We call it the Dirty 30s because we’ve spent more time changing dirty diapers than we have changing the world.
In my 20s, I was pretty sure the world would already be changed by me by now (or at least close).
In my 30s, I’m too tired to change the world. I can’t even change my water filter; in my 30s, I think about things like changing my water filter.
It’s my friend Ann’s term. I asked her if I could borrow it. She uses it all the time. We could say the Tired Thirties, or the Growing Years. The Dirty 30s sounds kind of gross, but there it is–maybe these are rather gross years. Mucky. Muddy. When the shininess of our 20s wears off and we’re left with the hard work of actually doing our jobs and building our lives. It helps, I think, if we just acknowledge the differences.
In my 20s, I was tired, sure. I spent entire Saturdays lounging on the couch, remote in hand, exhausted from my 8-5 job, binge-watching What Not to Wear and HGTV shows. I had to get up! every morning! and work! It was awful. I’m not sure how I made it through those years. My husband and I could barely feed ourselves on Saturdays. We sat in our pajamas for the entire day, blinking at each other occasionally, before snuggling back into our nests of exhaustion.
In my 30s, my husband and I get ourselves, our three children, and our dog up and ready every morning, even on weekends. Actually, the dog doesn’t get ready, she just moves right underneath my feet so she trips me up as I’m scuttling across the house trying to find a hair band, a book for reading time, or someone’s other shoe (Why are the shoes always in different places? How do you lose one but not both shoes?). Our lives are a complicated juggling act of making sure snacks, piano books, and soccer cleats are packed in my locker/minivan so everyone has what they need when they need it. I’ve found that it’s easiest to just not clean anything out of the car, actually. If it’s all there on the floor, you can grab it when you need it. And get a snack of slightly stale goldfish. No one is judging. No one has time to judge.
My car floor is another reason to call it the Dirty 30s.
In my 20s, I had a plan for my life. We are driven nerds, so we actually had a chart. It was color-coded. It was beautiful. My color was teal because it’s my favorite. According to our chart, my husband would go to graduate school first, I would go to graduate school next while he got a job, along the way we would add in some children and then, having set up college and retirement accounts, we would pack everyone up to Go Do Something Big.
In my 30s, that chart has become a running joke. We will say, “where are we on the chart?” and laugh hysterically. On the surface, perhaps, some things did go according to the plans we set, but the world just looks different from up here.
I’m so far off the charts at this point I couldn’t find that chart with a compass and a really good trail guide.
In my 30s, things are more complicated than they seemed in my 20s.
In my 20s, I knew things. I knew things because I listened to experts. I read books. I informed the world around me of my clear views.
I knew about parenting, for example. Consequences and choices were key. In my 30s, I am astounded at how much less I know every year about how to parent these children. Things keep changing. The kids keep turning corners I never anticipated or issues come up that I could never have foreseen. The books don’t cover half the things we’ve gone through. I choose to think that’s because we are exceptional.
In my 20s, I figured out where I was supposed to be and what my life was supposed to look like and I pursued that—other people’s ideas for my life—with determination.
In my 30s, I’ve learned it’s less about having answers and more about having a few good moves: I listen more, I’m easier with myself, I’m calmer about the slow pace of change for myself and others. In my 20s I was impatient and life has (mostly) knocked that impatience out of me. Things will change or they won’t, but my raging or pushing or angstily worrying will move exactly nothing.
In my 30s, I’ve learned I have to trust my own sense of what I need to do, whether for my career or for relationships. Maybe this is easier for other people; it was not easy for me. I’ve had to learn—I’ve worked hard to learn—that I’m the world’s leading expert on myself and on my family, thank you very much.
In my 30s, I have grown into love with my husband in ways I could not have imagined in my 20s. We are both, let’s be honest, a little squidgier around the edges than we used to be (In my 20s, I exercised. I went to the gym. I knew where the gym was. In my 30s, I talk a lot about exercise.)
In my 30s, the hard edges we hit every time my husband and I had a fight have worn down. That’s a good thing. I have learned when to let him be and when to let him speak and how to tell him what I need (that’s not cheating like I once thought it was—how was he supposed to read my mind in our 20s?). I have learned that a good fight can be like a summer thunderstorm—it clears the air and everything is brighter, cleaner, more electric. I’ve also learned that there are some things that are so tender, neither of us should ever try to fix them in anger. Some things take decades to change for either of us. Some things are permanent fixtures that make us us. I’ve learned to transform myself; I see watched how my husband transforms himself for me.
In our 30s, his walls have my windows. The structure of our love is exquisite.
In my 30s, I’ve fallen hard for my kids. I am not really a little kid person. I had children just before I turned 30, so my 30s were for me a time of discovering how much I love my own kids. I never knew that newborns make ridiculous jazz hands when you blow on the inside of their elbows. I have loved the existential rabbit holes four-year-olds take you down. I have loved seeing the grit my children have when their world is on the edge of exploding, explosions I thought in my 20s I could help them avoid.
In my 30s, I’m learning my job is to help them navigate the hard places of the world; none of us can avoid the sad stuff.
Not everything in my 30s is better—I find that I have places in my mind that I don’t like. My views are hardening, calcifying in ways I didn’t expect. In my 20s, I was porous, open, fluid. I flung myself into adventure; I embraced ideologies and discarded them just as easily. I moved at such a rapid pace, I can no longer remember all the things I once thought were true. Now I can feel those ideas solidifying like coral—complex but brittle. I want to remain supple, I want to bend with new ideas, I want to learn from my children.
In my 30s, I want to keep the foolishness of my 20s. Maybe it will be less naïve, but if I allow the cynicism of my 30s to overcome the exuberance of my 20s, then I will have lost something essential for me.
The people I admire in their 70s are the ones who managed to remain just foolish, just bendable enough to stay intensely in love with the world around them.
In my late 30s, looking over the edge into my 40s, I find that I like myself more than I ever thought possible. There are so many things I could change, things in my 20s I thought I might already have fixed, but in my 30s, I’ve accepted who I am. I am this and no more; honestly, I’m a bit of an acquired taste. I’m more like blue cheese than cheddar; that’s good. I like blue cheese better.
At the end of my Dirty 30s, I’m navigating the mucky middle years of my life; I didn’t end up who or where I planned to be.
I had no idea I could love this mess this much.