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Don't Wait Until 30 to Learn This Lesson

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Photograph by Twenty20

When I was younger, my mind often raced anxiously, wondering how anyone is supposed to know when they've officially grown up. For instance, 30-year-olds seemed downright ancient to me—not necessarily age-wise, but because all the 30-year-olds I knew or knew of had their shit together in a way I couldn't fathom. Newspaper articles and movies all touted 30-year-olds who had profound accomplishments under their belts.

Meanwhile, just a few years before turning 30, I only had a credit card because my parents named me as an additional card holder on one of their accounts. After I graduated from college and applied for a card in my own name, I was rejected and told that having no credit was the same thing as having bad credit. It was tough to imagine how I'd ever feel like an adult when I was still getting calls from my dad asking what I could have possibly spent $17.25 on in a diner where the most expensive menu item was $9.50.

My 20s continued to creep along and I watched friends growing up and out of their studio apartments and unhealthy relationships, while I remained miserably in both of mine. So I started a mental list of everything I figured needed to accomplish before turning 30 if I wanted to be considered an adult. The list included, but was hardly limited to: marriage, children, a fairy godmother to map out my retirement and just tell me once and for all how many deductions I was supposed to have taken out of each paycheck, and an invitation to drink Moscow Mules in the peony garden at Oprah's Santa Barbara estate.

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But when 30 was just a few months away, full-on panic set in as I realized that unless I gave birth to an unfertilized egg, I would not be a mother before my birthday. And only if the guy who flashed me on the subway was just practicing with his private parts before moving on to an Asscher-cut diamond engagement ring would I be married upon turning 30.

Panic then turned to depression as I felt as if adulthood eluded me, along with everything that came along with it, like spoon rests and being called "ma'am."

I felt brazen and bold and brash for the first time in my life. Whatever it was that I wanted, I was going to make it happen for myself.

Then it happened, just like that: I turned 30. I suspected I might wake up on the big day and realize I was farther along than I thought. But, nope. Ryan Gosling was not gazing at me lovingly with a latte and two Splendas when I woke up. I was still as Gosling-less at 30 as I'd been the day before at 29.

The difference, however, was a sense that I'd been given a reprieve. I'd turned 30, and just as the world didn't end on Y2K at the stroke of midnight, I was still there. My carriage hadn't turned into a pumpkin—and not just because I didn't have a carriage (or a pumpkin) in the first place. I took a deep breath of sweet relief as if I had unbuttoned my pants after consuming a Thanksgiving meal for 10 all by myself. College hadn't turned me into a real person. Neither had signing a lease or getting a checking account. It turned out there was no one punching my ticket, and there was no ticket at all.

The clarity with which I saw 30 made me look back on my 20s and realize why nothing that I had wanted to happen was ever going to happen: I'd been waiting for some one or some thing to come along and change my life, when the reality was it was me who needed to be the change. I felt born again, as if having the burden of turning 30 behind me meant I could start fresh and make things happen for me instead of waiting for them to happen to me.

Four months after I turned 30, I gave up my apartment and my awful boyfriend and moved 2,000 miles away from everyone and everything I knew. Having lived in the same state for 30 years, I felt brazen and bold and brash for the first time in my life. Whatever it was that I wanted, I was going to make it happen for myself.

There's not a chance I could have been a sound partner or loving mother in my 20s.

With the benefit of a new town where I knew no one, I forcibly checked my emotional baggage at the state line before passing over it. The first weeks were the scariest and loneliest of my life, but I made myself at least look cheerful while out in public. I forced my way into a career that was only a dream in my previous life, which led me to meeting my now-husband, who is the dad to our most darling (and devilish) daughters.

I've heard people say their 20s were the best, or their 40s. I can't speak yet for my 40s since they've only just begun, but I speak from experience when I say my 20s were a hot mess, while my 30s were the breath of fresh air that infused new life into one I previously thought was a failure. Unlike 30, turning 40 was a joy, as what mattered to me most was just as I'd always wanted it to be, because I'd made it happen.

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There's not a chance I could have been a sound partner or loving mother in my 20s—nothing could have penetrated the staggering emotional inexperience that held me prisoner in that decade. I don't wish turning 30 on anyone, but what I do hope for everyone is that being 30 (or any other age that they've similarly put on a pedestal for themselves) gives them the lucidity needed to do in their lives what they previously thought was supposed to be done for them.

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