My mom once told me that she cried her eyes out on her 30th birthday. She felt bad about how little she had accomplished, or at least, how her accomplishments hadn’t met her expectations. I’m assuming we all are familiar with the stereotypes associated with turning 30. Supposedly, by 30 one should have an established (good paying) career, a vehicle, a house, be married, have at least one child or have such a successful career that you’re traveling and changing the world. A 30 year old is supposed to be reaping the benefits from all of that hard work in his/her 20’s. These stereotypes lead us to believe that 30 marks a point in your life where everything should have come together for you and all because of you.
Today is my 30th birthday. I’ve thought about what this day would be like on many occasions, particularly over the last few years. But, here I am, alive. The sun rose this morning just as it always does. It’s Monday and people everywhere cursed under their breath as they began the daily grind. There’s a sink full of dirty dishes that I’ll have to tackle eventually, like most days. I just made my typical second cup of coffee. I’ll pay my phone bill today, just as I do on the 20th of every month. Big deal if today is my birthday. It’s just another day, right? Right?
Who am I kidding; I know that’s not true…this time. It isn’t just another day, or even just another birthday. This 30th year of my life marks a milestone in my evolution, so to speak. I realize that societal pressures and stereotypes about turning 30 are responsible for some of the anxiety I’m experiencing, but truthfully the concept of time became noticeably real a couple years ago. How time flies. I can remember turning 20 and getting second piercings in my ears because I felt like an adult. I’m not sure how additional piercings represent adulthood, but that logic only proves I truly was just a kid. I didn’t yet have a clue what it meant to be an adult.
That is perhaps one of the most striking aspects about all of this – I’m an adult. In my early 20s I waited tables while attending college. I reached a burnout point and despised being a server because I was disrespected so often, but I could always pull myself through another shift as I envisioned the “adult” me as a successful professional. At 22 I hadn’t yet finished college; it took me 6 years rather than 4, mostly because I wasn’t exactly organized and had little guidance. At 23, I imagined that by 30 I’d be this sophisticated cultural anthropologist/writer/ethnographer/women’s rights activist. I thought I’d have traveled and published some of my research but also be working on a few fictional novels. Of course, I would’ve completed my Master’s degree, if not be in the final stages of a Ph.D. I was going to change the world. That’s right. That little brunette waitress serving you your fried shrimp was going to be somebody, you just didn’t know it yet.
I don’t think my goals were unrealistic, especially because there are many people who have shared and achieved those same goals. Bless them. It was the way I believed the world functioned that set me on the path to disappointment. I tackled life with the belief that hard work always pays off and that it always should. That I’d be rewarded with prosperity, happiness and respect after completing a goal and I believed that to be true success. I thought I’d be “discovered” through and by my work – as if there were somebody watching and waiting for me to ripen. A large part of me hoped that I was special (as I had been brought up to think) or had a unique perspective and a decent chunk of me truly believed that. Because of this, unbeknownst even to me, I thought things would simply fall into place and that opportunities would pour in. It would be up to me, at that point, which path to take and any path I chose would be rewarding in some fashion. I deserved only the best right? Now I’m not so sure.
I can’t completely bash the ideals which compelled me to desire success – I am still proud of my education and my quest to find fulfilling work has not ended. However, years ago I didn’t yet know of real competition or accountability. My actions, should they be negative (and many times were) could be justified and dismissed without being a reflection of my character. It was always the worlds’ fault if something didn’t work out. Don’t get me wrong. I was and always have been hard on myself and highly critical of anything that I did. There was a love/hate relationship there, but I didn’t see myself as part of a bigger picture – one where we’re ALL striving to find fulfillment. I didn’t know that my desire wasn’t any more important than that of someone else. This resembles selfishness and arrogance (and is to a degree) but I will partially attribute this to being a product of the time. There are theories on the subject of Generation Y and its sense of entitlement. This article provides a simplistic yet accurate explanation about the very thing I have been afflicted with. I highly recommend giving it a go.
If turning 30 indicates some element of wisdom, I’d say that I’ve been humbled. Life has not been easy and I have made some terrible decisions – some I’m still shuddering over and cleaning up. I am not special in the sense that my life will be any more influential, helpful or that my struggles are more deserving of acknowledgement. Maybe I will make a difference in the lives of others in some way, but I’d deserve no more gratitude than others who help, too. Hard work can pay off…but only if I keep it up and believe in the reasons why I do it. I’ve learned that I can find success without needing consistent praise from others and that my personal success should be defined by me, not everyone else. There will be no finish line swarmed with cheering fans applauding me simply for living my life.
I suppose that could all sound like I’ve thrown in the towel when it comes to my dreams. This is not true at all. With each mistake and setback I’ve had I discovered just how human I am. Some of my biggest setbacks include being penniless and having a drinking problem, having to quit grad school due to a depressive episode, being fired from a good job and having to move back in with my mom for a while at 28. Let’s say that on the surface I appeared to have everything together but I was secretly (and eventually not so secretly) living the life I thought I was above. I thought I was “special” and “talented”. Yet, there I was scrounging together coins to get on the subway so I could make an attempt at a job interview. I remember once having to ask the guy I had just started seeing if he could buy me groceries. I had become pathetic. It was a humbling moment to have realized that I was just as susceptible as everyone else to a future filled with pain and struggle; in fact, that was exactly where I was headed. Deep shame filled my heart and I finally realized that NOTHING fulfilling was ever going to just happen, I had to do the work. I wasn’t born more deserving of anything than anyone else.
I’m in a much better place now, and I’m on the brink of making some major life changes such as a new career, marriage and children. I’m living with my boyfriend whom has taught me much more about love than I thought humanly possible. Selfless love. Love free from guilt. Love was probably the first thing I thought I was undeserving of but I’ve been learning that it’s the opposite. If turning 30 required from everyone a single phrase about life, I’d say – IT GOES ON. Let your mistakes, no matter the scale, be your teacher as you move forward. Don’t let giving up be an option. If you need to slow down, take a step back or even pause for a moment in life, don’t feel that you’ve failed. When you’re ready, you can make your next steps the best yet. Don’t bog your life down by proving how “different”, “special” and “unique” you are, rather, reveal your true character through actions – actions you can feel proud of. You may discover aspects of yourself that set you apart, but don’t do them just to be different. Apply meaning to your actions.
Over the last few years, I’ve feared turning 30, but this decade is one where I hope to keep my biggest mistakes behind me. Many wonderful memories come to mind about my 20’s and I can remember a time where I never wanted to grow older. Life was just that much fun. But that life was exhausting…and empty. There was little stability and I was lonely whether I admitted it or not. Perhaps the loneliest feeling is being a stranger to yourself and letting it get so far that you don’t even know who you are anymore. Nor do you care. I’m choosing for this day, my 30th birthday, to not be tear or regret filled. Naturally, getting older isn’t an easy pill to swallow but I am ready to feel the freedom that comes with granting myself acceptance and moving on from there.
I have been plucking out the grays that have begun sprouting and I just ordered a 3 pack of retinol cream. THAT part of aging is another story, for another time.