The Unbearable Lightness of Adulthood

Reflections on turning 30

It all started with the lowriders. You know, those skintight jeans favored by teenyboppers everywhere that choke the hips and barely cover the pelvis (the better, apparently, to show off your Hello Kitty thong). When I turned 30, I drove to The Gap and bought a pair. A transparent attempt to reassert my fading youth, it was an utter failure. Not only did I feel silly and verging on the pathetic each time I saw a 9-year-old strutting her stuff in the very same pants (that’s what I get for shopping at The Gap), but, aesthetically speaking, the jeans seem designed exclusively to force your love handles out of hiding.

I’m 31 now, officially retired from squeezing into lowriders. It’s clear that I’m too old for them, and yet I’m too young for “mom pants” — those ridiculously high-waisted trousers that flatten your ass into something resembling a large card table. The cut of my pants, though, is the least of my worries. The entire lowriders episode has revealed to me an existential crisis that goes way beyond the wardrobe.

Here I stand, an aging hipster smack between my college graduation and my 40th birthday, and I have no idea how to dress myself, much less navigate my 30s: I’m too old to spend my weekends getting trashed at indie-rock shows and too young to spend them listening to Car Talk and Sound Money. With a mortgage and $40,000 in student loans keeping me awake at night, I’m too old to work temp jobs and lead a more laissez-faire, itinerant lifestyle, but I also feel too young to commit to a career for the long haul.

In a world where “60 is the new 30” (according to a recent AARP magazine cover) and the movie 13 Going on 30 is a big hit with the tweens, what does it even mean to actually be 30? According to a recent New York Times article about the growing popularity of 30th birthday parties, turning 30 has morphed from an “apocalyptic” passage to an occasion for celebration and general whooping it up.

Which sounds great, except that most of the thirtyish people I know don’t seem to be whooping it up at any level. Maybe it’s because many observers are calling 30 the new threshold of adulthood (you’ve probably heard the catchphrase “30 is the new 21”), and who wants to trade the salad days of youth for that great unknown?

Since the big 3-0, I’ve recognized in myself some of the lame, telltale signs of midlife crisis: Besides the brief flirtation with lowriders, I talk endlessly about getting a “new look” (complete with the requisite drastic haircut and color), I’ve launched an all-out campaign to move to a different city — although, as my husband recently pointed out, I suggest only cities I’ve never visited (save for New York, which several people tell me I should have “gotten out of my system” in my 20s because now, apparently, I’m too old) — and I find myself reflecting on my childhood with an unacceptable amount of nostalgia and longing.

How do you gracefully surrender the things of youth and ascend into adulthood? Try as I might, I can’t seem to find any road maps for today’s thirtysomethings. I feverishly Google old acquaintances to see how I stack up and to scout out potential paths, but no clear answer emerges. (I also keep a running list in my head of people who achieved their dreams late in life, but for every late bloomer, there is an adolescent whiz kid whose very brightness and vitality are a dagger to the heart.)

And looking to older models simply doesn’t work. At my age, my parents had been married 10 years, my mother had just given birth to the last of three children, and my dad had already put in five years at the same downtown Chicago engineering firm. In contrast, the majority of the thirtyish people I know today are unmarried, only a couple have kids, and most of us, oblivious to the concept of company loyalty, flit from one career opportunity to the next, lured by brighter prospects and the promise of newness.

It may seem superficial or even offensive to suggest that we forgo youthful pursuits and start “acting our age.” After all, popular bumper-ready slogans like “Age is only a state of mind” suggest that age is a chimera that has nothing to do with who we really are. And, a quick scan of mass culture reveals a society rife with double standards. (The wildly popular Sex and the City happens to go off the air just as three of its leading ladies are about to turn forty, and yet no one bats an eye when David Letterman becomes a proud papa at age 56? I don’t think so.) Part of youth’s beauty, however, is its fleeting nature, and although we’re living longer these days, it still seems somewhat sad to cling to what, by definition, must fade.

I, for one, don’t want to be one of those sad sacks who feels the need to stay the course with every trend (Is there anything harder to look at than one of those itty-bitty backpacks on a grown woman’s back?), nor do I want to wear out my welcome. My greatest fear is imposing on people — being a grotesque hanger-on — and it seems to me that we should gracefully make the transition from youth to maturity at the top of our game lest we all end up resembling that hideous Bette Davis character in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Certain cues have suggested it’s time I shift into a higher gear: wincing when the barista calls me “ma’am,” undergoing my first breast biopsy, buying an Atari joystick for my brother-in-law last Christmas and seeing “A Blast from Your Parents’ Past!” stamped on the box. Perhaps the loudest cue was a recent cover story in the satirical weekly The Onion: “Woman Looks Great for a 32-Year-Old.” It’s a funny headline, to be sure, but the story — about a 32-year-old woman who can pull off both wearing youthful attire and dancing to OutKast without totally embarrassing herself — also confirms my deepest fears about aging and bodily decay.

Some academic theorists assert that when it comes to our identity, we are just a pulsating bundle of social ideologies and that our bodies don’t even exist, much less matter. I wish that were true. It would save me the cruel, corporeal reminders of creeping age — random chin hairs as thick as my dog’s whiskers, eggs too old for the donor bank, aching joints that make taking the Greyhound a particular bit of hell, and the humiliation I suffered recently when I kicked a soccer ball — pure and beautiful and well-struck, I thought, only to realize immediately afterward that I’d sprained my ass. I spent the next half-hour stomach-down on a park bench, trying to relax my muscles and relive the faded glory of my junior year in high school when I was named MVP of my soccer team.

What is it that causes us to look backward instead of forward? I think it’s that moment when your body starts talking back to you — when your desires and aspirations run headlong into your physical limits. (One of my colleagues calls it “that sense there’s not enough runway left to clear the trees.”) Most of us will not age physically as well as Sofia Loren or Lauren Hutton (both popular icons with the AARP crowd), so perhaps we should adopt a more casual, European approach to aging. Part of the problem with Americans, it seems, is that we buttress our self-esteem — you’re not old, you’re not fat, you look great in those lowriders! — at the expense of reality. From the universality of slimming mirrors that make you look thinner than you really are to a government that prefers ideology to fact, we live in a country where denial of the truth is considered far less oppressive than the truth itself. Instead of trying to fight youth back with endless makeovers and surgeries and subsistence-level diets, why not just accept our age?

I might actually relish taking up my position as a grousing elder statesman/Andy Rooney figure who gives it to you straight. I used to find the phrase “I’m too old for this” unbelievably lame, but now I’m a walking personification of it: I’m too old to go out on Friday nights, I’m too old to listen to bands I find challenging, I’m too old to close down bars, I’m too old to compete if love handles are the new erogenous zone, I’m too old to care that “I’m an analog girl in a digital world,” as Erykah Badu would say. Perhaps most importantly, I’m too old to care what people think about me. I’m surprised to find that accepting certain dictums that I’ve always fought against feels a lot like sinking into a warm bath. Youth may be a state of “permanent intoxication,” as Aristotle noted, but sobering up isn’t so far behind.

Anjula Razdan is a senior editor of Utne.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.