BOONES MILL, Va. — Samantha Smith knows she spends too much time on Pinterest, but she can’t help it. She scrolls through her phone, assembling a personalized collage of images that promise to, in some small way, improve her life: a new hairstyle, a do-it-yourself Christmas ornament, a recipe for strawberry jam. Smith often keeps her hopes and aspirations to herself. At 30, she’s been disappointed enough to know that’s usually for the best. But on Pinterest, she is free to dream a little.
Mostly, Smith uses the app for wedding planning. She’s got it all pretty much figured out, though it’s still more than a year away: The groomsmen will wear jeans and white button-up shirts; the bridesmaids will carry sunflowers. Everything will be teal and yellow. Guests — about 100 of them, last time she counted — will feast on steaming plates of barbecue. The cake, inspired by a Pinterest photo, will be frosted to look like bark.
Smith always expected to be married by 30. She expected to have a lot of other things, too: at least two kids, a house, a registered nursing degree, a job that pays upward of $50,000 a year. She spent her 30th birthday — a windy, 40-degree day in February — in a hotel room in Virginia Beach, watching “The King of Queens” reruns with her fiance, Mike Neuhs, who she has been dating for more than eight years. At one point, she remembers, she told him, “This is not where I wanted to be when I was 30.”
It’s not that Smith is unhappy with her life. There is plenty she’s proud of. In May, she became a licensed practical nurse, a goal she has been pursuing for more than 10 years. She finds real meaning in her work. She knows that’s not something too many people can say.
Samantha Smith has the experiences of the median 30-year-old American woman, according to census data: She has one child, some college education, but not a four-year degree. She does not own a home. In different ways, too, her life is like a lot of others: She makes close to $37,000, a 30-year-old woman’s average salary. Soon she’ll be married, like 48 percent of women her age. She has the most common last name in the country. Like 56 percent of 30-year-old American women today, she is white. She is the average dress size: a size 18.
Smith is not representative of American women at 30. No one woman could be. She is a product of how she has spent the past 29 years: as a politically conservative Christian white woman living in the South. Still, she has thoughts and feelings about this particular birthday that many other women share.
For one, she’d been dreading it. She’s not sure where it came from, exactly, but she has always had a mental picture of what her life would be like on the cusp of her 30s. Once it became clear that the reality and the picture weren’t going to match, the birthday became something to play down and hide from. In the weeks leading up to it, she says, “I thought I was going to have a mental breakdown.”
Turning 30 isn’t the same for men. Women have always had to contend with a biological pressure that, for many, steadily builds throughout their 30s: If I want to have a child, or more children, the thinking goes, I’d better do it now. Thanks in part to a widely circulated 2004 study, many women think they are significantly less likely to get pregnant after age 35. (That study has since been challenged, with some experts agreeing that women’s fertility levels don’t really start to plunge until 40.)
“Sometimes, the Composite Woman is married and sometimes she is not,” Cohen writes. “Sometimes, horribly, there is no man on the horizon. What there is always, though, is a feeling that the clock is ticking. A decision will have to be made. A decision that will stick forever.”
Cohen’s language is now gratingly outdated. (The “Composite Woman,” he notes, is “the pretty one” with the “nice figure.”) But more than 40 years later, the “ticking clock” concept still resonates. For Smith, 30 feels like a kind of deadline to get your life in order — or, at the very least, to have the life you want in sight.
She has a hard time explaining why.
“Because it’s 30. I mean … I don’t know what it is, but it’s just. … It’s 30.”
Going into the party store, Smith thought she knew exactly which balloons she wanted: 12 of the regular size, a mix of pink, teal and purple. Then she sees the metallic pineapple, the flowery unicorn, the rainbow with teen pop star JoJo Siwa’s head sitting on a floating cloud. And she’s tempted. Smith wants this birthday party to be the best ever: Her daughter, Mykayla, is turning 10.
“But it’s 10 dollars,” she says, reluctantly returning the rainbow cloud to its shelf. By the time she reaches the register, she has changed her mind.
She ducks out of the line, grinning like a kid who scored a bag of candy she isn’t supposed to have.
“I’ll be right back.”
Today, like always, Smith’s hair is pulled back in a tight bun, swept away from the bodily mushes and messes she’s always had to clean up as a nurse’s aide. She has a soft, round face, lightly sponged with the fairest shade of CoverGirl pressed powder. Even in the winter, she keeps sunglasses — the reigning pair is black, splattered with rhinestones — perched on top of her head.
