I'm turning 30 soon. Even as I write those words, even as I count down the days until the clock strikes midnight on April 26, it doesn't seem real to me. How am I about to turn 30 years old?
I don't hate birthdays. I actually quite enjoy them, and am always grateful that I've gotten to enjoy another year on this planet and that I get to look forward to another year ahead.
But I've been dreading this particular birthday for the past two years. Ever since I turned 28, I've been trying to keep at bay the creeping dread that I'm old and that my life is over. If I was going to be anything important, do anything of significance, be healthy, be a wife, be a mom, become famous, make millions, write a book — it had to happen by now, or it never will.
I know this is untrue. But for a long time, I couldn't help feeling that turning 30 meant truly starting the slow march toward death, except the march wouldn't be so slow. Getting older means getting cancer, heart disease, dying, watching the people you love pass away. If only I could stay in my 20s forever, I could preserve myself and everyone I care about for all of eternity.
I've been trying to process the fact that my 20s are ending, that certain eras of my life have already come and gone. Sometimes, I feel an immense sadness at time passing and how much of my life is already over. How can it be that I've already been to prom, graduated high school, finished four years of college, earned my master's degree? These milestones loomed so large when I was a child, it's hard to believe they've actually happened already.
One afternoon, I was sitting in my therapist's office and casually mentioned that I thought my recent anxiety was caused by unprocessed feelings about turning 30. I just felt so deeply sad and nostalgic sometimes, I told him.
"I feel like if I start crying about this stuff, I'll never stop," I said. "It's not like something's wrong, I'm just...sad."
"You need to grieve," he said. "You're at an important time in your life, turning 30. You're not a kid anymore, you're getting serious about your life. You're saying goodbye to some things, and there's a grief to that."
There is a grief to that. But there's also a lot of fear.
I'm scared of turning 30. I'm scared of what I don't know. I'm scared of having kids, or not having kids. I'm scared of getting married, or not getting married. I'm still scared of making mistakes, especially on the big things, like being a good partner or choosing to be a wife and mother. I'm scared of not being successful, of never writing a book, of never getting published in The New York Times. I'm scared of regret. I'm scared of getting cancer, becoming weak and frail. I'm scared of dying.
I'm no stranger to these fears. I've always been something of a compulsive worrier. But somehow they seem harder to ignore as I turn 30, and I feel a greater sense of urgency to answer the big questions in my life, to make every day count, to stop wasting so much fucking time on Facebook, to stay connected with people even when it hurts because they're far away or because I can't ignore that they're ageing.
I've chosen a less traditional life path than I envisioned for myself when I was young, which means I don't really have a compass for what my 30s should look like. Should I travel more, move abroad again? "Settle down" in the U.S. and buy a home? Volunteer more? Write novels? Have a 401k? Start covering up the patch of white hair at my right temple, or beat nature at its own game and dye my head Targaryen silver now?
If there's one thing I learned in my 20s, it's fuck the shoulds. You make your own life. But that's scary as hell when there are few people to look to as a guide for what unconventional happiness might look like.
When I was a child, and a teen, and a young adult, I pictured a life that roughly matched our culture's traditional standard for success: finish school, get a good job, get married, buy a house, have three children before 30. But then I went and quit my good job at 24, moved to Asia, and everything changed. I spent the second half of my 20s pretty much up-ending every life plan I ever had, which hasn't been a bad thing. Turns out your 12-year-old self doesn't know everything about what'll make you happy in the future after all.
My 20s have been an incredible decade. I feel a deep, immense gratitude I can hardly put into words when I think of these past 10 years. The people I've met, the love I've shared, the stories I've gotten to write, the places I've seen, the dreams that came true in ways better than I could have ever expected. Life, I'm often reminded, is truly, truly beautiful.
Now I'm turning 30 and I have no idea what the next 10 years will look like, and maybe that's a gift in itself. I have some general goals for the next decade, including cultivating a healthier lifestyle and achieving financial well-being. But there's no road map created by my 12-year-old self to dictate my dreams. I was always so focused on planning my 20s that I didn't give much concrete thought to my 30s. Perhaps that's something to be thankful for.
Still, I admit I'm afraid. But the good thing about fear is that eventually it burns itself out, at least for a little while. And in the moments when I've worn myself out on worry, I get glimmers of emotional peace, hopefulness, and even excitement about the possibilities surrounding this new decade.
Like maybe once it happens, I can let go of the baggage around it and grow into a more mature woman. The idea of becoming more in tune with my body, more meditative, more self-confident, going deeper into myself and my sexuality, excites me. And the prospect of continuing to shrug off external expectations to create a life that sustains and fulfills me is also thrilling, if occasionally terrifying. Charting my own future means living, loving, and creating on my terms.
And while the answers to how to best do that lie with me, I am fortunate enough to know some fantastic people whose examples will guide me as I figure it all out. These people have chosen to be as they are in the world, to opt out of the system or approach it in their own way, to keep exploring, learning, evolving at every age.
I know that I will look back on this essay 10 years from now, on the eve of my 40th birthday, and laugh at how little I knew and how fearful I was. But maybe that's the thing — being aware of how little you know. When I was 20, I thought I knew everything. So quick to judge other people, so sure of what my life would look like for the next 50 years. Now I can honestly say that I really don't know, and I can choose to be excited by or fearful of that.
Here's what I do know. Life is weird, and messy, and beautiful, and unexpected, and joyful, and sad, and I have to imagine it only becomes more of those things as time passes. I hope I can meet those moments with grace and humility, and that I can hold onto the gratitude, not the fear, on my 30th birthday and beyond.