I turn thirty tomorrow. The big 3-0.
Thirty is a pretty powerful number. I mean, we have 30 day sobriety chips and Whole30 and 30 day fasts and 13 Going On 30.
But what does 30 mean for me? Well, right not, not very much. I’ve been pretty focused on finishing my doctoral degree, which seems like much more of an accomplishment than having a birthday. Plus, I still have young skin, young hair, and a young voice. These three things combined frequently convince my church friends and Panera servers that my 23-year-old sister is older than me. I am healthy. I am strong. I sleep well (most days). I can still stay up past midnight (sometimes) and I still go to concerts (if there are chairs). I would forget that I’m getting older except for my new desire to book a hotel room instead of sleeping on the floor at a friend’s house or the impulse to spend the extra $50 to avoid a red eye flight. I’ve also noticed that my kitchen appliances don’t match and that I could really use more space in our small bungalow for a larger dining room table, both of which I never would have cared about 5 years ago. In addition, I used to tease my friends about moving to the suburbs with the nice lawns and nice schools and now I totally get it. Maybe I want to move to the suburbs too!
When I ask my students (I teach undergrads now) about what it means to be an “adult,” I get a list of observable characteristics, like getting married, having kids, buying a house, starting your career, etc. No one yet has mentioned unobservable characteristics like having a sense of purpose, a moral compass, a clear conscience, or self-love. I currently have a lot of visible of “adult” characteristics: I’m married, I have two graduate degrees, I pay bills, I volunteer in my community, I vacuum my car, I eat salad, etc. But I think I have some other adult characteristics that may not be as obvious: I’m driven, I’m optimistic, I’m in tune with my body, I’m kind, and I’m realistic about who I am and what I have to offer. And I’m comfortable with not hanging out with you if you don’t like who I am or what I have to offer and that’s a change for me.
Because I spent a large chunk of my 20’s worrying about what people thought of me. I wanted to please people and I wanted people to value me, trust me, need me, and respect me. I changed my hair and went on diets and bought clunky shoes and hid certain parts of my personality that I thought might not be socially acceptable to the people around me.
I’ve stopped doing that. Or at least most of it. I’ve stopped caring about what everyone thinks of me and now just care about what 5 people or so think of me. I’ve made enough friends so I don’t need to change myself to get any more. I’ve decided that my family is stuck with me forever, so they might as well enjoy the real me for all of that time. And I’ve also realized that strangers probably think as much about me as I think of them (#notatall). I’ve had the privilege to meet real, genuine people, both in my personal and professional life, who understand that we are all constantly learning and evolving and who offer kindness, guidance, and forgiveness. I want to be one of those people. I want to offer grace in a stressful moment and acceptance in the face of uncertainty.
This brings me to the events of the last couple of months.
My fall semester was going great; I was doing “all the things” for my carefully crafted 4th year of my PhD program. I had the end in sight and had worked hard to maintain focus and finish with flying colors. And then I hit a professional setback. To someone else, my setback might be meaningless. Everyone handles stress differently and everyone has different triggers that create meaning out of everyday events. But for me, it was bad. Like “cry every day for 10 days and go to therapy” bad. It probably wouldn’t make sense to anyone else why I was so upset and that’s OK. I can’t really explain it other than this setback, combined with my personality and individual values, sent me on an emotional whirlwind that was unlike what I’ve experienced during the many other challenges that I faced in my 20’s.
And that is where the good part came in. Just as I was mourning such a sour ending to the last decade, people showed up. My friends sent me Starbucks gift cards. My mom sent me flowers and tea and cookies. My sister brought my soup. My church group prayed for me. My dissertation chair read all 95 pages of my dissertation over Thanksgiving weekend to help me catch up. My practicum supervisor offered me a job. People mailed me notes, invited me to hang out (even though I was grumpy), and came by my house to talk to me. The people in my life stopped what they were doing, listened to me, and cared for me.
So I kept working! And I cleared my schedule to do the work and dig myself out of this hole and get back on top. I didn’t give up. I stood up for myself and took charge of the situation. I persevered. And it worked. I ended up working until the very last minute of my semester and got everything I wanted: I passed my dissertation proposal, I finished with a 4.0 GPA, I earned a graduate certificate in Public Administration, I received positive teaching evaluations from my students, and I was invited to multiple residency interviews. I got the storybook ending.
I know I won’t always win and I know my life of privilege is already enough of a fairytale compared to the lives of billions of other people on the planet. But instead of turning 30 in the midst of personal distress, I am turning 30 feeling like I know who is there for me and knowing that I can trust myself to do hard things. I am loved. And I can overcome challenges. And that seems like a pretty nice birthday present to me.
So I am now saying “good-bye” to my 20’s full of school (I’ve spent 8 of the last 10 years in higher education!) and full of dating (I dated Husband for 6 years of the past decade!) and full of the Bungalow (We’ve had this house for almost 5 years!), but I’m keeping all the love and laughter and The Greatest Showman re-runs and Bon Iver albums and lasagna recipes and champagne toasts and spontaneous dance parties and board game nights and wanderlust and shopping sprees and lunch dates and lazy Saturdays.
The future is bright.