The Big 3-0

Today, I turn thirty. My, how time flies. I was twenty six when I started this blog, and even in spite of how much my life has changed since then, it feels like yesterday.

I’ve heard thirty described as the start of “real” adulthood, whatever that means (I wonder if it means that I’m going to stop forgetting to purchase toilet paper on a regular basis? Or start remembering to make appointments for dental cleanings once a year?). For women in particular, this birthday is surrounded by an unfortunate pall of anxiety, brought on by a sudden barrage of warnings that our biological clocks are ticking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard women—smart, savvy women who are otherwise impervious to the dictates of popular culture—talk about being thirty and “still single.” When I Googled “turning 30,” I found a quote from the movie Something Borrowed. Kate Hudson’s character declares, “You’re 30—you can’t afford to be picky.”

Le sigh.

This kind of thinking presumes that a) our primary purpose as we get older is to find a permanent companion and start procreating and b) if that doesn’t seem imminent, it’s because we need to start expecting less, and compromising more. Aside from the fact that marriage and childbearing are not the necessary hallmarks of happiness, and that a bright future can entail many pursuits other than starting a family, the last thing turning thirty should signify is a loosening of standards. You’ve been alive for three decades. If anything, you have more of a right to know what you want, what you don’t want, and how to distinguish between the two. You should feel more confident being yourself, and less apt to give a darn what other people think. And you can certainly afford to be picky. If being “picky” means higher standards and greater discernment than ever before, I think you should be very picky indeed.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with the desire to marry or have children. But the socially dictated deadlines strike me as limited in an era of IVF, an urgent global need for adoption, and surrogates. Regardless of what your biological clock is doing, you will have ways of exploring parenthood later in life, if you truly wish to—even if they are more challenging and complicated than the norm. And as a reader pointed out below, opting out of childrearing is also a choice that should more respected in our culture than it is. As for companionship, well, it’s an important and wonderful thing. But I don’t feel that it should a singular life goal; indeed, I’d say that building a rewarding and meaningful professional life, fostering deep, lasting, and numerous friendships, assembling a rich base of cultural pursuits, hobbies, and passions that sustain your spirit through hard times, and learning how to be truly content in your own company are just as worthy.

Many of the anxieties that accompany turning thirty have to do not only with the notion of family life, and whether or not it’s underway, but also with confronting our own progress in other arenas: relationships, careers, finances, and so on. Have we accomplished everything we said we would do by thirty? No matter who you are, no matter how immune to unfortunate cultural norms, there’s a good chance that turning thirty makes you pause and consider the life you’re living, and how it compares to the life you thought you’d be living.

Have you ever written a note to your future self? I have. We were asked to do it during our senior year of high school, and we were told that we’d open the letter (which the school would safeguard for us) on our tenth year high school reunion. I wrote all sorts of stuff about what I wanted and hoped to have done by the age of 28. Unfortunately, I also skipped my ten year reunion, so I have no idea what my precise wishes were. I do, though, remember the gist. I said that I wanted a successful, ambitious career. I said I thought I wanted to be a writer or an editor. I said I wanted to be living in New York. I said I hoped that Chloe would still be like a sister to me, and that I’d still be close to all of my dearest female friends.

Today, at thirty, I suppose I’ve been blessed to sustain or achieve everything my younger self wished for, with a couple of important modifications. I no longer yearn for a “successful” career so much as a “fulfilling one.” My career is strange and in a state of flux right now, but I did get to be an editor at the house of my dreams. I don’t write the things I thought I’d write—critical essays, book reviews—but I do write, every day, about things I care about. I’ve managed to keep my closest childhood friendships very much alive, and I’ve made new, lasting friends in the last decade through work. And it goes without saying that Chloe hasn’t gone anywhere.

I can’t remember whether or not my high schooler’s letter contained anything about marriage or kids. It probably did, but I if it did, it’s not the dream I remember most, which may be a part of why this birthday isn’t laden with disappointment or angst. I’m grateful to have loved and felt the joys of companionship in my life, but I’m just as grateful, if not more so, that I’ve learned to savor my independence.

