. Alongside this trip down memory lane, I couldn’t help but compare life now to a year ago, for me, my baby, and our family life in general.

Past to Present

Physically, I am completely different now than I was this time last year. I’ve lost the 60 pounds (yes, you read that right) that I gained. In fact, I now feel stronger than I ever did before pregnancy, largely because I now only have time for short, high-impact workouts instead of the long runs and gym visits I once enjoyed. Plus, nothing will make you feel as strong as carrying and birthing a baby.

I am woman. Hear me roar!

Though I finally feel like I’m once again in control of my body and am proud of the hard work I’ve put in over the last several months, returning to my pre-baby shape does serve as a bittersweet reminder of the growing physical distance between baby and me. With each passing day, he needs me less and less. No longer does he need to nurse every two hours. No longer can I clearly remember how it felt to have him move in my swollen belly. Where we were connected for nine months, then nearly connected for a few more months after that, it’s clear to see he’s becoming increasingly independent and separated from me. While that makes me happy and feel like we’re doing something right, it also makes me realize how much time has passed since his birth. And how fast things will continue to go.

I’ll tell you one thing that never goes back to normal, though, and that’s a breastfeeding mama’s chest.

Meanwhile, Baby Bear is almost an entirely new person. He’s gained roughly 15 pounds, probably 11 or 12 inches, and now has discernible facial features instead of a more generic newborn look. He doesn’t lie around and sleep between feedings anymore, but is a force of nature. He crawls, stands, shuffles, climbs, and dives everywhere (including many places he shouldn’t). He smiles, laughs, mimics, and experiments with sounds and words. He’s responsive, inquisitive, flexible, happy-go-lucky, and fun. More and more do I realize how much of a mind of his own he has, and so far I’m excited to say it’s one of a very thoughtful, loving little boy.

How can a little baby be my best bud?

Situationally, life is significantly different. All throughout my pregnancy and even after Baby Bear was born, I was sure I would go back to work. I barely even entertained the idea of staying home because it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I placed so much of myself in my job and was proud of the work I did. So much so that it was one of the ways I defined myself. When I even thought of not returning, one of my first thoughts was, “Who would I be without a job?” Looking back, this seems ridiculous, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t sure how I’d define my worth if I quit.

The first inkling I had that maybe, just maybe quitting was worth considering was about a week after Baby Bear was born (because, let’s be honest, that first week was a whirlwind in which I was not thinking about work at all). As I sat in the rocking chair in Baby Bear’s dimly lit nursery, holding a peacefully sleeping baby in my arms, panic struck me. How on Earth was I to leave this angelic, completely dependent little being behind to go to the office? Was anything I did there really more important than being with him? It was an idea that took hold and burrowed its way deeper and deeper into my head and heart.

It was those eyelashes. Have you even seen a baby’s eyelashes?

Within a few weeks, I was starting to test out how “stay-at-home mom” sounded when I said it aloud. I was far from committing to it, but I was beginning to entertain the idea. As I looked into Baby Bear’s face and as he gripped my finger with his tiny little hands, I was becoming more certain that my sense of worth was only going to flourish if I stayed home.

Within a few more weeks, I knew it was the right decision for my family. By that point, I absolutely dreaded going back only to give my notice because I didn’t want to feel judged for my decision (the same for which I had shamefully been known to judge others). I also didn’t want people to think that it had been my plan all along and that I had lied about it. I had severe anxiety even up the morning of my first day back (12 weeks is such a joke, by the way). Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised–even shocked–when I received nothing but support and understanding.

Some of my coworkers had made that decision themselves, and hadn’t returned to the workforce until their children were grown. They told me how happy they were for me because they had absolutely never regretted their time at home. Other coworkers had decided to return to work because it was the right move for their families, and they sympathized with how tough of a call it is, especially when babies are still so helpless. A Canadian colleague said it was a shame the U.S. didn’t offer a full year off because then they wouldn’t lose so many good colleagues. It was a flattering, but sadly true comment.