Smith usually loves her annual trip to the party store. This year, though, it’s making her feel old. For the first time, she bypassed the children’s aisles, with their assortment of princesses, fairies and Angry Birds. Mykayla’s choice of theme — “Hawaiian” — has drawn Smith to the section for grown-ups. She thinks back to that morning, when she asked Mykayla how she could possibly be turning 10. Mykayla stuck out her hip, smirked and said, “In three years, Mama, I’ll be 13.”
Mykayla’s birthday stirs up questions that are common at 30: Am I on track to have the kind of life I want? And if not, will I ever be able to catch up?
At the party tomorrow, Smith will be surrounded by babies. Many of her friends had children in their mid- to late 20s. Her sister, Amie Perdue, who is 18 months younger than Smith, got married at 26, three years after Perdue started dating the man she would go on to marry. She had her first baby at 27, her second at 28. Where Smith lives, on the outskirts of Roanoke, that’s a pretty typical timeline. Celebrating Mykayla’s “double digits,” she can’t help but fixate on how far she’s veered from it.
Smith has wanted a big family since she was a kid. Mykayla asks for a little brother or sister all the time; Smith always thought that, one day, she would be able to give her one. “It’s something I have always heard Sam say — that she can’t wait to have another kid, settle down,” says Perdue. Now, though, that is looking unlikely: Neuhs, Smith’s fiance, doesn’t want children.
Smith got pregnant with Mykayla when she was 19. It’s one part of her life that is distinctly atypical: The number of teen moms has been steadily declining for decades, and women generally are choosing to have children much later in life. Today, the average age of first-time mothers in America is 26 years old. In 1980, it was 22.
Getting pregnant right out of high school was never the plan. Smith was supposed to start nursing classes at a local community college. She was going to work toward her registered nursing degree while pulling shifts at the nursing home.
“I think I must have taken 20 pregnancy tests,” Smith says. She couldn’t believe it. She had been dating the father for just a couple of weeks. He proposed a few months later, spray-painting some rocks with the words “Merry Me.” It wasn’t “true love,” she says, but she said yes anyway. It was better than moving back in with her parents. She didn’t have the heart to tell him he had spelled “marry” wrong.
When they learned Smith was pregnant, many people who knew her were shocked. Perdue, Smith’s sister, was the party girl. Beautiful and thin, with long, silky brown hair, Perdue was the one who spent nights drinking downtown. For her 21st birthday, she went mud bogging with the boys from the popular crowd, climbing into jacked-up four-wheelers and accelerating through deep sloughs of mud.
Smith never had a ton of friends in high school. She spent most of her free time at the local nursing home, watching cooking shows with a woman almost 90 years old who she still calls “my baby.” On her way to prom, Smith stopped by to walk down a red carpet that the nursing home had rolled out for the occasion, pausing every few feet to take photos with the residents, lined up in their wheelchairs.
“She wasn’t very talkative,” says Perdue. Whenever she invited Smith to a party, she says, she always had an excuse: I’m tired, I won’t know anyone, I don’t feel like getting ready. “She says everybody knew and liked me — that I was too popular to relate with her,” Perdue says.
It wasn’t easy being Perdue’s older sister. More than once, Smith says, Perdue moved in on a guy she had been dating. There was the one who looked like the country singer Jason Aldean, Smith says, pulling up his Facebook photo: When she called him, a few months after they had broken up, she was surprised to learn he was in a canoe with her sister. Another time, Perdue went to talk to a different ex about getting back together with Smith. He and Perdue ended up dating for five years, Smith says.
“For a while there, it seemed like the guys only hung out with me to get to her."
Smith split up with Mykayla’s father before the baby’s first birthday. She waited a couple of years before going back to school, eventually enrolling in a two-year nursing program at Roanoke’s ITT Technical Institute, a for-profit college. But after one year, ITT abruptly declared bankruptcy. When the email came through, Smith, in the middle of a shift at the hospital, passed her phone to a colleague.
“I was like, ‘Can you please explain this to me? Because I’m having a really hard time right now.’”
It was a national news story. With 137 campuses nationwide, ITT stranded more than 35,000 students. Other recent for-profit closures have affected tens of thousands more. These students often have a hard time finding other colleges willing to recognize the work they have already finished. When the Roanoke branch closed, Smith called every nursing program in the area: The only school that would take her credits was in Florida.
Like the majority of women her age, Smith was set on going to college. Over the past decade, the number of 30-year-old women with at least some college education has increased significantly, from 61 percent in 2010 to 65 percent in 2017. But for one reason or another, many of those students don’t make it to graduation — or, like Smith, they spend a lot of extra years trying to get there. Only 28 percent of students at four-year colleges finish in four years, and only 26 percent at two-year colleges finish in two.
