In one of my “thinking” moods, I realized that yes, I’ll be celebrating a “milestone birthday” next year. Well, so people call it, in any case. I use quotations because, really, I’ve not put much emphasis on age or lack thereof in the past.
Considering that when I entered my twenties I was coming out of a convoluted and rather sheltered upbringing, the past ten years alone have been an eye-opener, start to finish. Not easy at the best of times, but necessary. Let no one say that the real world is not a worthwhile teacher; often, it is the best teacher one can have. Certainly, it was mine.
It’s all about how you apply the lessons you’re presented with.
One very, very major thing I learned is to adjust your goals, or the means to approach them, as you go. If you can’t get to your goal after repeated attempts, it’s perfectly fine to re-evaluate it and adjust it as it needs to be done. When I was 20, I wanted to be taken care of and comfortable. I learned that I shouldn’t necessarily have to rely on other people – parents, husband, etc. – for that. I still want to be taken care of – but this time, by myself, first and foremost. Did I accomplish that? Within reason, yes. Do I have more to go? Yes.
What I started thinking about is what “being 30″ actually means in today’s world. Just the larger spectrum of things.
When I was growing up and later, when I went to college, I was taught, as were most of my peers, that by thirty, you’re supposed to have “settled in and settled down”. What does that mean? It meant a career path that, after college, you now had about 7 or so years to get settled into, a career path that brings you enough income to have a place of your own. By 30, if you’re not married and have a kid or two, you’re usually told (if you’re female) that your “biological clock is ticking”, regardless of whether or not that’s true.
That’s what I kept seeing ahead for myself when I was in school. Then I actually had to ask myself: what of this do I want? And turned out that quite a lot of the expected script for being in one’s thirties did not at all appeal to me.
And, well, you know me. If I see an opportunity to do something the way I want, I will immediately go for it, doubly so if I know in advance that it will make me very happy.
So right now, with my age mark about to hit the three-oh, I realize that, apart from the fact that going your own way in life is truly the best thing any human being can do for themselves, that my peers have been lied to by the sheer virtue of being given a LifeScript(tm) to follow. By shoehorning themselves into a scripted, predictable, society-expectation-molded way of life, they have effectively given up any real freedom that they could’ve had. I mean, think about it: an average Joe USA will go to school, take a job to pay the bills, get married and have a kid, and then work work work because kids are expensive (which is one of those things no one tells you) and tries to pay off mortgage and student loans (because you can’t live without debt these days, which is another thing no one tells you). Yes, it’s what’s expected of him. This is how thousands of people across the country live. Not once do they question this script. Not once do they step back and see that they are roped into working longer and longer hours for the same pay to make payments on the house they almost never spend time in. Their time is invested into the job. They come home, exhausted, and then they come home to have to work again on their relationship – because it does require work – and their children.
Likewise for women. They’re told to go to school, get a job, get married, have kids. And then what? Exhaust themselves twice over being an employee and a mom? And face social guilt and everyone getting judgey on them because they aren’t doing X or Y per the script? Come on. Moms and non-moms get it all the time about how they’re not doing X enough when in reality, they’re running themselves ragged with X and Y, but no one mentions Y. Work, come home, parent, be a spouse. Where’s the “rest” aspect to this?
What sort of freedom is this? What sort of freedom does this script allow?
My twenties were marked by analyzing that script, and every other social directive my peers and I have been spoonfed, and realizing – harshly in some cases – that I am just not capable of doing that to myself. I felt most at home when I was traveling: to my friend’s up in Cape Cod, on a plane to my first cruise, on the railroad to explore a new city… Travel was where I felt most at home. Even though right now, at a bit older than 24 (when I started traveling for real), I grumble and grouse at the early wakeup calls to my flights, I can never deny that this is what I was born to do: gallivant, explore, photograph, tell stories of my adventures.
The other major realization that I feel coming with my thirties is the responsibility that we are all given, to take care of ourselves and ours.
My health has been a thorough misadventure. But it’s also been a great learning experience about what does and doesn’t work with my body. As it is, I have tried the whole “lose weight” rigmarole. Once my thyroid got its meds, the weight started coming off rapid-fire. When it stalled, I tried WeightWatchers, only to plateau and regain everything I lost when my body hit starvation mode: WW relies largely on fiber and vegetables as a filler, and completely disregards that lipids are an essential part of any diet (a half an avocado is how many points?!). It’s great for getting into healthier eating habits, but for long-term weight loss, it fails. I went back to WW after I regained the weight, only to yo-yo again. So I decided to scrap all “weight loss” plans and just enjoy my workouts for the endorphin rush, and eat as I please.