All told, it was an eye-opening moment because it was one of the few times I’ve experienced women coming together to talk about their shared experiences, specifically the shared difficulty they face when considering career and family decisions.

Luckily, I’ve been witness to a lot more of that kind of vulnerability and acceptance in the last year as I’ve found myself surrounded with incredible, positive women. It’s a powerful thing when we support each other and stand united.

Let’s quickly acknowledge that it’s complete bullshit that the U.S. is the only developed nation without paid maternity leave.

A year into the stay-at-home mom thing, I can tell you that I have never for one day regretted the decision to quit. There are certainly some aspects of the job I miss, mostly my coworkers, and I do sometimes wonder how the yet undetermined gap will affect my career in the long run. But when I think of the alternative, I would not change it for a second.

Not that I know any differently, but I think staying at home has given me the opportunity to know every facet of my son’s personality from its inception. I’ve seen his first smile and know the differences between his morning smiles, his tired smiles, his bashful smiles, his excited smiles, and his lovey dovey smiles. I know what toys he prefers when we travel and what toys he prefers before nap time. I know what makes him giggle when nothing else will (jump squats), or least stop crying (a creepy YouTube video of “Wheels on the Bus”). I know myself well enough to know that if I were working full time, I would be over committing myself as usual. I think I’d be less attentive to the minute details that make Baby Bear who he is.

Pause.

Now, don’t misread me. I’m not on a high horse to tell all women that they should stay home because it is what’s best. I fully acknowledge that it’s not the right decision for everyone. For one, women should take pride in the work they do and should continue to do it if it makes them happy. I also know that for many women it isn’t really a choice; they must work to pay the bills.

As a former daycare kid myself, I think kids who have non-parent caretakers turn out wonderfully. My little analysis isn’t about me passing judgment or thinking I have a holier-than-thou answer to life. This is me spending a little time to reflect on my own experience.

While I’m here, I also want to make clear that, while I spend an awful lot of time thinking  and writing about motherhood, I don’t adhere to the belief that women don’t truly understand life until they’re mothers. Some people want kids, some people don’t. I think what’s most important is that you recognize what would make you happy.

In my short time as a mother, I’ve learned kids don’t necessarily make things easier, the path to self-discovery included. (Of course I say this as I’m writing an essay about how my perspective and self-understanding have broadened in the last year). Motherhood isn’t the answer; it just provides a different lens through which to look at the world.

Maybe motherhood is the answer to you. What the hell do I know? My experience is inherently different from yours. That’s what makes life so interesting! Let’s embrace our differences just like we embrace our similarities.

Unpause.

Okay, so I don’t regret quitting. What else has changed in the last year?

Let’s get the bad stuff over with first. I’m way more addicted to my phone than I ever was before. It’s my worst bad habit, and is one that makes me feel incredibly guilty at all times, especially when I look up to see Baby Bear watching me. Honestly, I don’t even care about what’s happening on Facebook, so why do I check it 7,000 times a day?! I hope that with awareness and time, this gets better, especially as Baby Bear starts to engage with me even more.

We’ve also battled a couple pretty bad illnesses over the last year–the norovirus is the pits–but knowing that it could be so much worse helps to keep things in perspective.

And, try as I might to shut it out, I’ve developed the infamous Mom Guilt. It’s so easy to question every single move you make as a mother, especially when the anonymous assholes of the internet shame you on all sides. This is where having a trusted pediatrician and reassuring friends makes all the difference. When I mention how I feel bad about the margaritas I had for dinner the night before, my good friends don’t judge. Instead they ask, “Ooh where’d you get them?!”

I never valued happy hour more than I do now.

Now the positive changes. There are so many!

I thought becoming a mother might make me worry more, and while I have anxieties about all sorts of bizarre things–some of which are rational–I think it’s done the opposite. When thinking of how it’s affected me, I can’t help but immediately note how much more patient I am. In fact, I’d say I’m more patient, open, and reflective. I think these qualities have grown partly because I have more time to grow them. I’m no longer running from one place to another and trying to squeeze in my life after hours. Instead I can stop and observe life around me. I’m not rushed anywhere (though I’m still often late), and if I am, I now realize it’s only myself I have to blame for it.

