I’m one of those annoying people who loves their own birthday to an unseemly, age-inappropriate degree. I don’t quite go as far as insisting on a whole birthday week, but I do have two separate celebrations. On the day itself I get dressed up and go to Soho alone to eat a fancy lunch and drink cocktails outside on the pavement and people watch. (I’ve done this every year since I moved to London, even when it meant having to work extra shifts for weeks or veering into a totally unjustifiable overdraft. It felt most important during those times, even, to remind myself it was not all 7am misery here, not all Pret filter coffee burning your throat on the Tube, not all eating cold sandwiches over bins with tears in your eyes.)
After my cocktails I spend a little while noting down the best things that took place during the past year, and a handful of goals for the one coming. That these goals have remained the same for 15 years – “attain a minimal level of cardiovascular health” for instance, or “no phone in the bedroom”– makes no odds. Down they go again, with as much undue hope as ever.
The second celebration is a party where in overexcitement I bring together too many people from too many different parts of my life. I flit ecstatically between clusters of bewildered friends who have no connection besides my invitation. I’m self-centred and vain and I love that everyone has come for me, the people I see three times a week and those I only ever see on birthdays. My greatest joy is to have everyone I like in the same place, and it’s only possible to orchestrate on this one, treasured day a year.
I turn 30 this week and I am mildly dejected at the thought of the milestone being marked by me treading past urine-soaked hedges in Peckham Rye instead of sitting down serenely to a martini. Drinking cider in the park seems a definitely adolescent, a definitely not-30 activity. I’m sad, too, that the number of pals who can accompany my mitigated revelry will be a drastically scaled-down version of my usual birthday social splurge. But this, admittedly, extremely privileged disappointment aside, I have no qualms about leaving my twenties. They got really great towards the end, but for the most part, it’s an enthusiastic good riddance from me.
I used to think it patronising to speak about younger people not knowing who they are. After all, didn’t I feel things, want things, with undeniable conviction back then? I did! Much more so, and much more beautifully and eloquently, than I do now. Now, having gone through some objectively dark times, I know that one doesn’t typically die of heartbreak or embarrassment or panic or sadness, making the stakes a lot lower. It’s not that I don’t care anymore, only that I’m aware new events are always coming – ceaseless, merciless bastards that they are – and that, even as I cry and scream about today’s grief, a new and as yet, unknown, thing to be happy and sad about is probably already cooking up somewhere.
There is very little I will mourn about my twenties. I am still just superficially youthful enough that I am regularly ID-ed for wine and cigarettes – though if the shopkeepers peered a few feet closer they would see the mottling and expanding creases around my eyes and mouth the selfsame booze and fags have produced. I don’t want children, which relieves me of one of the largest and most pressing burdens of time passing. I have managed to hold on to most of my good friends and gather new ones. I do not find it difficult, as men’s rights activists assured me I would after the age of 25, to find boyfriends, dates, people who wish to sleep with me.
There is only one thing about becoming 30 that is making me feel unsettled, and it’s a question of aesthetics. It’s about the visual trappings of youth, and my confusion about where and why to draw the line firmly between girlhood and womanhood. I moved into a new apartment recently and was for the first time in my life able to decorate where I live as I please. What pleased me, it transpired, were an endless number of plush soft furnishings in dusty pink. The place is filled with velvet cushions and armchairs and tasselled lampshades and throws. Even the damn towels are pink. It looks like an apartment my ten-year-old self would have drawn for a grown-up.
In the cupboards and wardrobes of my Urban Millennial Barbie Dream Home are further unsophisticated fripperies. Floral swing dresses and hair ribbons and cutesy plastic jewellery. At the risk of killing my sex life stone dead, I admit I still have a teddy bear. Now, owning a teddy bear doesn’t feel perverse to admit – accumulating age being an insidious, slow thing, and holding a teddy bear being one of the things that has helped me to sleep for as long as I can remember. But I do freely concede that for an outside party to enter the bedroom of a 30-year-old woman and find that not only is her furniture and bedding all candy-floss coloured, but she has an actual honest-to-God teddy bear? I get it. I’m veering into ghoulish Miss Havisham territory.
I don’t know when the line gets drawn. Is whimsy for girls only? What do adult women get instead? Is there an age where Peter Pan collars and ankle socks are officially barred, and one has to invest instead in austere slacks and perfect white shirts – or whatever it is grown-up women are supposed to wear?
Somewhere here is where my issue lies, I think, the implication that being a woman means being polished, put together: finished. I don’t feel like a girl, I feel like an adult – but I don’t feel finished or cohesive. I’m not sure I ever want to feel finished. Maybe what I’m after is not a way to retain the remnants of girlhood, but instead to find a way of being a woman which does not necessarily imply order, and responsibility, and chicness.
This article appears in the 24 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football