I was 23 when the world shut down. Almost three years out of college, I had spent the past few years settling into life as a full-fledged adult: working on my career, having fun with friends. I felt right on track for my early 20s, even ahead of my goals. In short, the future appeared to be blissfully wide open and all mine to explore.
Then, in March 2020, I went home for “just three days.” Surviving replaced any thoughts of thriving. The childhood bedroom I had packed up two weeks before, ahead of an eventually delayed sale of my family home, became where I slept, worked and constantly refreshed the news.
Every day felt the same, and yet time continued, another year passed, and another. Now, I’ve suddenly found myself at 25, recently having moved to a new city. In many ways, I’m starting over in a world far from the one in which I entered the pandemic — and I’m wholly panicking over the pressures I feel.
Fears over hitting milestones — whether self-imposed or societal — have replaced the relative disregard for it all I once knew. These days, my thoughts regularly fill with questions about whether I’ll find a partner, have time to achieve what I want before adding children into the mix, and if I am behind where I “should” be.
I’m left wondering: Who am I now without knowing who I would have been over the past two years?
I’m far from alone in experiencing this sudden distress. “The pandemic has impacted the moods of women in their 20s and 30s with a heightened sense of worry and overwhelmed them with fear that they have lost opportunities to get married or have a baby,” says Charese L. Josie, a licensed social worker and the owner and founder of CJ Counseling and Consulting Services.
With the world tentatively (and perhaps, once again, temporarily) opening back up, I question the timeline I’ve set for myself. Every “future” goal I had for myself feels moved up exponentially, but I am no more, or maybe even less, ready for them.
Particularly in the past couple of months, I’ve opened social media to find engagement pictures, wedding pictures and baby pictures fill my feed. I don’t want any of these things right now, but I find myself feeling constantly stressed and jealous when they appear. I’m shocked to find myself often wondering if I’m behind as a single woman. I question if my biological clock will tick faster than I can keep up with it.
I think part of it also comes from the tremendous uncertainty of the past 20 months. Life has felt so precious while being completely upended, and I find myself seeking a greater sense of stability in all of it.
According to Ash Nadkarni, a psychiatrist and instructor at Harvard Medical School, the process of commitment and commitment-ending is what “ignites the reflection” in a so-called quarter-life crisis. That’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has thrown our mortality into question.
“For so many, there’s the question of a need to pursue a different path with greater meaning and purpose,” she tells me. “Ergo the crisis and change in expectations related to both employment but also marriage and having children.”
Time has passed without any way to retrieve it, and the future is uncertain. The only thing I, and anyone with similar worries, can do is be aware of my thoughts and actions moving forward. Here is what Josie and Nadkarni recommend to do.
We’ll never know how life would have looked in a world without covid-19. As we dip our toes back into life, it’s essential to take stock of yourself at this moment and what you truly want — not what you feel society expects of you.
“It’s important that women remember who they are as a person rather than the act or behavior of getting married or having a baby. If this is ignored, there is a higher risk of accepting any relationship to feel chosen,” says Josie.
This may involve exploring things that could make you happy but have been out of your comfort zone during the pandemic. It could also mean taking time to be alone on purpose, whether you take yourself out to eat, go to a movie or go for a walk.
It’s no surprise that another one of Josie’s recommendations is to step away from social media — the space that often ignites my stresses about the future. She says that “fears are magnified with perfected social media pictures and videos.” To combat this, she encourages people “not to get caught up in the filters, images and graphics, but rather focus on who they want to be in their singleness.”
Of course, this is easier said than done. How often have I told myself, “Oh, I only want to quickly see what the engagement ring looks like or a person’s posts about their new position?” Answer: far too many, and it ends up taking up too much time.
As a trick, Nadkarni says to remind yourself of why people post on social media in the first place: to display their best moments selectively. It fails to capture the harsh realities or potentially similar crises your digital circle is also experiencing.
Stability and understanding do not come solely from a partner or having a family. Seek out people who bring you laughter, listen to you and will not let you remain stagnant, says Josie. These relationships can help with loneliness, and you may find others who relate to your worries.
When I talked with friends around my age about my fears, I was surprised by how validated they made me feel and that many of them felt exactly the same.
Look out for the person you are today: It’s someone who has been through quite a lot. This may involve writing positive affirmations in your journal or focusing on the goals that really matter to you, according to Nadkarni. The most critical ingredient while navigating each valid emotion? Self-compassion.
“[It] is a necessary and valuable attribute especially since the expectation of being able to suddenly hit the ‘play’ button and put one’s life on rapid, forward movement is so unrealistic,” says Nadkarni.
I am working to care for myself and understand what I truly want — instead of what an extended period of uncontrollable instability has made me believe I should want.