I don’t even get annoyed when going to the grocery store, doctor’s office, or DMV anymore because I have the time to wait. It’s a miracle!

I also believe this time and reflection have made me kinder. I certainly care more now about the plights of others. I think I was a kind person before, one who cared about people, righting wrongs, and ridding the world of injustice, but I didn’t do much about it. I’m not saying I’m doing a lot about it now, but spending a year watching and interacting with the people in my community certainly makes me want to try harder.

I feel such a passionate need to leave behind a better world for my son, and feel the need now more than ever to lead by example. I’m no longer responsible for just myself, but now have to act on baby’s behalf, too.

As I mentioned in my open letter last month, I feel that Baby Bear is my legacy and I want to ensure as best I can that he is kind and fights for what is right and good. If I don’t act this way now, he won’t learn to either. Maybe another reason I’m supposed to stay home is because it affords me the time to become more active in giving back to my community. Maybe I can become a better and more vocal advocate for change. I’m tired of sitting back idly.

It’s hard to say how I would feel if I were working, but knowing myself and the amount of stress and responsibility I sign up for, I don’t think I’d have the time or energy to give any of these things nearly as much dedication or thought.

Now I do have time for that.

I also think I’m more confident than I was before. It’s hard to tell if this is because I’m getting older or if this is because of motherhood; it’s probably somewhere in between. Unless it affects me, I’ve stopped caring what other people do with themselves and have realized I don’t care what people think of what I’m doing either. I like and am proud of who I am, and I’ve finally accepted that’s what is important. I think it’s also because I’ve worked hard to maintain a sense of self and nurture my friendships and interests. With the help of an involved partner and more-than-willing grandparents, I’m able to exercise, play games, go to the occasional dinner, and read. I prioritize my mental and physical health because it curbs my anxieties and makes me a better friend, partner, and mother.

Happy self, happy life?

This last year has also made me feel more grateful for all of the good in my life. In addition to having the necessities like a roof over my head, plenty of food to sustain me, and an abundance of clothes to keep me warm (or cool), I find blessings everywhere I look.

My family and I have our health and a comfortable lifestyle that allows us to go on fun adventures. We have supportive and generous friends, both new and old, who help make us better people. We have an incredible extended family, including three amazing great-grandparents and four fabulous grandparents. We have a not-so-cuddly but oh-so-sweet dog who begrudgingly allows Baby Bear to tug at his tail and climb on top of him. I have a loving, hard-working, and attentive husband whose support in this whole parenting thing means more than I could possibly describe. I have an adorable and lively little guy whose smile tugs at my heart every single time. Life is good, man.

And I tell you, nothing helps remind you of that more than watching life pass you by. I literally watched the seasons change this year. I go on a lot of walks with the babe and dog and pass by many of the same parks and gardens day after day. Over the course of the year, I saw trees shed their leaves only to blossom again a few months later. I saw flowers wilt and freeze, then bloom with more vibrancy that I could ever recall. I actually bask in the sunlight now, especially in the winter when I’d previously wake up, go to work, and come home in the dark.

I am so thankful for the life I have, for the time I spend with Baby Bear, and for the world around us. This year has allowed me to grow.

To infinity and beyond.

But, now that baby is a year old, many people are starting to ask me what’s next. Will I go back to work soon?

I think there’s a natural tendency we have as human beings to anticipate the “next” thing. “Once X is done, we’ll be able to focus on Y,” or, “Life will be easier once Z is over.” That may be true, and it may be a great way to get through some of the more trying periods in life, but for me, right now, I don’t want to wish away time any faster than it’s already going.

I don’t know what’s next. Yes, I may be missing out on some cool opportunities, but for now I’m happy just being and savoring. I’m doing what’s right for me, what’s right for my family, and damn if I’m not enjoying it.

Cheers to a phenomenal second year. And many more.

 

 

 

[Cover photo source]