They never ask you to write letters about things you hope won’t happen in the future. If they’d asked me to list things that scared me at the age of 18, there would have been a lot of them: heartbreak, loss, abandonment, sickness, failure, and change. Maybe we don’t catalog those fears because we know that they’re an inevitable part of getting older. Predictably, I’ve encountered them all, but I’ve also grown stronger because of them, taken comfort in their universality, and moved on.

The one thing I never counted on as a teenager—the element of my life at thirty that I’d have dreaded and avoided at all costs if you’d given me the chance to—was uncertainty. I’m no different from most people in that I hate uncertainty, and I’ve spent a good part of my life avoiding it: for my first 29 years, I lived in the same place, stuck to the same habits, and I chose a major and a career I knew I would be good at. Until I decided to become a post-bacc, and everything changed.

A few weeks ago, I attended a good friend’s birthday party in Brooklyn. An hour into the evening, as old friends of mine chattered away about their promotions and careers and down payments and mortgages and upcoming paid vacations, found myself overcome with a sense of gloom. Here I am, struggling to make my way through a program that I may or may not succeed in, pursuing a career I may or may not be cut out for, accumulating loans and debt while I live in a city that doesn’t quite feel like home, and I have no idea—really, no idea at all—what I’ll be doing or where I’ll live in two years. If you’d told me at 18 that I’d be feeling this way at 30, I’d have been horrified.

I recently relayed this story—the birthday party story—to my friend Sam. He smiled and said “well Gena, uncertainty is all around us, whether we’re aware of it or not. The only difference between you and your friends is that you’re more aware of your uncertainty right now.” Wise words, Sam. And it’s true—even the best laid plans can fall through or be overturned, and “stability” of any kind is always a little illusory. At 18, I foolishly believed that, if you pursue the right career and live in the right place and get the right promotions that enable the right level of financial security, you’ll be safe. I’m glad that growing older has at least shown me how naïve that assumption was.

So, here’s to being thirty and uncertain. Here’s to not being sure if I’ll be a doctor or some other sort of healer, to not knowing whether I’m going to have children or not, to not knowing where I’ll live, who my companions will be, where I’ll travel, or who I’ll meet. These open ended questions are as exciting and liberating as they are frightening and strange. May the next decade of my life—and all the ones after—make me braver, bolder, and more courageous. May they enhance my sense of humor and increase my sense of fun. May they fuel my passions and give rise to new ones. May they continue to teach me things. Most of all, may they give me the strength and agility I need to deal with all of the uncertainty that lies ahead.

Thanks for sharing this “big deal” birthday with me, CR readers. And, oh, yeah, before I forget:

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Happy Birthday to me. Those are chocolate avocado cupcakes with chocolate avocado frosting, and they are delicious. And the recipe will be up tomorrow.

xo

Top image source.

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    139 Comments
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  2. Well….bless your sweet heart!!! You are still a child in my eyes. I’m 70 years old and trying to figure what else I have time to do before I die. You have already accomplished more than I have in a lifetime…so be proud. From reading your blog, I love you. Happy Birthday….whenever it is!

  3. Good post. Happy belated b-day to you Gena. What is the feeling that you have attained that age now? I like your cupcakes, it looks delicious.

  4. Dear Gena, a happy belated from me also, a solid decade (+) older, it just gets better and better in your 30’s, the things that were not apparent come into focus, things that were complicated to understand about people reveal themselves in a way that makes it seem obvious, it is a great great decade. And I LOVE your post, you are already there, are so SO wise. I hope that you get all of the things that you want out of life, medicine, marriage and babies, but I love that you are open to all possibilities, which I think guarantees that you will find happiness– as you are not fixated on the ONE way to be happy. You are evolving it. Thanks for being an inspiration, there are so many things that I read in this post that inspire me- felt that you were talking right at me in some spots. Amazing. All the very best to you Gena.