After ITT closed, it took years for Smith to persuade herself to go back to school. For her student loans to be forgiven, she had to agree to void all her ITT credits.
“I had to say pretty much that the last year of my life didn’t happen. The classes, the tests, the clinicals — they didn’t mean nothing.”
Smith has wanted to be a nurse since she was a kid. Her parents still have the essay she wrote about it in the first grade. It’s “a gift,” Smith says, to be with someone at their most vulnerable, making them feel respected and cared for as you brush their hair, wipe their mouth, help them step into the shower. Sometimes, Smith will sit with patients at the very end.
“A nurse is the patient’s most valuable advocate,” she says. “The doctor is always just coming in and out. If something changes, the nurse is going to be the one to realize it.” For Smith, the best part of the job is getting to know patients and their families. When her cooking-show friend passed away, the woman’s daughter gave Smith an emerald bracelet that her father had given to her mother. Smith wore it on her wedding day.
Smith has always known that she’s good at what she does. She grew up hearing people refer to nursing as her “calling.” But she has also always believed in God, and it felt like, with her school closing down, maybe He was trying to tell her something.
“When your school shuts down, you kind of look at it like, okay, is this my sign? Is this not where God wants me to be?”
Smith pauses, hugging a pillow and sinking back into the depths of her brown suede loveseat.
“Or is this just to see how bad I want it?”
On the morning of Mykayla’s party, Smith sent the same message to everyone on the guest list: When Google Maps tells you to stop, keep going.
Smith and Neuhs, Smith’s fiance, moved into their house last summer. It’s one story, perched on top of a hill. The land has been in Neuhs’s family for decades. For someone like Neuhs, who most days would like to keep to himself, it’s an oasis, tucked away almost two miles off the road that climbs from the city of Roanoke up into the Shenandoah Mountains. Near where Google Maps cuts out, the paved road turns to gravel. There’s an old shipping container, orange with rust, abandoned in the middle of a field.
When Perdue and her husband, Peyton, pull into the driveway, Smith is taping hula skirts to folding tables, wearing spandex leggings and the same oversize T-shirt she wore the day before. Perdue lifts her 1-year-old son, Henry, out of his car seat while Peyton heads into the house with their 4-week-old daughter, Emily, still sleeping in her bassinet.
“That’s my cutie bug,” Smith says, hovering over Emily, watching her chest rise and fall, ever so slightly. She is keeping Emily overnight for the first time after the party. “I mean, just look at her. That is my angel.”
There is a lot of comparing that goes on at 30. Attending a steady stream of weddings, baby showers and kids’ birthday parties, it’s impossible, Smith says, to ignore the milestones that people all around you are passing. Even if she’s not there in person, she’ll probably see pictures. The biggest life events, even for people she hardly knows, always seem to rise to the top of her Facebook feed.
Mostly, though, Smith looks at her sister.
“Amie got everything Sam wanted at exactly the time Sam wanted it,” says Casey King, Smith’s oldest friend.
Smith started dating Neuhs around the same time Perdue met Peyton. By the time Neuhs proposed, seven years into their relationship, Perdue was already married with one child, another soon on the way. She wore cowboy boots with her wedding dress, as Smith had always planned to do herself.
American women are putting off marriage longer than they ever have before: Today, less than 50 percent are married by the time they turn 30, down from 85 percent in 1960. But in Smith’s conservative social circles, the expectations feel different. Before Neuhs proposed, Smith’s friends would ask what was taking so long. Her mom would play “Single Ladies” whenever he was around, looking his way when Beyoncé sings, “Put a ring on it.”
“When I showed her my ring, she was like, ‘Seriously? How dare you get married before me,’” Perdue says. “She was being sassy, definitely sassy — but also serious. I was taking the leap she always wanted to take first.”
Neuhs was the second man Smith met on the dating site Match.com. From his profile, she could tell he was a “country boy”: broad across the shoulders and stocky, with a wiry beard and a bandanna tied tight around his forehead. She liked that he worked hard, with a good job fixing up signs around the county for the Department of Transportation.
It took six months for Smith to feel sure Neuhs was her “knight in shining armor” — or more accurately, she says, giggling, her “knight in cowboy boots.” She dropped hints about marriage, but Neuhs always had an excuse. First he wanted to wait five years, as long as he had dated his ex. Then he said marriage was too risky financially. He didn’t want to lose money if they broke up.
The night Neuhs proposed, they were arguing about his 401(k). Neuhs didn’t want Smith to have half of his retirement.
