career

Bridie Jabour: 'The reckoning every woman will have in their 30s'.

I don’t know when it started but, when I’m lying in bed at night, I like to tick off what I achieved that day. 

I have an ever-evolving to-do list in the Notes app of my iPhone, and I literally tick off the tasks once they are completed. Usually, I try to get at least three things off the list in a day, which includes things such as ‘30 minutes of barre’ and ‘call this person you really don’t want to call for work’, drab domestic stuff like ‘change the sheets’ and fun domestic stuff like ‘look up resorts in Port Douglas’. 

I feel compelled to justify the hours. It’s not enough to go to work and earn some money, to pay the rent and read my kid some books and get through the day. I have to feel productive. It seeps into everything; even on holidays, I like to spend the first two days walking 20 kilometres across cities, looking at a painting or two so I can say to someone, anyone, ‘Look, I didn’t waste it, I did this and I did that.’ Then I can relax. 

Things I wish I did in my 20s. Post continues below. 


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Even my relaxation has to be factored into some sort of productivity, it has to be earned. I explore the city the right way and then I relax the right way, sitting next to a pool, reading a clever or zeitgeisty or cleverly zeitgeisty bit of literature, drinking delicious cocktails. It’s easy to blame something obtuse like ‘the culture’ or ‘capitalism’ for this constant tabulation. Waving your hands in the general direction of something big and saying, ‘Oh, I am like this because of neoliberalism’ makes you sound faintly intellectual. Like you know the reason you are the way you are. I don’t really know why am I the way I am, though. 

Is it because I am a classic eldest child? Is it because I really want to make my mum proud? Is it because I like to be admired? Is it just vanity? Or is it scarier and more overwhelming than that? Do I need my life to mean something? For most of us, the answer to all of the above is yes. 

It can be easy to blame the culture, because that is also correct. We feel the need to prove our worth. I’ve seen it everywhere for years. Blatantly in posts about early morning exercise, and hobbies that involve making tables, even in ‘reading stacks’ posted on Instagram.

Reading books, which used to be filed neatly under ‘for enjoyment’, has morphed into something to prove you are keeping up. Neatly stacked books litter my social feeds, and no matter whether they are marked ‘to read’ or ‘have read’, the formula is always the same. New releases, classics, old cult favourites, a mix of women and POC authors, everything just so. 

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We can’t just read what we want for pleasure now; even our books have to be ‘correct’. 

My New Year’s resolution last year was to not read any new releases. I had found myself in a spiral of the latest non fiction and novels, so I could say I had read them, so I could be part of the discussion when someone raised the latest buzz book. A colleague wanted to know how I managed to ‘fit’ reading books into my life, but it is one of the few things where no effort is required on my behalf. 

No habit had to be formed; I just like reading. It’s easy to ignore the partner, ignore the dishes and ignore sleep when you truly love doing something. It just gets done. But I had warped this into something I was getting done the right way, with the right books. Cooking is a daily necessity for most people, and another once-enjoyable thing that has turned into a Doing It Right value-add. 

It used to be you made dinner, and that was it. Now there’s Ottolenghi recipes to tick off and dinners photographed on clay plates in muted colours. There’s recommended recipes and viral recipes and it’s relentless, it’s just so relentless. I know people who get the same easy enjoyment from cooking that I get from reading, but now we find we have to do it a certain way. Those of us for whom cooking is utilitarian now get to feel bad they don’t enjoy their chore. 

There are few simple pleasures left that we don’t feel some kind of need to excel at.

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It seems so radical and so twee at the same time to say that it actually sucks to be your best self. 

One of the joys to be rediscovered is the joy of being unproductive – leisure for leisure’s sake. 

Instead of the latest bestselling non-fiction and Yoga with Adriene videos, there is spending Saturday the way you actually want to: reading a Meg Wolitzer novel from ten years ago and eating chocolate. In a time when we make sure we watch all the TV shows everyone is talking about, consume the long reads, do at least 10,000 steps, we could simply be doing what we want, without updating anyone on where or why. 

Easy to suggest, harder to implement. 

I am still someone impressed by status, even though I am trying very hard not to be. I am still very ambitious – I wrote this book on maternity leave from my real, demanding job! I am desperate for people to know I was here and for it to mean something. Even though I know where and when I am truly happy – which is not at work or on television or when I hold a book I wrote in my hands – I still strive. I don’t think your life has to have grand ambition or even a purpose. 

It is fine to wander around finding interesting things until you die. People are looking for a big lightning strike, the one thing that will make sense of their life. But really what we have is a series of small realisations.

Life is made up of small decisions every day and a few big ones. You choose to live in a smaller place closer to the city or a bigger place further away from fun. You choose to make more money or have more free time. You choose to do a job you enjoy or one that is more boring but is going to give you the lifestyle you want. Children or no children. Monogamy and security or excitement and loneliness. A cooler city or your lifelong friends. Being thin or being satisfied. Being happy where you are or risking something different. The big decisions and the small ones all form a perception of yourself. 

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The early 30s are a big reckoning for people who define themselves by their job. Who define themselves by achievements, domestic or professional. It is a reckoning that the thing outside of yourself is not the thing that can make you happy. 

Are you a mother or are you someone who has kids? Are you a writer or are you someone who writes? Are you a bad person or are you someone who sometimes does bad things? How you see yourself forms the big questions and each day brings all the small decisions. 

The impulse to extract some small meaning from my life with a checklist has not dissipated. I cannot just vanquish it with rational thoughts, but I can try to take delight from the things I couldn’t be bothered to do. There’s a lot to be said for wasting time, for being satisfied with passing the time in a pleasant way instead of worrying about what you’re achieving. 

Each day you can work on the novel or not. You can read six books to your kid or not. You can cook a lovely dinner or order hot chips. You can make the bed or not. 

It’s OK to not achieve anything.

This is an edited extract from Trivial Grievances by Bridie Jabour, published by HarperCollins and available now in paperback and e-book.

Trivial Grievances by Bridie Jabour.