The first sight that greets you on entering my flat is a print by the Brooklyn-based satirical illustrator Julie Houts titled “On Death, Friday Night, My Wasted Youth”. It depicts two Friday nights – those of a 23-year-old and a 29-year-old. The former wears a black mini-dress and throws back her long blonde hair while quaffing champagne and flicking ash from a cigarette. Alongside her are phrases such as, “Lol I forgot to eat today!!!” and, “Money isn’t real!!!”. The latter hunches over a laptop in her pants, hair tied in a messy bun, skin daubed in a green face mask and cradling a slice of pizza as though it is all she has left in the world. The accompanying note reads: “It is important to take small bites so you don’t choke & die alone.”
When I bought the print, aged 24, it seemed amusing – especially as my life already better resembled the higher age bracket. I had never been one for hedonism or irresponsibility – though I am no stranger to short skirts (just ask the teacher who regularly told me off for rolling mine up at school). Now, having just turned 30, I am debating employing a little Tipp-Ex and amending the ages to “33” and “39”.
I began my week of celebrations (yes, a week; I approach my birthday with unseemly seriousness) with a surprise weekend away in the countryside organised by two of my closest friends. We drank wine and slept in, went on long, muddy walks and had philosophical conversations late into the night. On the Saturday morning I curled up under a blanket in front of the fire with my knitting and marvelled that I was not, despite appearances, approaching 80. The only suggestion of youth about the scene was the Nirvana T-shirt I was wearing as a pyjama top – though, as the rather lovely American man I’ve been seeing (Grandma, I’ll call you later) remarked, the original Kurt Cobain fans are in their fifties now.
Whenever I mention this latest birthday, I do so in anticipation of the inevitable sympathetic grimace, the “How are you feeling about it?” question. I know I am supposed to be, at the very least, uneasy; to mourn the younger, freer days left behind. But the reality is that I feel just fine, thank you very much. If anything, I’m a little surprised to find I am still so young – as people often are when they learn my age. I have felt 30 – by which I suppose I mean I have felt like an established, put-together adult – since my mid-twenties.
I have long been old for my age. As a child I was so keen to learn to read and write that I insisted my mother taught me the alphabet before I started school. The resulting stories about “hamsun prinss” (handsome princes), “sgwiruls” (squirrels) and parrots who “cudnd cip qiyt” (couldn’t keep quiet) are funnier than anything I’ve written since. I was so desperate to be an adult that I insisted on helping my mother unpack the food shopping, breaking as many eggs as I managed to store safely in the fridge door. And an oft-quoted line among my family is the time I turned to a friend while in a shopping centre, aged three, and precociously said: “Rachel, this music sounds rather familiar.”
But I was likely not, my therapist would remind me, entirely born this way. I am the eldest sibling of a childhood divorce, inevitably and inescapably altered; the responsibility assumed, the emotional burden shouldered too young. I wonder, sometimes, about who I might have grown to be had family life gone a little differently for me: would I still feel others’ struggles as if they are my own, would I take myself less seriously? Would I be surprised to turn 30 because I felt too young for it, rather than too old?
I have been assured many times in the past week that your thirties are the best decade because you know who you are, what you want – as if I did not understand deeply, long fervently before; as if I am now unchanging, immovable. I do not know who I will be by the end of this next decade, but I hope they will be playful years, more irresponsible. That by the end of them, I might be a little less grown up.
This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party