ACCEPTING I’M NOT A 30 UNDER 30
The concept of time has been debated since lunar calendars were created 6,000 years ago. Astronomer and physicist Isaac Newton believed in absolute space and time, therefore, mathematically true. Mathematician Gottfried Leibniz believed time and space to be relative. Buddhists, on the other hand, regard time as having no real existence. It’s just simply a human concept: “It belongs to the relative truth of the world of experience from our consciousness.” In other words, time merely exists in our minds.
While I don’t have the qualifications of a philosopher to argue with any of these points, I can confirm that time does indeed exist. Or at least, that I’ve had numerous anxiety attacks about the concept of time, specifically timelines. Much of my adulthood has been spent navigating an incessant, gnawing sound in the deepest abyss of my mind.
Tik tok, tik tok, tik tok.
That’s the sound of time fading, the pressure to achieve accumulating, and the rush to find meaning before the time bomb of my life (death) explodes.
On my 24th birthday, 7 years ago, I experienced my first full-fledged panic attack. I felt overwhelmed by the idea of getting closer to 25; a quarter of my life was gone, with nothing to show for it. I was enrolled in college after working in banking for 4 years, and was waitressing to pay my way through school. I couldn’t wrap my head around how I was going to graduate, focus on a career, find a man, and somehow become a mom by 28—an age I had convinced myself I would start a family by. I had so many boxes to tick off in so little time. My panic attack eventually ended, but my anxiety simmered.
Somewhere along the way we’ve started to truly believe that it’s normal to have made your biggest contribution to society before you’re even old enough to get a rental car.
I met my now-husband a few months later, and I’d love to say my anxiety about timelines lessened, but the intense desire to accomplish only increased. I ticked one box off the list, but what about all of the other ones? When were we going to start a family? When were we going to buy a house? Could I still make the 30 under 30 Forbes list? And more importantly, doing what?
The notion of time consumed me, specifically that I didn’t have any; that time was running out. While men had their whole lives to accomplish (remember: they peak as they age), we women have an expiration date tattooed on our foreheads, often decades earlier than our male counterparts. With each year, I could quite literally feel my fertile eggs aging and time slipping away from me. I’d obsessively repeat all of the thing I had to accomplish in so little time: Career. House. Baby. Success. Career. House. Baby. Success. My husband, on the other hand, was completely unphased by the concept of time, often reminding me that we had our whole lives to figure “it” out.
The privilege of not having ovaries, I’d think to myself.
Whether you measure time through a calendar, clock, or the changes in the moon cycle, most of us have been conditioned to believe that success (and happiness) is found on a previously-agreed-upon societal, singular timeline—whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. The programming suggests an easy, linear trajectory: a college degree, a stable (and notable) job, marriage, children, death. All in that precise order. The images our society and media celebrate as markers of success don’t allow room for set-backs, lack of privilege, or quite simply, the concept of being human. There’s no room for making mistakes, experiencing extreme challenges, changing your mind, or being unsure.
This societal time-cooker has forced me to live my life in an uneasy rush to achieve. I’m anxiously running to a finish line (death), and once I pass, the pressure of it all will finally evaporate with my ashes and a knowing that it all meant something. As physician Alex Lickerman worded beautifully: “My anxiety about time, it turns out, is really anxiety about meaning.”
I’m anxious about the sound of time fading, the pressure to achieve accumulating, and the rush to find meaning before the time bomb of my life (death) explodes.
We live in a world that tells women we can be who or what we want to be. Told we can have it all, but really, encouraged that we should have it all. It’s why we shame both working moms and stay-at-home moms. While my generation has many more options than my mother’s, we have mistaken choice with freedom. We are still in fact caged by social expectations of what it means to be a woman. In an age where we glorify female entrepreneurship for example, what happens to your self-esteem and happiness when you feel stuck on a one-way trajectory that wasn’t designed for you?
Did you know Julia Child didn’t release her cookbook until she was 50? Vera Wang didn’t enter the fashion industry until she was 40. JK Rowling was 33 when she published her first installment of Harry Potter, and Joy Behar pursued her dream of comedy in her late 30s.
While I have spent years beating myself up over time slipping away from me and having nothing to show for it, these women clearly prove that the pressures of age or time mean shit. Time didn’t interfere with their ability to live life on their own terms: achieving only when there was something worth achieving, on nobody’s timeline or rules but their own.
Another philosopher of time, physicist John Polkinghorne, describes time as an “unfolding and becoming” and I think that’s a perfect way to illustrate my new beliefs regarding my own life. Comparative and judgmental timelines that have been created by society are none of my concern, or at least that’s what I’ve been constantly reminding myself of. Time is a societal concept I’m no longer adhering to. My life isn’t a ticking time bomb or full of boxes to tick off. I don’t have an expiration date, or an age when I’m supposed to peak. I choose how to view the trajectory of my life: an unfolding of myself to become more and more myself. Screw the societal chronological schedule. My life is an experiential timeline stringed together by my own desires and internal rhythms. I don’t have to have it all, even if I can. I am enough, exactly where I am.
LET'S TALK: do you ever panic over social and cultural timelines?
WHAT READERS ARE SAYING ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
I feel you man. As a 28 year old man I do not like this feeling of drifting towards 30 without any brakes. I imagine, though, that for women it must be even harder because their biological clock ticks faster.
Also I think comparing yourself to other successful people who made it late in life is a trap. I do not think that, JK rowling, for example, told herself when she was 28 that there were far older people who made it late in their life therefore its okay to just be me for now.
The concept of time has always been painfully intertwined with my thoughts and emotions surrounding my career, successes and now, marriage and fertility, as my fiancé and I are planning our wedding and future family. I feel a constant panic when I compare myself to friends and others who are more successfully accomplished than me, or are steps ahead in their own life in comparison. I can’t help thinking I’m behind, that I’ve failed, or it’s too late. I’m constantly practicing to remove the anxiousness caused by my life feeling like a ticking clock, reminding myself that I’m on my own timeline and my own path. But it’s especially difficult when I feel like my timeline is pressured by other people and their judgement, like when I share with friends that I will probably have a family within the next 2-3 years and I’m met with questions like: “Are you sure you want to wait that long? Aren’t you concerned it will be difficult for you to conceive?” I’m working on acceptance of where I am now, in this moment, by dismissing the cultural societal barriers that tell me I should be otherwise but sometimes it’s overwhelming and hard to ignore.