My friend Marie just celebrated her 30th birthday, and she invited me to drinks under the pretense that we were toasting the closing of her new Brooklyn Heights condo. Marie is a savvy, single New York woman who works as a social worker specializing in child development. Turns out, what she really wanted to do was give me a stern talking-to about my new boyfriend... who's 23. Word had traveled that I'd blown off a couple work-related cocktail parties and a girls' night dinner or two to hang out with the boy toy.
The truth is, I'd been on vacation from my life since we'd hooked up at the beginning of summer. I'd been putting minimal effort into my writing, and instead spent my days watching the boy toy skateboard at Pier 61 on the Hudson River. There I was, one of few girls in the park sitting on the sidelines and sporting a sundress, sunglasses, my Marc Jacobs bag and a can of malt liquor in a paper bag. As he'd grind the park's bowls for hours at a time, occasionally stopping over to make out with me in front of all his friends, I couldn't help think this was the millennial urban equivalent of being a cheerleader. Except for the fact that I'm a professional woman in her 30s.
"You have Peter Pan Syndrome," Marie continued. "If you were a middle-aged man, you'd be blowing your retirement fund on a sports car."
Her "diagnosis" had me thinking: there was somewhat a grain of truth to what she was saying -- except that I think about myself and the life I lead (malt liquor consumption notwithstanding) as a lot cooler than the sports car buying middle-aged man. The gender's wrong and the age is wrong, but is the sentiment the same? Like the stereotypical aging male, afraid to lose his luster, am I hanging on to youth like it's some elusive magical ribbon, just beyond my grasp?
I began to ponder other "Peter Pan"-like symptoms I'd been experiencing and made a list:
1.) I'm obsessed with Instagram (you can follow me at @jilldido). Friends are annoyed with this habit.
2.) I have no budget and continually overspend on clothing, accessories, dinners and parties. Thus, for me, savings does not exist.
3.) I text/talk to my BFF multiple times a day.
4.) The most idyllic summer days were spent at my bestie's parents' country house, with them attending to our every whim.
5.) I still have panic dreams about my high-school friends and boyfriend.
On the other hand, I'm a responsible adult:
1.) I've paid for my higher education in full.
2.) I'm a published author and professor, so I can legitimately call myself a professional.
3.) I volunteer my time to philanthropic causes that are meaningful to my life and people I care about.
4.) I can admit when I'm wrong.
5.) I understand and appreciate the level of privilege that rings true of my life.
So, with my lists in hand, I decided to give Marie's "diagnosis" consideration. Naturally, I turned to our amazing group of friends, as a mainstay of being a 30-something woman is having solid female friendships. We don't always share beliefs on everything, but we respect and value our differences.
Unlike Marie, Jessie, a 33-year-old interior designer, thought my dalliances with a young, hot skateboarder were totally rad. "Jill," she said, "that's my high school self's dream come true!" Wait, does that mean I'm just a version of my high school self with a job and bank account? "Not at all," said my friend Nina, 35, a beauty and style influencer. "I think back to the popular girls in high school and even if they had their securities, they also had insecurities. Teens focus on covering up insecurities. As adult women, we're working on them. We're aware of what are insecurities are and we know that we're a work-in-progress. We also have access to strategies to find solutions." Nina makes a good point. As a teenage girl, I had tunnel vision when it came to myself. As a 30-something, I'm more attuned to the world around me. Nina also brings up the fact that the sheer amount of years and experiences we've endured gives us a savoir-faire that our younger counterparts lack. She told me:
Look, I have baggage -- a marriage that didn't work out, the struggles of being a single mom. But there's no reason to look at those as failures. I know what real love is, so I can have a casual affair and see it for what it is. I have a kid, and my body has never looked better. When I was in high school, I was too shy to wear a bikini, and now I do and I own that. I also worked my a** off for this body, and I'm proud of that!
Nina's remark about her yoga-toned-post-baby-body-as-accomplishment brings up another question: Is my "Peter Pan Syndrome" a way for me to deny/defy my age? It's hard to say, as Hollywood's ideal of the beautiful woman -- Halle Berry, Jennifer Lopez and the newly engaged Jennifer Aniston (all in their 40s) -- is no longer limited to the twenty-something naïf. The truth is, I've never felt better -- physically or emotionally, and certainly professionally. As a 30-something, I feel in my prime, like I've hit my stride and know how to run.
I'm not alone. Jeffrey Jensen Arnet, Ph.D, writes "Today, young people stay in school longer, marry older, and become parents later than ever." This sounds a bit familiar. My 20s were filled with bad jobs, graduate school, no money, an industrial loft apartment in the middle of nowhere and a cheating mooch of a boyfriend -- hardly my wonder years. According to Arnet, I'm not alone. "72% of 18-29 year-olds agreed with the statement, 'This time of my life is stressful.'" I think as our options increase, especially for women, (we can go to grad school or move to Williamsburg like Lena Dunham's character in Girls rather than get married and pop out kids), so does our level of stress: It's the flip side of freedom. Add to an increased freedom the limited resources (as in a depressed economy, increased unemployment and a failing Social Security system) people in their 30s had to face in their 20s, and it's not surprising many of us want to put those times behind us and live it up now. Like my friend Jessie, who's spending Labor Day Weekend at a Jay-Z concert and planning on partying the whole time. "It's annoying to me," she says, "that people want to put me on some schedule."
My single friends aren't the only ones who feel this way. Olivia, 31, an unemployed teacher, says:
I feel like ever since I got married, there's this pressure to wait a year and then have a kid. Even my gynecologist made the suggestion that it was time to start thinking about it. When I said I wasn't ready, she told me to revisit the idea in six months. It's funny, but the older I get -- I'm turning 32 this year -- the more I have this feeling like, forget the formula, I want to see what happens.
When I think about the dreadful 20s, I realize that I'm not trying to escape them by living some kind of stilted adolescence in my 30s. I feel like I've learned lessons and know how to play the game a little better. I wouldn't know these things had I not gone through nadir periods.