  5. A very happy belated birthday. Congratulations on reaching the big 3-0. As a particularly philosophical Passport Control officer once remarked to me in Switzerland on seeing an imminent birthday on my papers – “What a privilege it is to be able to grow older”. Wise words indeed.
    I loved, loved, loved your comments about uncertainty. I am 42, and an artist/ photographer who meets the bills through bar work.The last 7 years have been full of uncertainty and changes of location (I think 500 miles has been the biggest move so far), and, yes, like you, I have sat through married friends’ conversations about their holidays/ mortgages/ school fees etc etc, and come away wondering if I am somehow immature and unfocused because I haven’t knuckled down and followed the same path, but with all this certainty and prescribed activity, I hear the loud clanging of prison doors, a swallowing of wider horizons and the beauty of endless possibilities. The greatest gift we can hope for is to be able to live our lives with honesty, integrity and love, and the courage to forge our own path in the world. And you are certainly doing this.
    Much love to you, Gena, on your big day. Enjoy a glass of bubbly (kombucha or otherwise) for all of us.

  6. Happy belated birthday Gena! As a soon-to-be graduate about to throw myself into a career for this first time, so much of what you’ve relayed here is so comforting to read. And I won’t even begin about the pressure to get married and start procreating – pretty sure my extended family have a long list of potential suitors for me (man, I wish I was kidding). Can I just say that if I’m half as wise and level headed as you are by the time I’m 30, I’ll consider myself extremely lucky – uncertainty be damned!

  7. I’m 6 months in and I LOVE 30. LOVE IT! I feel like I’m finally figuring out who I am, without trying to be who people think I should be, or who I think people think I should be. Just plain old me. I’m having fun for sure.

    One of my favorite movies is 13 going on 30, I love the quote “30 Flirty and Thriving”.
    Happy birthday to you (a little late) and to know that we are all exactly where we are supposed to be and where ever that is, it is totally ok. Goals are great, but living in the moment is much sweeter. Now I must go read about those cupcakes!

  8. This post is one of the reasons why I adore you, Gena. Happy birthday and best wishes for many more years of brilliant, exciting, rewarding, terrifying, life-changing years of wringing the best out of what life has to offer.

  9. Happy birthday Gena! I think it’s so brave that you pointed out the fact that everyone has some sort of uncertainty, but we are more aware of it at some points than at others. At 24, my entire future is uncertain. I’m making a major career change after 6 years of higher education in one field. And at this point, my move within 3 months is even uncertain. My boyfriend and I had a conversation yesterday about how both of us are content not even considering marriage. We’ve been together for 2 years, and most people who hear that ask when we’ll marry. They look at us like we’re nuts when we say we don’t know if we will, because it’s not our defining life goal. Thanks for the affirmation!

  10. Happy Birthday, Gena!! I just turned 28. I feel lucky that many of my friends are older than I am so that the prospect of entering my 30s in two years seems less scary- it looks like a second rounds of 20s to me, with a bit more wisdom and often more leverage. I think it’s much more stage than age- and you’ve returned to a youthful stage moving to a new city and going back to school! Learning, taking risks, and being open-minded keep us young. I hear you about the anxiety of uncertainties, it’s always hard.

  11. Aww Gena, great post! Coming from someone quite like the “younger self” you describe, this post gives me hope in an odd sort of way. I suppose that amidst a world of uncertainty, it gives me comfort in knowing that we all face this very same uncertainty together. Happy 30th birthday, and thank you for providing a bit of perspective. 🙂

  12. Happy belated birthday Gena! I hope you had a wonderful day celebrating. Thank you for sharing this post, I completely relate. I am turning 30 in August and for the past 9 months it didn’t strike me as being “different” from any other year but as of late these feelings start creeping up ‘what am I doing with my life?’, ‘will i ever get married?’, ‘what truly makes me happy and is that the path I am following?’, and ‘will I ever own anything more expensive then my Blend-tec?’ But you know, I try and remind myself that following my dreams is an amazing thing and while society promotes a somewhat cookie-cutter kind of life, it is something that has never appealed to me. Being different, taking chances, continuous learning are such amazing experiences and they only make us better. Here is to a another decade of the unknown and wonderful. Wishing you the best day ever!

