An Open Letter To Everyone Who Still Feels Like A Hot Mess In Their 30s
Above photos: Getty Images
This week, I turn 30-something. I'd rather not reveal the exact number of years I've been alive because everyone else in my office is a zygote in comparison and I don't want to start sitting alone at lunch, shunned like an undercover narc whose cover has been blown. Also, because society has primed me to view aging as a failure, I'm trying to stave off utter despair around this birthday via a combination of denial and delusion, the latter being that I can still pass for 25. (I most assuredly cannot.)
The worst part of this age-related shame is that I have no control over it. It's not like any other experience in my life—I can’t just fail, pick myself up and try again. I can't try again to be younger. The number of years I've been alive is not up for debate, and even if I try not to define myself by it, society is not so generous.
To add insult to injury, I've accomplished exactly zero things one is meant to accomplish by this age, according to American societal standards. I don't have a boyfriend, let alone a husband. I don't have children. My bank account is laughable most days, my credit score weep-worthy and the prospect of owning property a joke given I'm barely scraping by on rent for my one-bedroom. It goes without saying, then, that this was not where I thought I'd be at this age, and the looming birthday is a prime opportunity to indulge in unproductive regret and a cause of mounting anxiety.
So there you have it, all the negative feelings I have around turning 30-something-I-refuse-to-reveal; however, that's not the full story. I know I'm not the only one who thought her adult life would look totally different than it does. (Shouldn't it be more adult, for starters?) Here, all the reasons I'm actually so happy it doesn't.
1. The Adventures
I grew up in small-town Texas, buried in books and dreaming of adventures. We never traveled when I was a child, unless you include annual(-ly miserable) trips to Orlando. My parents worked nine-to-fives and the whole of my youth, while idyllic in some ways, was unremarkable. Today, I've got more stamps in my passport than I can count and at various times have lived in Los Angeles, New York and Bali, all places I moved to on a whim with no plan and no safety net. I've fallen in love on at least three continents, and count one day in a place called Petrópolis, Brazil, as one of the happiest of my life. I could've married the first person who proposed back when I was 25, or I could have done all this. One isn't necessarily better than the other, but when I look back at the experiences I've accumulated by choosing the latter, I can't say I have any regrets.
2. The Trials
In 2014, I suffered what my therapist called a breakthrough but I think is more commonly referred to as a breakdown. I quit my job, left town and reset my entire life. Though I was successful, had an insane social calendar and was never short on suitors, I was living a life that didn't feel authentic to me and it took its toll. The aftermath felt (and still feels) a bit like being reborn—equal parts painful and miraculous—but I'm about a thousand times more comfortable in my own skin now, so it's been worth the struggle. I have a friend who went through something similar, but she was married at the time, and her rebirth involved a painful divorce whereas mine found me meditating in the jungle. Again, I'm not saying one is better than other—they both sucked in their own ways—but I wouldn't trade my Bali experience for anything in the world and sometimes I wonder if I would've realized who I am (as opposed to who I was pretending to be) from within a relationship. Being single makes it hard to ignore that nagging voice in your head because, well, you're alone with it a lot.
3. The Realizations
I don't know if I want the things I always thought I would want at this age. As a child, I never questioned getting married—my parents have been married for 43 years. But for now, wedded bliss is not something I'm actively pursuing, I feel like too much of a gypsy to settle into something forever. As for kids, I know I want them and always have, but I'm 30-something-I-refuse-to-reveal and I'm starting to think maybe it just wasn't meant to happen. Though the biological impulse is strong (just ask the guys on Raya I mention "baby" to within five minutes of chatting), intellectually I'm no longer sure. I like to blow with the wind, and though I think it's a rather lovely quality (look at me, attempting a positive self-image!), I don't think it creates the best circumstances for child-rearing.
When it comes to work, I left a high-powered job running an entire marketing department to be a freelance writer. Now I'm an editor, but I still have less responsibility and lower wages than I did on my prior career track. I'm okay with that, because I'm about 10,000 times happier—work no longer feels like work (most days). I still have lofty goals I hope to accomplish, and more income wouldn't hurt, but everything in life is a trade-off, and I'm content with the one I've made. I knew none of this about myself at age 25 or 28, and now I feel much more confident in my ability to make choices for my long-term happiness.
4. The Future
Sure, I envy friends who have gorgeous homes in the Pacific Palisades, perfect children and a choice whether or not to go to work each day. Some days, I envy them so much I have to hide them from my social fields. That said, their paths are set, and mine is not. That's scary AF, but it's also exhilarating. I have no idea what my life will look like in the future, and given there's a long road ahead, I'm kind of happy about that. I get bored easily and I can't imagine knowing the gist of what the next 20 to 50 years will look like. I'm not saying those who are married with children do, I'm just saying I could up and move to London next month, I could find myself knocked up with twins, I could sell a book, fall in love, join a convent (ha!) ... the possibilities for a life-altering, major change are endless. So rather than looking at myself as a failure, someone who hasn't met arbitrary goals that mark success in our society, I choose to see myself as someone who has simply gone off script. To me—an artist at heart if not in practice—the act of creating my own life without any blueprint is the most exciting and rewarding challenge I could ever imagine for myself. If what I end up with looks more abstract than defined, I don't think it's any less worthy an achievement.