It is the eve of my 29th birthday and it’s the first time I have approached a birthday with dread. I know, I know. Sixty year old me will look back on this and laugh, saying how young I really was. But to me, this feels like those final moments on the first big hill of a roller coaster, the clack clack clack as the cars ride up the track to the crest, the pit of your stomach knotted, preparing itself for the drop.
Why, oh why, do I see my thirties as a freefall into—well, what? Into a place I don’t want to go, is all I can muster.
About a month ago I was getting myself ready for an event and when I combed through my bangs, 5 or 6 gray hairs revealed themselves. I shrank back in horror, as if from maggots found under a trash can lid. I’m not even 29! Isn’t this too early? I thought as I frantically used mascara to cover up the shameful strays.
It’s not just my hair. My body is changing too—I haven’t needed to go up a size, but I just know that now, I’m a lot less likely to be mistaken for a coltish teenager. For some reason I always thought it was pregnancy and motherhood that made a woman widen, sag, and dimple. Apparently, it was just age. Youth’s cloak of invincibility is falling off me, and now I am coming of age, but not in a good way.
Thirty just seems huge, and twenty-nine feels like a heartbeat away from it. My good friend turned thirty last month, and as we talked about age, she mentioned that birthdays are only bad when you’re not where you wanted to be at the age you are turning. She said this as we stood in her large new house where she lives with her husband, toddler, and infant. This is where she wanted to be at thirty. She is satisfied.
And, I suppose, that is why I am not. It’s not only about where I am—or where I’m not—now in life, but where I’ve been. I’m realizing that I’ve viewed my twenties as the best chapter of my life: when I am young and beautiful and free and have the whole world unfurling before me. I finished college and traveled to some twenty countries and went to grad school and fell in love and got married. I’m glad I did all these things in my twenties—I just wish I could do them all over again. Well, maybe just the traveling part. I’ll keep my same degrees and husband, thank you.
But did I make the most of my twenties, I wonder? Facebook floats different scenarios before my eyes every day as I watch my peers document their second, third, even fourth pregnancies; others have taken ambitious and sometimes even glamorous career tracks. I’ve never had much career ambition, but I’m not ready for the kid thing either. It’s not just that I’m not ready for the exhaustion, the temper tantrums, the dealing with another person’s bodily functions on a regular basis. It’s that to me, it seems that having a baby would catapult me into a level of adulthood that scares me to death. It would be pressing a fast forward button on my life, when I’m at that cusp of semi-young adulthood and legitimate adulthood.
Sitting with a friend the other day, she looked at her 6-month-old son and said, “Sometimes I think, I’m going to blink, and he’s going to be graduating from high school, and I’m going to be 50.” Terror seized me for a moment. Fifty!? I’m never having a baby! My friend Jane, sitting on the opposite side of the room, rocked her baby Eden. She commented how, since having their baby, it seems like she and her husband have “crossed over.” They are now in the world of families, playdates, being home by seven so the baby could sleep. All I could think about were mom haircuts, drooping breasts, that kind of frazzled resignation you sometimes see in mothers of young children. It all seems inevitable to happen to me in my thirties, just as college graduation, travel, and “growing up” seemed inevitable for my twenties.
And yet as I reflect on this fear I have of my thirties, I see that I haven’t grown up nearly as much as I thought I had. Sure I’ve learned to pay my own bills and manage my own affairs, to navigate awkward social and professional situations and carry myself like a woman instead of a girl. But I’m not gracious like the ideal self I wanted to be at (almost) thirty, I’m not comfortable in my own skin, I have not yet found the career path of my dreams, and I still don’t know how to deal with major (and sometimes not so major) stress without having a meltdown. So I guess that’s where I wanted to be at this age. My idea of a grown up. Not the tired stressed out kind, but the confident, warm, interesting kind.
“Grow up?” Frederick Buechner once wrote. “For old people isn’t it a little too late? For young people isn’t it a little too early? I do not think so. Never too late, never too early, to grow up, to be holy.” That last line runs through my head like a mantra. Never too late, never too early, to grow up, to be holy. Am I young or am I old? It depends on who you ask. My teenage students might see me as ancient, while my 86-year-old grandmother sees me with my life ahead of me.
To help myself breathe again, I remember: in my thirties, my task will not be to bear and nurture children, to climb a career ladder, to collect more travel experiences. My task will be the same as it was in my twenties, as it will be in my seventies: to grow up, to be holy.