  13. GENA! Happy birthday! You are so amazing. This post is so relatable, even now, as I’m 22-years-old. I know how you are feeling with your post-bacc program…it’s very uncertain and lonely, and the light at the end of the tunnel is often SO hard to pinpoint. Despite that, I know your future only holds amazing this for you. It’s so cliche but you’re just too special, intelligent, articulate, and wonderful for something good to NOT happen to you. I admire you more than you know and am always astounded by your writing skills and intelligence – and admittedly, a bit intimidated by it too. 😉 …in the best of ways. Anywho, I hope you had an amazing birthday. You deserve happiness in every form it greets you in life. Sending you lots of love! <3

  14. Happy (Belated) Birthday, Gena! You are such a beautiful writer. I hope you enjoyed a fitting celebration!

    I have what many on the outside would view as a “stable life,” however, it is also filled with uncertainty about what might happen next. I think that comes from a place of desire to continue growing, meeting the world, and challenging myself. Something tells me your desires and ambitions will always do the same for you!

    Congratulations on a wonderful 30 years. You’ve inspired so many people through this blog, and you’ve been a dependable backbone in my decision and pursuit to eat plant-based, for myself and for the animals. Thank you!

  15. Happy belated birthday Gena, and what a wonderfully written post!

    Not sure if I liked it so much as I could relate to a number of points in it, or simply because you write so eloquently. My big 30 is coming this October and with that, I certainly have pondered many of the same questions you wrote about. I’ve been pursuing a career in finance and economics, knowing I am good at it and thinking it would bring me the most SUCCESS. The fault here was that I undermined the most important factor, FULFILLMENT, as you pointed out. Eventually I got courage to start a new chapter and pursue my passion in the health and wellness field. I’ve never been happier, more fulfilled and excited about work! Yes, there are challenges along the dream path but they will be overcome, as our inner voice is stronger.

    Bottom line is that our book can not be written without multiple chapters, whether we like it or not. Turn the page, exhale, be thankful for the things you do have in your life, and start writing. Your story is going to be a great one!

    Cheers to knowing exactly what you want, exactly what you don’t want, and most importantly following your inner voice!

  16. Having just turned 30 and having read many meditations on other people’s experiences doing so, this authentic post really resonated with me. Our vulnerability is real at any and every age and you are a brave woman whose contributions-and writing skills- will continue to grow regardless of relationship/job status, and that’s what really matters.

  17. Happy birthday one more time, friend. As someone who’s already gone through much of what you’re writing about, I can tell you this: you are very wise at 30. And I suspect you were wise at 18, and will still be wise at 50. . .husband, kids, mortgage, medical career. . . or not. Much love and festive birthday wishes! xo

  18. Thank you, Gena, for sharing your thoughts on entering your thirties. Uncertainty can be scary, or it can be terribly exciting. How wonderful is it that we never know what there is to come in our lives?! If it something we don’t care for, we do know that it isn’t permanent, since impermanence is the only certainty. 🙂

    I am almost 32, and I know how it feels to be not where you had expected. If I let myself brood over it for awhile, I start to get worried that maybe I made the wrong choices or that I won’t “make it.” It takes realizing and recognizing that the past and the future do not exist. All that exists is this moment and the fact that you are living, breathing, and being passionate about what you are doing. What more do we need?! We are so blessed!

    Happy, happy, birthday! I hope you have a fabulous day! Welcome to your thirties! 🙂

  19. Thanks for sharing and being so honest! I will be honest, when I turned thirty I went into a 3 month depression because I felt like I had not accomplished anything. I compared myself to others in my profession and felt worthless. Also being single didn’t help with all my friends getting married and having children. But then I remembered that I’ve NEVER wanted that, I’ve never been traditional and I had plenty of things to be proud of. I’m a self-made woman, with her own business and I make the rules in my life. I wouldn’t trade that for anyone else’s life. I kind of thrive off the uncertainty. Life is never boring that way 🙂 Though I do hope to meet someone special (just in case any single guys read your blog lol!)