“So that’s another freaking reason we’re not going to get married?” Smith yelled. She heard Neuhs slam the front door, then drive off on his four-wheeler.
She thought about leaving that night, but it didn’t feel like a real option. It took Smith seven years to build what she had with Neuhs; in a few months, she’d be 30. She was supposed to be settling down, not starting something new.
Tiptoeing out of her bedroom, Mykayla saw her mom holding her head in her hands.
“I thought mama could flood 10 million buckets that night, she was so upset,” Mykayla says.
Twenty minutes later, Neuhs came back with a ring.
“What’s all that wood for, Samantha?” asks Brenda Smith, Samantha’s mother, walking out of the guest room. It’s where she keeps Brenda’s collection of more than 60 Snowbabies, miniature porcelain figurines with names like “Frosty Frolic” and “Saying Prayers, Boy.” When she comes over, Brenda will sometimes go in to check on them.
“Mike’s going to make us a bed frame and a picnic table,” Smith says.
Brenda snorts, then pats Smith on the shoulder, grinning like she knows something Smith doesn’t.
“Yeah, okay. You keep dreaming for those days.”
“It was his idea, and it means he gets to play with his toys, so I know he’s going to do it,” Smith calls after her mom as she starts to walk away. But Brenda is already in the kitchen, talking to someone else.
Smith spends a lot of time defending Neuhs. She knows that a lot of people — her mother, especially — have a hard time understanding why she’s with him. He avoids family gatherings. When he does tag along, he usually doesn’t say much. One of Smith’s closest friends, a bridesmaid, has never met him.
King, Smith’s oldest friend, tries to give Neuhs the benefit of the doubt. But it’s hard to forget all those years when Smith would call her crying: Mike changed his mind again, she’d say.
For a while, Neuhs said he wanted children. But then he didn’t, and then he did again, and then he didn’t. Sometimes, Smith would stop taking birth control. She’d collect coupons for diapers, baby wipes and bottles of baby-safe detergent, then buy up as much as would fit on her shelves. When plans changed, she’d give them to a friend, or, later, to her sister.
“She’d be like, ‘Why is this happening? How is this something you can change your mind on so much?’” King says.
Neuhs cites a very specific reason for not wanting kids: He was raised in a strict household, taught to respect his elders and never talk back. If he was acting up in public, his parents wouldn’t hesitate to spank him. But that kind of thing is looked down upon now, he says.
“Children today are raised to be soft,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to bring a child into the world and feel forced to raise them that way.”
Sometimes Smith thinks that’s all “BS.” But once she got engaged, she decided to stop fighting it. Babies are so much work anyway, she says, and she’s getting “too old.”
“It took me a while to get to this point, to come to peace with it.” But she’s “good now,” she says.
Smith always expected to spend her 20s striving for better things, painstakingly arranging each facet of her life to reflect the future she had in mind. “In your 20s, you’re out there building your life,” she says. “Then, in your 30s, you’re supposed to be able to settle in and enjoy.”
She has spent a lot of time trying to make the reality match the picture in her head — but it’s been hard work, and she’s ready for life to get a little easier. So instead of fixating on what she wishes was different, now that she’s 30, she thinks about what’s good.
“This year has been about watching my dreams unfold,” Smith says. “I’ve got my dream man, dream house, dream job, dream kid, a niece and a nephew.” She’s already placed wooden blocks spelling out “Mr. & Mrs.” on top of the shelf in her living room. There’s a gummy wristband that reads “I’m getting married” looped around the center console of her car.
Smith knows Neuhs is “rough around the edges,” but if people took the time to get to know him, she says, she is sure they would see him the way she does: as the caring stepfather who collects four-leaf clovers and spends three hours splashing around in the pool on a Saturday. When Smith had to work on Mykayla’s birthday, Neuhs stayed home and took her out for lunch. Mykayla sometimes calls him “Daddy Number Two.”
He’s a good fiance, too, Smith says — but in a way her friends and family might not notice. “He’s not a mushy-gushy kind of person. He’s not the guy who’s going to say ‘I love you’ all over Facebook.”
When they’re in private, though, he’ll tell her how he feels. There was one time, in their old house, before they got engaged, when he led her down to their basement. He played their song — “She’s Everything” by Brad Paisley — and they danced. “I could get him to tell me, ‘Baby, one day we will get married. I do want to marry you.’”
This all happened when he was drinking, of course, but that doesn’t matter, she says.
“It still counts.”
The floor is littered with ribbon and wrapping paper by the time Mykayla turns to the envelopes.
