While it's likely you are spending (or spent) your twenties being fun, elusive, irresponsible, experimental, reclusive or any number of whimsical forays into frivolity that looked really good on TV shows, once you hit 30, you feel the pressure to become more responsible, more figured out. If you don't, you best be getting on that. Because what once was totally forgivable for a young, inexperienced naïf making her way through the world can now begin to look downright silly, or even pathetic. Or as Bridget Fonda's character Janet in the movie Singles says, "Somewhere around 25, bizarre becomes immature."
Of course, that was in 1992. By now, I think 25 is probably 35. But either way, it's not like we understand the significance of our thirties when we're only 25. Or if we do, we don't really understand what we're supposed to do about it yet. That's a row for hoeing later, when the hoe is heavier, needs more sleep, and gets hungover easier.
But one minute you're just being a carefree, complex, whimsical twentysomething at a cool party, and then suddenly the thirties come knocking at your door to drop off a good moisturizer and a snack, and make sure you got properly hydrated after you drank all that classy wine. This is key for your forties, we're told, when we're on top of the world with all that confidence and older woman sex appeal you got from somewhere.
But if you were looking to the popular culture to talk you through this purgatory of being all dressed up in a slightly more expensive pair of shoes with actual places to go, where would you turn? In a piece by Eudie Pak over at HuffPo asking what the thirties are really all about, she muses on the "less socially discussed" aspect of the decade and what that says about this in-between period in our lives as women. Pak wonders:
When you think of women in their 20s and 40s, it seems easier to define them in intangible terms. The 20s chick is known for exploring and taking risks. The 40s chick has a rep for coming into a higher level of independence and self-empowerment and hell, she's even got More magazine. These two decades even have their own version of well-documented existential crises — quarter-life crisis and mid-life crisis, anyone?
The 20s and 40s gals have a distinct and interesting enough internal dialogue that compels the rest of the world to want to have an external dialogue about them — look anywhere, and you'll end up with a plethora of 20- and 40-something material at your fingertips: self-help books, blogs, TV shows, movies; they're ubiquitous.
But no one really talks about the 30s female experience in the same sense. Is it because this decade of living seems too busy existing in the mundane? After all, this is a period where we're preoccupied with accruing bloated titles at work, getting that corner office, getting married, not getting married, having kids, avoiding having kids, etc. On the outset, it sounds so terribly banal and purgatorial, but internally, what's really going on?
What's going on, I think, is the path-diverging choices that come with growing up. The thirties aren't wildly different from your twenties, except for the part where the stakes feel so much higher. The carefree feeling of going out every night is replaced with a nagging voice that now reminds you of the repercussions, of what you should really be doing instead, and of the choices that may be slipping away, whether they are career, family, or fun. You are suddenly, irrevocably unable to waste time in the same way without chastising yourself.
Pak does an informal poll asking friends what they think of their thirties. One describes the decade as being in the "hot seat" of awakening for your career, home, and bank account. Things happen to you that really change you, she says, and you figure out things you're willing to fight for. Another woman described it as a period of being "torn" about trying to have it all. Another woman characterizes it as a period of sorting out your preferences and wish list for life, material or spiritual. And another friend says it's an awkward adolescence that isn't sexy at all, especially if you're having kids.
A friend named Tracy who isn't me but whose sassiness is hilarious, said:
When 40 became the new 30, 30 became invisible. It's a decade of major transition, a bridge from the broke hot mess of your 20s to the fabulousness of your 40s. Or when 'Mean Girls' graduate to 'boring bitches.' At least that's one of the perceptions that hurts the pre-middle age group. Thirty-somethings are overshadowed by the antics of the 20-something "Girls" and the 40-something "Real Housewives" because, pop-culturally speaking, the best material is born from 'having nothing' (20s), 'having it all' (40s) or 'losing it all' (40s divorcee).
Are us thirtysomethings really invisible? Are we quietly hibernating, honing the best of ourselves while we get fit enough to fight? Is the thirties just the decades-long Rocky workout montage of your life? Where are the TV shows about people in their thirties stumbling on their way home from the parties to puke up that expensive pasta they were finally able to buy with their really good graphic design job? I don't know about you, but making sure my mortgage gets paid has been full of cinematic suspense for years now.
Sex and the City depicted some of the perils and perks of this decade, though it was more about sex and singledom at a range of ages. Later episodes of Friends showed those kids in their thirties, as has How I Met Your Mother. But these are not the premises of the show, but rather inevitable directions for any show about people in their twenties that goes on for long enough.
If you're in your thirties right now, this has inevitably triggered a memory of thirtysomething, the excellent show about Baby Boomers struggling to face this decade of not-quite-middle-aged with all the angsty self-involvement we still enjoy from our Baby Boomers today. Funny enough, those thirtysomethings looked more like today's 40, and make today's thirtysomethings look 20. (The creators of that show would go on to give us another angsty, self-involved show about being a teenager called My So-Called Life.) And we should always mention that 30 Rock, while not about being in your thirties, certainly made that aspect of Liz Lemon's character front and center.
But perhaps what TV hasn't given us, movies have looked at in greater depth. When I think of movies about women in their thirties, they do tend to focus on the milestones rather than an intrinsic quality of the age itself as the hook, unlike the way being in your twenties is shown as the only hook audiences need to care. Movies like Working Girl, Baby Mama, Baby Boom and Bridesmaids have all shown the kind of challenges thirtysomething women are up against in public and private. They all remind us that whether it's career or cahoots, this decade is a proving ground.
And I think Paks' friends are mostly right. The thirties are also very much an awakening, and so much of what you're choosing feels make or break. You have a career to nail down, even if you might change it later. You have choices about starting a family that require some acknowledgement of biology and a ticking clock. You have the most resources and power of your young life, and you're still actually young enough to feel pretty carefree about it, but you've never been more aware of the risks. You're looking ahead to set yourself up for career satisfaction and independence for the rest of your life while you still have the energy to do it. And more importantly, you are more comfortable with yourself — whatever that self looks like — than probably ever before.
For those reasons, I think it's a pretty thrilling, if slower-paced age to be. But even I can see that all these inner fireworks aren't exactly translating into the most exciting night on the town — especially if I have to drink this much water afterwards and get some sleep. But is that such a bad thing? Cocoons don't exactly metamorphose on beer. At least, not the good ones.