Maybe it was actually prophetic, the way I cried and panicked leading up to the day. Maybe deep down, beyond what my family and friends deemed ridiculous tears, I could already sense what was coming. Or maybe, in the credo of those who believe in manifesting, I brought it all down on myself with my late night weep fests over getting older and turning 30. Regardless, back at 29, the thought of thirty candles on my cake freaked me out–yet I still had no idea the impending storm coming my way.
My family, my husband, my friends–they all reassured me thirty was a good thing. I heard champagne promises of the “best years coming” and “stability” and “inner peace.” I bought the thirty lie for a while, imagining myself as Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30–Flirty and Thriving.
But now, at 34, I can honestly tell you–this has NOT been the thriving, flirty decade the movies like to portray. I don’t feel like the women in all the movies I watched growing up, where they confidently strut in stilettos through offices and up career ladders. In my version of my thirties, red lipstick can’t fix everything (trust me, I’ve tried), and there isn’t always a fun New York City club scene to drown your work sorrows in. There isn’t the witty best friend or the cocktail parties to attend. I have a gorgeous sparkly top for work to evening wear events that I have yet to break out.
In truth, for me, my thirties have been an amalgamation of watching the hard work of my twenties pay off–only to find out there are new problems on the horizon.
So far, my thirties have been marked by job loss and financial uncertainty, thanks in part to a world pandemic but also, I think, because it’s life, which is never certain. There have been health scares and threats of war looming in the distance. There have been weird talks of “new normal” and enough changes in the past few years to last a lifetime.
There has been the loss of the beloved dog we bought in our early twenties to go with our white picket fence life we have yet to have time to appreciate. There have been constant answerings to social pressures as to why we, a married couple, don’t want children. There has been looking around at our collection of things and accomplishments as questions like, “What now?” circle endlessly.
There have been existential crises on a daily basis about why I’m here, if I’m living my purpose, and what the hell happiness truly is besides a Starbucks coffee and bag of chocolate. There have been questions of whether or not the dreams I worked so hard for in my twenties are actually even my dreams anymore. There are looming regrets and “What ifs?” and “What’s it all for?”
There have been struggles with a changing body and slowing metabolism. There has been weight gain and wondering if I’m still pretty. There have been constant mental battles over the gray hairs, the wrinkles cropping up, and a wistful look at photos of the past when I was a “better version.”
In short, there has been very little stiletto wearing, cocktail drinking, and strutting with the assurance of the flirty thirties of the movies.
I will admit, I didn’t go into it all blindly. Some people tried to warn me. They told me in my twenties, when I was frantically worrying about finding peace and stability and success to enjoy those years. Your twenties are fun and lighthearted. You’re not expected to really know anything, and hangovers barely feel like anything. They told me to live it up, that they were fun years.
I just didn’t believe them.
People told me that life is tiring and the adult world is full of complex injustices. They told me that money would always be hard and relationships took a lot of work. They told me how exhausting and stressful the 9 to 5 hustle could be.
I still didn’t believe them.
Still, there’s one important piece I think is so often let out, and it’s been the piece I’ve struggled with the most. Because people warned me to enjoy my twenties, but no one told me how the #1 soul killer in your thirties would be something completely unexpected: monotony.
There’s something to be said for settling into your thirties, a life of (hopefully) stability where you’ve sort of figured out the hard stuff. You’ve made the big decisions and perhaps settled into your career. You’ve found a routine and your place in the world. All of this seems like it would secure your thirties as the perfect decade.
But I’ve found–it doesn’t.
First of all, stability, I think, is always a myth. Life is constantly changing, as I’ve learned. You can do all the “right” things and make good choices. Life will still come for you when you’ve least expected because, well, that’s life.
And furthermore, even if you do find solid ground to build your foundation on, you aren’t guaranteed happiness. With the stability come all of the haunting questions.
Is this what I really want?
Is life supposed to be this predictable and dull?
Is this really it for the rest of my life?
Sometimes, I think the hardest thing is waking up in your thirties and realizing this might not be sustaining, that your soul searching isn’t done. Because although the movies want us to believe we’ll have it all sorted out by thirty, the thing I’ve come to learn is: very few of us do.
I write this article not for pity or reassurance from those of you who have passed through this decade. I don’t write this article as a word of warning to those in your twenties. I don’t even write this article to commiserate with my fellow thirty-somethings. I write this article because I think we all need to be reminded, whatever decade we’re in, of a few things.
My thirties haven’t been the gleeful decade I’d hoped for when I hesitantly blew out those thirty candles. Still, they are part of my story. They’re part of my evolution as a person, an evolution I don’t think will ever be done. At least I hope not.
Because now, I’m learning that yes, you are different in your thirties–and that can be a good thing. It’s okay to dream new dreams. It’s okay to still feel a little (or a lot) lost. That’s part of what this whole journey is about.
One of my favorite quotes or mantras is: “You are not a tree.” It reminds me that you don’t ever have to be stagnant in your dreams, your life, or your pursuits. Despite what the movies and media tell us, there isn’t a deadline to self-discovery. If you get to your thirties and find yourself lacking, give yourself permission to dream new dreams, to mix it up, and to find excitement–and that goes for your forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, and beyond, too.
No matter how many candles are on that cake, put on the red lipstick and the stilettos if you want–or go barefoot. Regardless, this life is short. It is your duty to find what lights you up, no matter what your age.
Go fearlessly forward, and don’t let the number of candles stop you. Ever.
USA TODAY Bestselling Thriller author with Avon Books (HarperCollins), The Widow Next Door, The Diary of a Serial Killer's Daughter, and other creepy thriller books