“You need to start at number one,” Smith says, crouching on the floor to take pictures as party guests look on from the couches behind her.
Each of the 10 envelopes promises a different mother-daughter outing: a trip to the bowling alley, the trampoline park, the mini-golf course, Chuck E. Cheese’s. Once Mykayla has opened them all, Smith retrieves the JoJo Siwa balloon from another room. Mykayla reads out the series of one-word notes tied to the bottom.
“You. Are. Going.” She starts to squeal. “To. See. Jojo.”
The birthday “coupons” are meant as a guarantee: Now that Smith has her nursing degree, things will be different.
In the licensed practical nursing (LPN) program at Virginia Western Community College, Smith was one of the only students who was both a single parent and working full time. She did most of her studying between 9 p.m., when Mykayla went to bed, and 2 a.m., hunched over a table in her bedroom with “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Gilmore Girls” playing softly in the background. Then she’d get up for work at 5:15 a.m.
“There were so many times when Mykayla would say, ‘Mama, let’s just watch a movie.’ And I really couldn’t even do that.” They ate a lot of frozen dinners on tray tables in front of the TV: pepperoni pizza rolls, chicken pot pies. When there was nothing else in the house, they would eat Lucky Charms.
As a nurse, Smith is a natural, says Robin Hess-Watson, a professor at Virginia Western who led Smith’s nursing clinic. “She has that smile of hers. She could be in a really bad mood and upset or depressed or stressed out, but the patients never saw it.”
When Smith came to Hess-Watson one day in the fall of her second year, saying she planned to drop out of school, Hess-Watson wouldn’t let her. Smith had failed a test she hadn’t had enough time to study for and was flunking a class.
“I knew she was going to be one of those nurses who people will remember,” Hess-Watson says. “You can tell.”
One afternoon in May, Smith’s entire family — her parents, her grandparents, her sister, Peyton, Neuhs, Neuhs’s father and Mykayla — filed into Virginia Western’s performing arts center for her “pinning,” a traditional pre-graduation event for soon-to-be nurses that dates back to Florence Nightingale. One by one, the director invited the graduates and their families up to the stage. When Smith’s name was called, Mykayla power-walked down the aisle and took her mother’s hand. Chest out, beaming, she fastened a pin to Smith’s scrubs. “Mama wanted me to be the one who pinned her,” Mykayla says.
Smith likes to say that Mykayla is her “why.”
“Every tear, cuss word, moment of wanting to quit. … She was the reason I did it. I went back to school to fulfill a dream of mine, but it was also to better our lives.”
As a licensed practical nurse in downtown Roanoke, Smith will make approximately $37,000 a year. Working as a nurse’s aide, she made less than $25,000. Occasionally, she would borrow money from her parents. Her father had to co-sign the loan for her car. She has cleaned her sister’s house a couple of times; Peyton usually leaves out cash for her on the table.
The salary boost isn’t all she would like it to be. The real wage increase comes with an RN degree. A registered nurse in Roanoke, Watson says, makes as much as $90,000. At her old school, ITT, Smith was enrolled in an intensive two-year RN program. If ITT had stayed open, she would have been a registered nurse by the time she turned 26.
One day, when Mykayla is a little older, Smith will go back for that degree. For now, she’s happy with her new credentials and slightly-higher-paying job at a local doctor’s office. There is already a graduation photo, blown up on a two-foot canvas, in the middle of her living room. She’s wearing her cap and gown. Mykayla is burrowing into her side.
Smith looks at the picture and smiles. “She was proud of me,” she says.
Once almost everyone has left, Smith surveys the kitchen: There are half-eaten cupcakes on the table, flattened packets of Kool-Aid wedged between the couch cushions. She has to figure out a way to cram four boxes of pizza into the fridge.
She decides all that can wait. She sits down in Neuhs’s recliner, holding her niece to her chest. Tonight, Emily will sleep in her room. When she wakes up at 3 a.m., Smith will get up to soothe her.
Whenever she feels herself getting “baby fever,” Smith focuses on Henry and Emily. She regularly scans Facebook and Pinterest for quotes about being an aunt, typed out in swirly cursive — “I may have a small finger but I have my Aunt wrapped around it” or “Love them, spoil them, give them back: Aunt Life.” Then she posts those sayings on her own Facebook profile. “Aunt posts,” she says, take up half of her page.
The babies only come over a few times a year — Perdue lives almost an hour away — but Smith likes to keep things set up for them anyway. She happily navigates around Mykayla’s old travel crib, a regular fixture in the middle of her bedroom.
She thought she might as well keep it around.