Maybe Your Mid-30s Are Supposed to Feel Like an Anticlimactic Waiting Room
The other night I dreamed that I was at a corporate offsite dinner, in a reality unaltered by viral pathogens, when Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen spotted me out at the restaurant and enlisted my company. They wanted to buy smoothies. “Perfect, we can commiserate over turning 35,” I thought to myself. It was the only dream detail with factual integrity, our common year of birth and my stress about it.
Off with the Olsens I went. But I didn’t want to chat about smoothies, or whatever else passes for small talk in my subconscious. I wanted to talk about The Birthday. It was stressful. This was a stress dream.
“If I force this too hard, they’ll think I’m a loser,” Dream Me fretted as I chickened out of pivoting the conversation. I mean, even I would think I was a loser. What kind of brain-worms asshole fixates on turning 35? People are starving!
But there it was. And is. Soon I’ll be turning 35, just like the Olsens. The number doesn’t really mean anything, of course, but it’s sort of like the ding of a timer. In case I missed it earlier, this birthday is here to remind me that I’m unimpeachably within the realm of “a grown-up,” with the narrowing horizon of choices that accountability entails.
This is good, really, because the human brain hates choosing between too many options, and likes when one’s actions feel like they matter. Except it also feels like walls closing in? Yet, somehow, also dull? We don’t even get a crisis. Just tasks. Chores, with consequences.
Within the first ten pages of the book, we encounter Reese. One of a trio of characters caught in a queer, reproductive love triangle, she has spent the last three years following her breakup with fellow polygon-in-arms, Ames, watching her “odometer [click] up into her midthirties.” The result, which she’s dubbed the Sex and the City Problem, is thus put forth as a time-honored trope:
When a woman begins to notice herself aging, the prospect of making some meaning out of her life grows more and more urgent. A need to save herself, or be saved, as the joys of beauty and youth repeat themselves to lesser and lesser effect. But in finding meaning, Reese would argue—despite the changes wrought by feminism—women still found themselves with only four major options to save themselves, options represented by the story arcs of the four female characters of Sex and the City. Find a partner, and be a Charlotte. Have a career, and be a Samantha. Have a baby, and be a Miranda. Or finally, express oneself in art or writing, and be a Carrie. Every generation of women reinvented this formula over and over, Reese believed, blending it and twisting it, but never quite escaping it.
For prior generations of trans women like Reese, this predicament was aspirational—the predicament being, of course, the liberty to decide what to do with your bold and beautiful female life. A privilege, even if the options on the table are hardly as numerous—or glamorous—as white feminism asks us to pretend they are. Eventually, you age out of the angst and into the fabulousness, a Darren Star-approved grande dame.
For Reese, there’s a thrill in trying on choices—even if, at the end of the day, that means deciding between one of four measly archetypes. The Sex and the City Problem is a problem reserved for the luckiest and bougiest few.
This gets at the core of my embarrassment, with all requisite privilege-points in place: It’s unseemly to complain about having options. It’s uncouth to look at them and to weigh them, then burn precious time on ambivalence. It’s a slippery slope from ‘knowing your options’ to ‘indulging them.’ How do you course-correct if you picked the wrong one? And can you?
After my dream, I tweeted that being in your midthirties in a pandemic is stupid, hoping to bait the platform of fellow neurotics. A lot of people liked it, but not too many shared. A bad ratio, as the kids (slash, aging media professionals) might say. And I think I know why.
Ours is a society in which women of the type to write blog posts—hello— are expected to pretend that our choices aren’t as few, nor as consequential, as they actually are. We’re asked to play-act like living our “best life” isn’t predicated on underpaying some other (likely browner, certainly poorer) woman to watch our kids, or clean our home, or both, and then to call it liberation just the same. It becomes a point 51-year-old Jennifer Lopez attributes the superficial outcome of what appears to be decades of extensive surgical, anti-aging intervention to, ludicrously, OLIVE OIL, because when a woman acknowledges her fear of time she betrays her luckiest and least fair liability, which is vulnerable as all hell. And I get it. If you can run from that, maybe you can also hide.
If this were an essay, here’s where I’d write a resolution paragraph that nods at a thesis about holding space for the coexisting and conflicting realities that surround getting older, insert caveats about privilege, and call it a day. Age is nothing but a number, I might write in less-cliché terms, because I do this shit for a living after all. But this is not an essay.
Instead, it’s an invocation.
Mary-Kate, Ashley, if you’re reading this, I want you to know something. I understand what it’s like, to feel like you’re racing the clock. I know the claustrophobia of walls closing in on those thrilling, youth-sanctioned follies. A pandemic is a terrible time to wring out a transition—even one that I’m projecting onto you, on the basis of a number that’s literally the only thing we have in common.
And I understand the frustration stoked by decade-older women who assure you that, come forty, you’ll be relieved of the excess fucks you currently appear to be giving. That this time, these midthirties, is nothing but a waiting room between having promise and having freedom, sealed with a kiss from Sam Jones. That none of what you know in your heart to be true really is.
Hear me out, and let’s talk it out. And don’t believe them for a second.