  20. Thank you for such an authentic post on a topic I think about a lot. And thank you for making this simple yet very important statement: “opting out of childrearing is also a choice that should more respected in our culture than it is”.

    And thank you for continuing to inspire your readers to respect their bodies and embrace delicious plant based meals!

  21. Happy birthday Gena!! I can totally relate with the whole feeling uncertain about where things are headed, and I’m sure you’ll do wonderfully however things may turn out!

  22. Happy birthday. Where I come from (Montréal, Québec), we have a saying that basically reads: women are at their most beautiful at 30. So enjoy! And keep posting (really looking forward to that yummy-looking cupcake recipe).

  23. Happy Birthday!!!! And honey, relax. The thirties are amazing. Fabulous. You have this awesome feeling that you sort of know where you’re going, but not really but you’re smart enough to make great choices and if something goes wrong you’ve got time to make it up….and I know this may raise a few eyebrows but physically, thirty year olds look fantastic! I just turned 40 and am struggling slightly with the whole getting older, having children, etc thing but just from experience let me tell you, enjoy your thirties….it’s an amazing time to get sh*t done and prepare to be a grown up, because you don’t have to do that until you’re waaaay older 😉

  24. Happy birthday Gena, and may it be absolutely amazing! I love this post for so many reasons, especially because I have always felt the same way about uncertainty (although I’m getting better). I also appreciate this post for reminding me about all of the things that truly matter. I may be a little less than a decade away from turing thirty, but in the face of many of my college friends knowing exactly who they want to spend their lives with (whenever I talk to people getting married after graduation I get freaked out) and being the last unmarried/unattached girl in my extended family, much to the chagrin of all my relations, this post helped to ground me in all the best of ways. I know what I think I want, but if that changes, it’s okay, as long as I have the people I know will love and support me no matter what–my friends and family. Thank you again for this thoughtful post!

  25. Happy birthday, Gena! My 30th is coming up too, and you and I are totally in the same boat. I have faith that everything will work out for both of us though! And I have absolutely no doubt that you will be successful in anything you choose to do!

    Not sure if your cupcakes are gluten-free, but if they are, you should enter them in my 2nd annual gluten-free birthday cake challenge: http://www.thedailydietribe.com/2012/06/2nd-annual-gluten-free-birthday-cake.html

  26. Thank you for always being so open and honest in your writing. Hoping you had the happiest of birthdays, which I believe should not be marked as milestones, but simply as celebrations of life!

  27. great post! i’m a week away from my 3-0 and all of this has been rattling around in my head. ideas of career, self, family, purpose, and overall priorities have been overwhelming to process, so it is really nice to read your feelings/experience

  28. This is the best post about growing older that I’ve ever read. Thank you. I’m 32 and feeling uncertain; and this is both reassuring and helps put things into perspective.

  29. Happy Birthday Gena!!!! I copied the last paragraph of your post because it really resonated with me. I’m 35, just resigned from my teaching job, started a website, enrolled in a Health Educator’s program this summer and have made the decision not to have kids…. for now anyway. It’s scary, but exciting at the same time and when I too realized that those deadlines were just imposed on us from society and that I didn’t have to follow them, I became much happier!

  30. Great wisdom in this post Gena. Happy Birthday! Can’t wait to see the recipe for those cupcakes either 😉

  31. You have SOOOOOO many comments that I’m sure you’ll never read this one, but this post struck me because at 25 I panicked and married a guy I didn’t love JUST TO GET MARRIED, because, you know, getting married and having babies is THE THING TO DO. It was twelve years of hell, but I stuck it out because I’m Christian and God hates divorce.

    The prostitutes were the last straw, and I walked away from everything but my kids… the three of us started a new life from nothing.

    At 38, I met my soul mate and man of my dreams that God created JUST for us, and 6 months later I’m so incredibly happy and… PREGNANT. 🙂 HANG in there, please. I just turned 39, and have never been happier.

    I WISH I had held out for the One. Hoping you find your happily ever after.