Reaching My Mid-30s: Reflections on 34

Photo: Woman blowing out birthday candle on ice cream; Text "Reaching My Mid-30s: Reflections on 34 / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

For all the hoopla, I didn’t mind turning 30. But 34? Nobody warned me about 34.

34 is definitively in your mid-30s – a milestone that I denied last year on my birthday. At that time, I felt surprisingly sanguine. Despite 2015 being a pretty terrible year, I felt confident about the future. I was pregnant with our second child, was dreaming about potential future jobs, had a handle on my volunteer work, and was balancing work and life reasonably well.

Then the world threw me for a loop.

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32 Years of Disastrous Beauty

I turned 32 years old today. A quarter of the time – if I’m lucky – I feel like I know what’s going on and am at peace. The rest of the time, I’m mentally windmilling every cell in my body in an effort to move forward in some disorganized, chaotic fashion. While the feeling of flailing has accelerated post-Sprout, becoming a mother has made me much more honest about both my strengths and failings. At this odd, not yet mid-life period, I find myself more comfortable with myself than ever before while still being deeply confused by life.

Becoming a mother certainly hasn’t made me less neurotic. In fact, I hear the voices of imaginary critics ever the louder these days. After all, people can judge me not only on my behavior but my child’s as well! But I’m able to call out those neuroses more often and label them as false. It doesn’t mean they’re gone – you can’t logic your way out of something irrational – but they don’t have as much control. I can see them as a conflicting song rather than allow them to become the primary melody of my thought. It’s a bit like the guy profiled on This American Life who loaded all of the most awful things his brain whispered to him throughout the day into a software program. He then programmed it to email insults to himself several times a day. Between the sheer repetition and the re-contextualization, his mind stopped processing them as bad and instead could see them as absurd. For me, the way parenting has turned up the volume on my neuroses has forced me to face them, instead of allowing them to lurk in the dark, dank alleyways of my mind.

Many of my anxieties stem from a need to control situations, which being the mother of a toddler is about as realistic an expectation as thinking he can read Hamlet. Letting go of my vision of “what should be,” of what a perfect mom or “real adult” looks like, is like giving up a mental lovey. My ability to judge myself – and shamefully, judge other people – is what I fall back on when my brain gets lazy. Without those false standards as a safety net, I have to do the hard work of extending compassion and grace to myself and others.

And that’s only one of the weaknesses I’ve been forced to work on instead of just sweeping them to the side. If I want to be the best mom I can be, I have to be the best person I can be, especially in the social skills that have been my greatest challenge. Being self-aware of what I genuinely can improve also gives me something to push back with when my brain waves absurdly exaggerated flaws in my face. While I still have a long way to go before being a good listener, I think I’ve improved a little. Learning to truly pay attention to a person who doesn’t yet speak my language has taken me out of my own head more than an adult ever could.

Fortunately, stripping away the layers of fear and shame and guilt, like Elsa in the song, has enabled me to find my more authentic self. Sometimes it isn’t pretty – although I haven’t caused anything to freeze over (yet) – it’s true. My awkward teenage self was told by well-meaning but clueless adults to just “be natural” and I always wanted to say, “I am! They just don’t like it.” The truth was, I didn’t like it either, so I tried to hide it and failed miserably. Now, I’m at the point in my life that if someone doesn’t appreciate my quirks and isn’t willing to forgive my flaws, I’m not going to worry about it. I have enough people who do love me that I’ll spend my energy and time with them.

The times I’ve been able to actually embrace this freedom have been liberating. On a work trip in the fall, I went out to dinner with my colleagues and we talked and laughed and shared fairly intimate parts of our lives. A little voice said, “You should be more careful,” but I ignored it and I’m glad I did. As it turned out, I learned something in that conversation that helped me support one of those friends when her family was going through a crisis. At Christmas, my in-laws hosted their Christmas Eve extravaganza with their long-time friends, all of their friends’ children, and the significant others of the now0grown children. Normally, I’m jittery at these get-togethers, trying to remember the names of a bunch of people I kind of know and all whom seem to remember every detail of my life. This year, somewhat buoyed by my sister-in-laws’ excellent cocktails, I felt so much more comfortable and relaxed. I could just “be” without worrying – a new sensation for me.

I hope in my coming 32nd year that I can find more ways to embrace the mess, the authenticity, the awkward beauty that is me and the people around me and the world we live in. Because there’s a lot of darkness in the world and in my head. While we can’t get rid of the darkness, we can bring light and love into it. After all, love is patient, love is kind, and love never fails.