Last year, I celebrated my 29th birthday with cocktails and cake at my family home in London, just weeks into the first nationwide lockdown of the pandemic. There’s a great deal of pressure that comes with turning 29, and I felt it instantly. It was as though an invisible timer had been set, giving me just 12 months to get everything in perfect order before embarking on the next decade of my life. But it didn’t cross my mind that I’d be spending the majority of the next year in a state of limbo.
The transition from carefree 20-something into fully fledged adult invites a number of lists and deadlines, each one more anxiety-inducing than the last. We’re confronted with advisory “30 things to do before 30” articles and celebratory (well, for those included) “30 under 30” lists. It’s as if our accomplishments diminish if they’re completed after our 20s as opposed to during them.
But what happens if I travel to that highly recommended destination or get a job promotion as a 30-something woman? Does it somehow matter less? These burning questions have been amplified for me during the pandemic, as lockdown has brought more uncertainty to my career and personal life than ever before.
Before the pandemic hit, I had spent the previous few years carving out a career for myself in journalism. And I had always felt a certain degree of stability — as much as one can have in an ever-changing, unrelenting industry. But that changed when lockdown was imposed. Stagnated by the global pandemic, progression was replaced by an unavoidable regression. My newsroom shifts were pulled, and the press events I had been confirmed to attend were canceled. Overnight, my schedule became worryingly sparse. No longer a fixture of my handbag, my work diary soon joined an eclectic collection of books used to prop up my laptop for video calls. As a freelancer, I didn’t have a HR department looking out for my interests. I had been left out in the cold alone.
Suddenly, I was experiencing an uncertainty in my career that was similar to those first couple of years after graduating from college. But I wasn’t in my early 20s anymore. I didn’t have time to wait around for things to work themselves out. The clock was ticking. Rather than spending the last year of my 20s celebrating my successes and tying up loose ends, as I had envisioned, I was forced to enter survival mode. And while my career is now, thankfully, on a steady path once more, I can’t help but feel bitter about those pivotal months spent rebuilding what was lost because of the onset of lockdown.
Everywhere you look, society plays a role in telling us that as we enter our 30s, we can no longer be “works in progress.” And it’s no secret that the narrative surrounding women getting older is even less complimentary. Along with pressures in our career, we’re also constantly reminded that we are restricted by a non-negotiable biological timetable. I have yet to decide if I want to have children; I have always been able to imagine my future both with and without a family of my own. However, I can’t ignore the fact that if I do decide to have children, I’ve missed out on a year of dating and potentially meeting the person I would want to settle down with.
I have never used dating apps and, unlike other singletons I know, the pandemic hasn’t prompted me to change my stance on seeking romantic connections via virtual means. So, I’ve spent my days without any romantic prospects. Luckily, I’ve been at home with my family — something to stave off the loneliness that I know people who live alone are experiencing acutely.
Maybe that’s why I’m more concerned about the impact lockdown has had on my existing relationships. I’ve lost the closeness of the social connections I spent much of the past decade forming and nurturing. I had always envisioned experiencing this time alongside my friends, most of whom are my age. It seemed inevitable that we’d retire our 20s in style, together. But we have been robbed of the opportunity of being carefree 20-somethings. Instead, we have been reduced to celebrating life-affirming milestones — birthdays, engagements, and even pregnancy announcements — over scheduled video calls.
Once the highlight of our week, my friend Zoom calls depleted in frequency and enthusiasm as lockdown continued. Our excited catch-up sessions — typically held on a Saturday evening, in an attempt to maintain the guise of an active social life — soon turned into fortnightly calls, before eventually becoming sporadic appointments that rarely had full attendance.
And now, with the government lockdown rules having been relaxed in recent weeks, groups of six are allowed to meet up in outdoor spaces. But I have found that my friendships have irrevocably changed. Not necessarily for the worse, but the shift is undeniable. Lockdown has affected each of us as individuals, so it’s only natural that our friendship group feels different, too. To a certain degree, we have to get to know each other all over again.
In other words, from my friendships to my career, my confidence has taken a hit — and at an age where I thought I’d be at my most self-assured. But there have been wins among the losses. The stillness of lockdown life has made way for moments of great clarity. I’ve gained a clearer picture of myself, and who I am when everything is stripped away. This new and, at times, unflattering perspective has forced me to focus on the most important relationship of all — the one I have with myself.
I have come to realize that instead of being consumed by societal pressures, I need to recognize and celebrate my successes when they happen. I can’t — or rather, I shouldn’t — measure my accomplishments against a self-imposed ticking clock.
Am I resentful about the setbacks I’ve encountered this past year? Yes. Unequivocally. But I also feel somewhat relieved of the age-dependent deadlines I’ve always been compelled to meet. Sometimes reality falls short of your expectations, and you have no choice but to take an alternative route to your end goal. Lockdown may have stolen the last year of my 20s, but it’s also gifted me with a renewed sense of resilience, determination and self-compassion.
Perhaps I’m ready to welcome my 30s, after all.
Olivia-Anne Cleary is a London-based writer and editor.