I had a total reality check this weekend.
In the midst of a bit of a life meltdown, I was #blessed to have been clipped over the proverbial ear by the divine writer Nikki Gemmell. In her Sunday column – titled “Never too late to start” – she wrote all about finding success late(r) in life.
The message was simple: stop freaking out, because life doesn’t end at 30. Or 40. Or even 50. In fact, for many prolific artists, academics, writers, and other sparkly superstars – this is when life is just beginning.
Gemmell gives us a pretty decent list of late-in-life high achievers: Joanna Cannon, Sia, Charles Bukowski…to which I add JK Rowling, Baddie Winkle (Google her, it’ll make your day), Tina Fey, and Deborah Eisenberg.
So, thank you Nikki Gemmell. I really needed that dose of reality, because truth be told? I am totally freaking out.
At 28, I feel like I’m over the damn hill, and I haven’t even begun my ascent.
With 28 looming on the horizon, a very distinct anxiety has begun to descend over me like a thick fog. It’s accompanied by an ominous voice that sounds suspiciously like Patsy Stone, declaring – “It’s over, sweetie darling. You’re getting old. Think of everything you should have done. It’s time to settle down. Why won’t you settle down? Do you have a lighter?”
And I’m not alone.
Earlier this year, our very own Lucy Gransbury wrote a wonderful piece titled, ‘Forget everything you’ve ever heard: 28 is the new mid-life crisis‘. It was shared a staggering 16,000 times.
Why did it do so well? Well, it hit a nerve with the hordes of young Aussie women freaking out about getting older. Hundreds and hundreds of women – myself included – shared the post with friends, family, followers. “See?!” we all seemed to say, “I’m not alone.”
What did you want to be as a kid? (Post continues after video)
It’s a tired old conversation, if we’re honest – the ticking biological clock, the dwindling career progress, the pressure from friends and family to ‘settle down’, and the constant dialogue about millennials being stunted in a case of major arrested development.
Indeed, Lucy kind of nailed it when she said:
“I turned 28, and it passed with joyous but minimal ceremony, as do most birthdays from 21+ for a digit not ending with zero. Within a few weeks though, a thought crept in to my head: by my age, my Mum was married and caring for a baby, with another arriving soon-ish. By 28, some people have become millionaires. Or surgeons. Or retired from tennis careers.”
“And I still hadn’t figured out how to fold a fitted sheet.”
This sense of impending doom comes from all the usual suspects. Family, morning television, fictional protagonists in novels bought from airport news agencies. Buzzfeed. Lena Dunham.
In fact, I had a bit of a run in with my mum last week over the phone. We were covering the usual topics – love, work, hairstyles – when I started waxing lyrical about my unaffordable and unrealistic plans for my future. She was wary, but curious. What did I think I was going to do about, uh, ya know – life?
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said breezily, “maybe I’ll do some time overseas? Or maybe visit Norway? I’d like to write a book over there.”
There was a pause in which I literally heard the cogs and wheels turning in mum’s mind.
“What? What is it now?” I demanded hotly.
“No, nothing,” she said quickly, “It’s just…a lot of people like to be settled by the time they’re 30.”
As soon as she said it, my heart dropped. It would be easy to go on the defence, and narkily remind her that women aren’t primed to be baby-making machines by the time they hit the big 3-0. But that’s not what she meant, and I knew it.
‘Settled’ means so much more than the hubby/bubby combo. It’s about relaxing into your own happiness and success, a slowing down, a less frantic pace of asking ‘what’s next?’ A life with roots and old friends and baristas who I know on a first name basis.
How could I ever hope to feel settled when I’m in the grips of a lifelong anxiety that time is running out?
This feeling is clearly shared by many women my age.
A girlfriend of mine moved to New York aged 32. For the years leading up to turning 30, she was preparing for its arrival like a Kansas farmer pre-tornado season. It’s a pattern I’ve seen it with so many: a frantic hunt-and-gather for milestones, adventures, wisdom, love affairs, work wins. Anything that prevents the onset of aging and the feeling that ‘I could have done more.’
After all, regret is the biggest fear for millennials.
We all grew up with mothers and aunts and older siblings who instilled a clear message into the very fibre of our bones: don’t miss out.
Can’t you hear them now? A few glasses deep of shiraz at the family barbeque, all wagging fingers and meaningful winks.
Don’t put off your dreams, love. Don’t waste time on men you’re not sure about. Don’t put off that overseas trip. Don’t stop racing forward like a woman possessed, because before you know it YOU WILL BE OLD LIKE US AND YOU WILL REGRET NOT DOING WHAT YOU WANTED.
And before long, that elated feeling of wanderlust for our big blue world twists into something uglier and harder to digest: fear.
It shadows you at work, asking if you if you should have been promoted by now. It’s tapping you on the shoulder as you lie in bed with your partner, asking if you should you be married by now. As you cycle at the gym, as you check your bank account, as you sip coffee with girlfriends.
Are you running fast enough?
With social media acting like a constantly updated CV, a sum of our life’s achievements to date, it’s no wonder the pressure is mounting. All I need to do is scroll for a few moments to catch sight of peers who are writing books, buying cars, and feeding their actual babies with actual milk from their actual breasts.
Celebs like Gemma Ward, Rihanna, Alicia Vikander, and even Ser Gregor from Game Of Thrones are the same age as me, and look at them! They have packed a lot into their 28 years. Sometimes I feel like all I’ve packed in has been three bookshelves of moderately good novels (read, not written) and at least three years of wearing orthodontic attachments.
Nikki Gemmell's words were therefore a soothing antidote for women of all ages.
Line after line, she pointed to women and men who found fame, fortune, and general contentment well past the age of 30. In one part, she quotes author Joanna Cannon, who published her first book, The Trouble With Goats And Sheep at age 46.
"My life seemed to be drifting in such predictable channels, and I wanted to know how I deserved such a fate," says Cannon.
"I thought if I could write about it I would be able to impose some structure on my experience. It gave me a feeling of being at least in control."
So, for all those other women who feel like life is slipping through their fingers, relax. Milestone ages will come and they will go, along with your lofty expectations of what you *should* have achieved by then.
Those 'predictable channels' that Cannon refers to have a strong current that we all seem to be fighting so hard to fight - you know, that terrifying fate of Settling Down. Missing Out. Regrets.
But instead of constantly fighting it, maybe it's also OK to drift along for a little while, too? Maybe we all need to get a little further downstream before really starting to set sail.
...Because if Sia can rock that wig at age 40, I sure as heck can leave a mortgage until after 30.