On April 23 this year, I turned thirty. Prior to that day, on the few occasions that I mentioned the upcoming birthday to other women, they gave a slight wince of commiseration. They knew this was a birthday that must come with mixed feelings, at best. Turning thirty represents the crossing of a bridge, invisible but very real. On the other side I find myself the dreaded femme de trente ans. A woman of a certain age. When I was younger, influenced perhaps by too many historical and literary idols whose flames had burnt bright and briefly, I thought it was rather unromantic to live much past thirty. Then again, when I was younger, I couldn’t actually envisage myself ever being thirty.
Thirty is the age that has traditionally marked the end of youth. Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, turns thirty in a novel all about disillusionment and disenchantment with youthful ideals. “I just remembered that today’s my birthday,” he recounts himself saying, and thinks grimly: “Thirty. Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade… Thirty– the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.”
It’s a difficult birthday, and, whatever Nick Carraway might say, harder for women, in whom our culture so fetishizes youth. In the nineteenth-century novels that have been my personal and academic staple, this birthday marks the end of the age of marriageability for women. Captain Wentworth in Jane Austen’s Persuasion generously announces himself ready to marry “anybody between fifteen and thirty.” In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas’s sense at age twenty-seven that thirty is fast approaching partly motivates her agreeing to marry the pompous Mr. Collins, whom Lizzie has already rejected. Charlotte cannot afford to be “romantic,” unlike Lizzie, who is “not one-and-twenty.” Similarly, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the narrator intones: “At twenty-five, girls begin to talk about being old maids, but secretly resolve that they never will be. At thirty they say nothing about it, but quietly accept the fact.”
More generally, thirty was the dead end of narratability for female protagonists until the twentieth century. By thirty, the heroines of my most beloved novels are either long married or long dead. Either way, there is no more story to tell about them, as they have reached a sublime and static state beyond narrative. Like fairy-tale princesses, they have ridden off into one sunset or another.
All this has of course changed. Fictional female protagonists, like real women, now have flourishing lives after thirty (and after marriage). But women are still raised with the awareness that our society has assigned us expiration dates, even if that date is now later than thirty. (Amy Schumer’s “Last F**kable Day” sketch famously skewers the expiration dates arbitrarily assigned to female desirability.) Furthermore, it’s hard to get past the idea of this particular birthday as a sort of milestone or benchmark. A lot of us use thirty as a deadline—whether for marriage, starting a family, or reaching a certain place in our careers. We feel like we should have our personal and professional lives mapped out by the time we’re thirty, or at least have found some stability in those areas. Twenty-somethings, even those in their late twenties, can laugh about not having their lives together, about not feeling like an adult. But no one thinks that’s cute when you’re in your thirties.
Thirty in our culture ideally means empowered adulthood. In the 2004 romantic comedy Thirteen Going on Thirty, an awkward teen wishes herself to the pivotal age of thirty, when her career (if not her personal life) has all the trappings of success. Last year, I read Elle Magazine’s triumphantly titled “This is Thirty!” September issue, its cover featuring Keira Knightley, who turned thirty that year. If one reaches thirty with Keira Knightley’s impressive resume and astonishing beauty, it may be easy to embrace the birthday with grace confidence. For me, I’ll admit, it hasn’t been so easy.
One of my own personal “deadlines” for years has been to get my PhD by or at age thirty. This one actually looks like it will happen. But as I plan to walk across the stage at my graduation ceremony this May, it’s possible that while doing so I will still feel like a failure. That PhD has turned out to mean none of the things I thought it would mean, and the rest of my life is in a slightly tumultuous state. I have to accept that turning thirty is not a stopping and resting point, but a period of transition, of enforced dynamism, of change and even transformation. Sometimes it feels like I’m in free-fall, shoved off the path I’ve diligently pursued for years. As someone who is less inclined to embrace change than to be dragged toward it clawing and clinging like a cat to the familiar, this is especially difficult. But I know that at thirty, I’m only beginning to write my story. So I’m trying to see thirty as a beginning, not an end.
Perhaps the key to finding empowerment in a “benchmark” birthday like thirty is not in trying to dismiss it with an “age is just a number” or “thirty is the new twenty” attitude. Maybe it’s more empowering to actually embrace turning thirty as a sort of day of reckoning: specifically, of reckoning up your life, your accomplishments, and weighing them in the balance against the dreams that have sustained you. We gain so much self-knowledge in our twenties, putting us in a good position at thirty to look hard at our life choices. If our lives don’t match our dreams, it’s time to reevaluate one or the other. It’s not easy. And we need to have compassion for ourselves in the process—that isn’t always easy either. But comparing ourselves to our best possible selves is certainly a more positive mental task than the tempting but toxic one of comparing ourselves to other people—their accomplishments, careers, relationships– at the same age. If we use this birthday as a chance to focus on our own paths, to consider honestly how to better align our lives with our goals, and if we then have the courage to act on that assessment, there’s promise in thirty. There’s hope to be found in it. Even if you don’t resemble Keira Knightley.