Know what happened? My health thrived. My blood tests kicked out their first “perfect score” in about a decade. I stopped feeling like my stomach is a bottomless pit waiting to be stuffed with food; I stayed with my habits but re-introduced avocados and the occasional potato. My appetite became a lot less “must eat everything” and a lot more “fuel up, stay full through day”.
We get only one body. Only one health. We can’t change bodies when this one has outgrown its usefulness. Our primary responsibility is to know when to focus on you. Your health, your well-being, your living. And if you’re in the position where you have to be a caregiver – then taking care of that person’s health is also on us.
I’m not talking about kids.Not just about kids, for my parent readers. I’m talking about the people who are around you. Parents, if you’re close to them. People who took care of you, who may be needing care in return. Myself, I had to come to close terms with my mother’s retirement, not just as the end of comfort – and let’s face it, so far I’ve been lucky enough to be comfortable while living with her – but as the beginning of my slow takeover as the household provider. I’ve seen it coming, but now’s the time to actually stop looking and start doing. My mother is looking forward to her retirement and not working, and maybe just possibly doing a little travel in her own right. And other things. And financially, I know that she and I need to start working together financially; this way I can sustain us, and she can enjoy some peace in her retirement without having to go broke.
That’s responsibility. That’s shared responsibility. And moving into my thirties knowing how to handle that, frankly, is something I feel very proud about.
All those milestones that people put into the standard LifeScript(tm), they are milestones only in the context of the people who set them. For people who graduated high school and then got married and had a couple of kids before they hit thirty, any other sort of life is unimaginable, especially if they see everyone around them doing the same. To them, that’s normal. That’s the script. So they will set the same milestones for their children, regardless of how their children feel. So many times I see stories online of X person being the first in their family to graduate college, and behind the stories of people supporting their goals, I find myself always asking, “And how many naysayers are around X right now saying behind their backs that they don’t see the point in college and X should’ve just gotten married and stayed in town?” Because for those people, X’s accomplishment, momentous on the scale that they’re the first ones to graduate in their family, just doesn’t make sense because it breaks the norm. It doesn’t fit the script. They don’t know what to do with it, and in all things human-natured, decry it.
In my experience, the people who try to pull you down for your achievements are wholly incapable of doing what you’ve done. So let them bitch. Define what your milestones are for yourself.
Most people wouldn’t think that “taking care of their mother” is a milestone – for me, it is. My mother had pulled me out of a fair few sticky situations, and I see it as a return of debt to make sure that her retirement isn’t fraught with financial worries, and a point of pride that I have a plan to do so, and can follow through with it. Most of my peers don’t quite see contributing to an IRA as a milestone – and in that regard, I wholly understand them; there isn’t enough income to go around when you still have loans to pay. But the fact that I have saved my first thousand dollars for retirement despite my otherwise deplorable spending habits is a great thing. It’s a thousand dollars that I won’t have to bust my hump for after a certain age.
Right now, very safe to say that I look at fiscal responsibility as a major part of growing older. It took me a long time to get smart about my money, even more surprising the fact that I work in accounting. But that is also how I got smart about what’s mine: I worked on other people’s books, finances, companies, and looked at what they were doing, and began to see how to apply it to myself. I am not where I want to be, but I am a ways ahead of my peers at this moment, and if there’s anything I can do to help them out, then usually I do so. Knowledge is the thing that pays it forward.
As I gear up for being a “thirty-something” in New York, I’m also setting new goals for myself. First goal is to just relax – reasons obvious. Second goal: to not spend so much time working and/or being alone; like it as not, human contact is an essential thing, and my friendships do need cultivating. And third goal: get myself to where I can, in fact, think seriously about buying a house. If student loans are the only thing standing in my way, then I need to figure out a way to up the ante and get them paid off now.
I’m still not too sold on the idea of having a “personal life”. Maybe it’s because I am too busy, maybe I’m just not wired for it, but I just don’t see myself with long-term companionship at this stage in time. Still. I just don’t see it. If I think of a weekend, then inevitably, there’s my camera, there’s an event, and there’s a ticket to a bus/train/flight to get there. And the way I see it is thus: if over the next five years I do not meet anyone who is worth carving out the time for, anyone who will make me say, “This one is special, different, worth my time and efforts”, then I will resign myself to the single life for good. I don’t see myself ultimately staying alone – so my intuition says – but I certainly don’t see myself dating anyone with my adventurous, photography-chasing, music-indulging life being what it is, and I am a realist above all. I don’t believe in “the one”, I don’t believe in Prince Charmings, and I certainly don’t believe in settling down. But if in the first five years of my thirty-dom I don’t meet anyone – then, you know what? Works for me A-OK if I’m a solo flyer. I can build a hell of a life for myself by myself. After all, I’ve already gotten a good start on it.
Bring on the Thirties!