Sweat beading on my forehead as my stomach sank, I bolted awake and tried to wipe away the nightmare. But those thirty candles flickering on the cake were not some unrealistic phantasm of my imagination–they were a fast-approaching reality. The nightmare was coming for me, and at twenty-nine, I feared those candles more than any monster that could prey on me while I slept.
My fear of thirty potentially started with Jennifer Garner’s appearance in the movie Thirteen Going on Thirty, where a thirteen-year-old girl wishes she could be thirty, flirty, and thriving. When magic happens and she wakes up as a thirty-year-old, she realizes her life is nothing like she could have wished. Her thirties were not, in fact, thriving because she’d made all the wrong choices. The movie infused my then teenage self with terror.
Maybe, too, my fear stemmed from a social standard all around me–and the women’s magazines I used to steal from my mom. They made your 20s look like a wild cocktail party while your 30s, in contrast, were about settling down. Your 20s required, according to the magazines, a lot of sparkly, work to after-work looks, while your 30s just required a smart blazer and a great appetizer recipe. Talk about game over.
Regardless of where the fear started, in my late 20s, I found myself terrified of turning the big 3-0. I would jolt awake night after night, thinking about how I was going to be that troubling age soon. I was terrified of the prospect I had hit my peak–and, to be honest, I wasn’t that impressed with the peak of my life if that was it. I dreaded watching my body age and of having to have life figured out when I still felt like a teenager on the inside.
I sit here now just days away from turning thirty-five, half-way through the decade that haunted me.I won’t lie–it hasn’t been a perfect or easy decade in any way. I suffered a lot of loss in the past five years, including the loss of my soul dog, Henry (our mastiff). My husband lost his job, and we spent a few years in financial scarcity. I lost my passion for teaching, my career, and switched jobs, which has been wonderful but also tough. It’s been a decade, so far, of change and fluctuations, of questioning and soul-searching with few concrete answers.
Remembering that twenty-nine-year-old’s panick, I wish I’d known then what was really to come with those candles. I wish I’d understood what turning thirty meant and what it didn’t mean, for better or worse. So, whether you’ve already hit the milestone of thirty or you’re getting ready to face that warped birthday song, I hope you’ll glean some understanding about your own journey in your thirties from what I’m sharing below.
1. Yes, your body does change in your 30s.
Recently, I saw a study that mentioned how metabolism doesn’t change as she ages. Other scientists argue that it does due to fluctuating hormones. Regardless, I’m here to tell you on a purely anecdotal level: your metabolism is going to shift. I swear on the skinny jeans that stopped fitting in my thirties, which are still balled up on the floor of my closet.
As soon as I turned thirty, even looking at a cookie added a pound. I found that I had to clean up my eating habits to stay healthy–and not from a size standpoint but from an energy standpoint. If I threw fast food and sweets into my mouth with the wild abandon from my twenties, I would not have the energy to power through my day. Also, those glasses of wine I liked to toss back on the weekends suddenly seemed to lead to a migraine-inducing, comatose state the next morning like I’d never experienced.
In short, your body will change. Your metabolism will change. I’d like to put a positive spin on this and tell you it’s all okay–but in truth, I really do miss those cookie-eating, wine guzzling binges of my twenties that didn’t seem to have any effect.
2. You still won't know what you want to be when you grow up.
There’s this myth in our society that your 20s are for exploring and sorting through who you are. They’re for adventuring and switching jobs. They’re for figuring it out so you can be set in your 30s and stable.
But I’m here to tell you that you still might not know what you want to be when you grow up in your 30s–and that’s more than okay. There is no cutoff to career happiness or to finding what fulfills you. Also, what makes you happy in your 20s might not fit you anymore in your 30s. As you change, perhaps your dreams will, too. I think the best gift you can give yourself is to cut the deadline for “figuring it all out” and to be flexible with what sets your soul on fire.
3. Society will tell you that you've peaked. You haven't.
There’s this tendency to see thirty as an endpoint, both good and bad. Society tells you that you’ll have your shit together by thirty, but also that you’ve lived your most exciting moments by then. They are wrong. Wow, are they wrong.
There’s a new glow that comes when you reach thirty, mostly because of #4. When you learn to stop living for social standards and for others’ validation, your life begins in a new way. You walk differently through life. You seize new opportunities because they light your heart up. Sure, you might still fumble. You still might have doubts, and you still fall prey sometimes to questioning your worth. But overall, your thirties will bring a newfound sense of confidence that comes with experience, with maturity, and with aging.
Once you understand that, you understand the most important truth: It really isn’t about the candles at all. It’s about your inner confidence. Once you can own that, you can own any age.
4. You'll learn to validate yourself. It's freeing.
The same way a switch seems to be flipped in your metabolism when you blow out those thirty candles, I think an “I don’t give a shit” switch is also flipped. I’ve found that in my thirties, I just don’t care as much about what people think of me. So my side part and skinny jeans are out of style? That’s okay. I love them. So you think I dance weird or that I’m too quiet or too loud or too bossy? Okay. I’ll sleep just fine. You hate the career path I picked? Luckily, it’s mine to travel and not yours.
I can hear my twenty-something self reading those statements and audibly gasping. There was a fatal flaw with my twenty-something self, though–she cared a heck of a lot about the opinions of others. She was worried about image, about living right, about others’ validation. The beautiful gift your thirties can bring if you let them is that you’ll learn to live for yourself and validate yourself–and more importantly, you’ll understand that it’s not selfish to do exactly that. If I’d have understood that at twenty-nine, perhaps I would have had more well-rested nights.
5. You won't survive--you'll thrive.
Like any stage of life, your thirties won’t be a cakewalk. You’ll shift friendships and relationships. You’ll struggle to prioritize. You’ll spend a lot of time wondering if you’re living out your purpose. You’ll stumble and triumph. You’ll move mountains some days and barely get out of bed others. You’ll face all sorts of hardships, successes, challenges, opportunities, and experiences. But you know what? Just like your twenties, you’ll find a way to not only survive but thrive. Your thirties aren’t perfect, but neither is any other decade. Still, turning thirty should never keep you awake at night with a sense of dread. Instead, your thirties are a way to showcase who you are, how far you’ve come, and to set yourself up for the next part of your adventure.
So whether you’ve already blown out those thirty candles or are just getting ready to, I hope you can not only come to terms with your thirties but really value the magic they can bring to who you are.
So blow out those candles–all thirty, forty, eighty, or one hundred of them–and know that every decade has the possibility to be magic, pure magic.
L.A. Detwiler is the USA Today Bestselling thriller author of The Widow Next Door, The Diary of a Serial Killer's Daughter, and numerous sweet romance novels. She is married to her junior high sweetheart and works as a Communications Specialist. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, their rescue cats, and their Great Dane, Edmund.
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