From 14 to 19, I kept a five-year journal — the kind where each page has slots to write your thoughts on the same day every year.
And in August every year, on my birthday, I would pose the same question to my future self: Has it happened yet?
The “it” in question was my first kiss. Growing up watching romantic comedies and reading young-adult romance novels (including everything Sarah Dessen ever wrote), I was obsessed with all things related to love. I kept waiting for it to happen — but it just didn’t.
The great teenage romance the media told me I would have is only one of many aspects of being young that I feel as if I’ve failed at.
Now, I’m turning 21 later this summer, and I’m not ready.
When I started college in 2018, I resolved to finally live the experiences everyone else around me was living: dating, hooking up, partying, going on adventures. I accomplished some of what I wanted to, but by my sophomore year, I still felt as if I was behind my peers.
I had prioritized my professional and academic development. I studied abroad, became a top editor at my college newspaper, excelled in my classes, began freelance writing and landed a dream internship.
But all the time I spent working was time I wasn’t spending going to parties, meeting new people, dating and doing the college thing.
I told myself that I still had time, that I wasn’t even halfway done with college. Then the coronavirus pandemic happened, and I lost a year of what was supposed to be the best years of my life.
I’ve failed at being young, and my upcoming 21st birthday is another painful reminder of that.
I know pop culture tends to over-dramatize the teenage experience. And I know, deep down, that I’m far from the only almost-21-year-old lacking these experiences, including their first kiss. But it often feels as if I’m the only one. Let’s just say Drew Barrymore didn’t adequately prepare me for this.
At first, we were coddled and comforted. Now, we’re expected to jump back into the world at full force.
We’re not ready. I’m not ready. How do you come of age during a pandemic and come out unscathed?
Many young people are still feeling the effects of the pandemic economically, academically, professionally, socially and mentally. It’s not easy to bounce back. I’m one of the lucky ones: I’ve remained economically stable throughout the pandemic, and I haven’t lost any loved ones. I’m taking this year off to do a full-time journalism co-op and live off campus, but I’ll be returning to in-person classes on campus in the beginning of 2022 for my final year of college.
But we’ve all been robbed of pivotal experiences, whether it’s prom, graduation, dating, college parties or first jobs. We’re a year and half behind where we might be otherwise, and many of us feel like impostors.
I don’t fully believe that I’m a real adult. I feel like a little girl pretending to be a woman — like when I was a kid and would try on my mom’s lipstick or heels.
I can’t help but wonder, in an alternate universe where 2020 was a normal year, what might’ve been. What has this pandemic stolen from me?
I like my life. I’m generally happy. I tell myself that my younger self would be proud that I’m a successful writer who’s been published in the magazines she grew up reading, or that I’m surrounded by amazing people and live in a city apartment with my best friend.
But if she knew that we’d be 21 with the same amount of romantic experience we had 10 years ago, she’d cry.
For so long, I convinced myself that my lack of romantic experience was my own fault. I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t thin enough. I wasn’t funny or charming enough. I wasn’t girly enough.
I know now that it’s not my own fault. It’s still my deepest insecurity and my biggest embarrassment, but it’s something I’m coming to terms with.
A first kiss seems like such a small thing, but for so long, it meant everything to me. It felt like such a simple marker of growing up, of being a woman. It’s one of those universal experiences, a story you trade at parties — that and the other first time, which clearly has also not happened for me, either.
In a way, it feels like a hurdle I’ll never be able to get over. Who wants to date the woman no one has ever wanted to take a chance on?
If I had known I would lose a year of my adolescent life, I would’ve made a point to live more. Maybe I would’ve had a “Booksmart”-esque wild night or opened myself up more to trying new things. I would’ve let my guard down and acted like every other college student.
I spent so much time doing what I thought I had to do to stand out in my career that I missed out on being young. People often tell me I’m intimidating because of how I carry myself or how much I’ve accomplished at a young age. It blows me away every time.
I don’t feel 21. I don’t even feel 20. I feel stuck at 19, in the same place I was before the coronavirus devastated the world.
The media I grew up on told me that, by 21, I’d have lived a whole life. I may not have really lived yet — but then again, I’m only 20, and I survived a pandemic.
Maybe by the time my birthday rolls around in August, I’ll feel ready to be 21.