I’m Halfway Through My 30s and I’ve Made a Terrible Mistake

Photo credit: Counselling, CC0 Public Domain.

In a few weeks I’ll celebrate my 35th birthday. I’ve already started planning my annual backyard birthday bash (black bean tacos, a cornhole tournament, and free ranging chickens will be the highlights). Despite my excitement to see my friends, eat cake, and celebrate, well, myself, I’m having mixed feelings about this particular milestone.

According to the Guardian 35 is the best age, bar none. The reason? You’re old enough to have certain achievements under your belt (spouse, house, a child) but still have several years to go before reaching the peak of your career. Other studies corroborate these findings. Women tend to rack up raises in their 30s and then, at the end of that decade, stall out. We’ll receive cost of living adjustments and occasional bumps in pay, but nothing that would rocket us into the next tax bracket. Armed with this information and a little thing called hindsight, I see now that I may have made some mistakes.

Don’t get me wrong. At 35, there are plenty of things in my life that are very, very good. I have an egalitarian relationship with a loving and supportive spouse. We rent a comfortable home at a fair price in a middle class neighborhood ten minutes from the ocean. If we were having a contest (which we’re not, but still) my friends are probably better than yours. By these accounts, 35 is looking pretty good, no matter what the studies say. And yet.

Until a year or so ago, I never yearned for an impressive career or a corner office. I shied away from internships, mentors, and anything that possessed even a whiff of professional development. Networking was my worst nightmare. To this day. I’ve never owned a pair of high heels.

Despite my capitalist shortcomings, I do consider myself an ambitious person. My eyes are on the prize, but my goals are less “healthy 401(k)” and more “critically acclaimed novel.” Because I’ve always considered writing my true vocation, I treated each job I held as nothing more than a means to an end. So much so that at the tender age of 29 I quit my highest paying position ever to go back to school for an MFA in creative writing. If most women’s salaries peak at 39, this is the one area where I’m sadly ahead of the curve.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve chosen art over ambition, stories over stability, paperbacks over paychecks. Now, as I countdown to 35, I’m facing a hard truth: I have neither a published novel nor a fulfilling career.

Let me rephrase that: I have a novel-in-progress, and a finished one that didn’t sell. I wake up early almost every day to squeeze in an hour of writing before heading to my full time job, which provides health insurance and a Costco membership. I will always have to work and earn and save and budget, and I can’t help but think how much easier it would be if I worked the same number of hours yet had more money to save and budget with. If I’m going to spend 40 hours of every week working, shouldn’t I care about what I’m doing? Shouldn’t I find the work meaningful in some way? Shouldn’t I strive to be paid what I’m worth?

This is a different kind of ambition, a different way of thinking. I’m tired of jobs, and I want a career. This is a good thing — I just wish I’d realized it sooner.

I was born in early August and I live in North Carolina, which means my annual backyard birthday bash is inevitably a hot and humid affair. Bottles of beer warm in our hands and my friends glisten, humoring me through their sweat-soaked shirts. We eat tacos. Everyone brings beer, which we place in a wheelbarrow full of ice. I never win the cornhole tournament, and that’s fine with me. I don’t mind losing, because I know that having fun is what really matters.

What I do mind is the feeling that my options are limited, which is why 35 bothers me. At this point, I’ll never make it onto a 30-under-30 list. I’ll never be the precocious ingénue who takes the literary scene by storm. There is very little hope that I’ll achieve financial independence and retire by 45. That’s part of growing older, of course — choosing one life over another. Becoming one person instead of someone else. Playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

In a few weeks, I will raise a taco to my birthday and remind myself that despite my age, despite this entire essay, I am only, after all, 35. Some options are no longer available to me, but others are. There’s still time to milk this existential crisis for all its worth and find a way forward that strikes a better balance. It may have taken me three decades to learn that art and ambition aren’t mutually exclusive, but I’m here now, and not a moment too soon.

Christine Hennessey blogs about budget living for later bloomers at Better Than Never. She lives in coastal North Carolina with one husband, 16 chickens, and an overweight dog. She is, as always, at work on a novel.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Halfway Series.

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