I turned 26 in the middle of this month, and it was the first time I’d ever had any feelings about a birthday that weren’t wholly excited and joyful. I’ve never felt remotely skittish about getting older – until now – and to illustrate my feelings on the matter, the Facebook event for my birthday dinner was called ‘The Wrong Side of Twenty Five’.
It’s all very well saying ‘age is just a number’ and ‘but you’re still so young!’ – those things are certainly true, but they don’t exactly help to ease the age-related heebie-jeebies. I feel like I’ve got about 4, maybe 6 years, tops, to 1) get some sort of career in full swing, 2) save enough money to buy a flat (I have no interested in furnishing more than one floor’s worth of rooms), and 3) have the first of the P-W offspring. For only three items, that’s a heck of a to-do list. I’m sure I could wax endlessly lyrical about the markers of adulthood for ‘millennials’, the pressure to constantly be busy, the tyranny of “should”, but now is not the time or the place, and besides, there are plenty of Guardian staffers who can do it better. I’m not going to write about my self-imposed life deadlines today – instead, I’m going to write about the nice bits of reaching one’s mid-late twenties.
Because, when I think about it for longer than a few panicked minutes, I love getting older. “Don’t wish the time away,” my Granny used to say to me, when I was small and talked of being grown up. I took the most cursory amount of notice of her words, and for the most part, have enjoyed my twenties far more than I enjoyed my teens. Nigella Lawson spoke of a similar feeling in her Desert Island Discs interview in 2003: “I don’t really think I was suited to the state of childhood… I was born to be a grown-up.”
I just like knowing things. I like having a few stories to tell, the odd sliver of wisdom stashed away here and there, an idea of who and what I want to be. And perhaps more importantly, I like knowing who I am, and I’m not scared or ashamed of things I used to be scared and ashamed of. I adore not caring – or at least, caring a lot less – what people think of me. Because I know that they don’t think of me. Not literally, you understand; I just mean that unless you’re a Kardashian, people aren’t scrutinising your life anywhere near as much as you think they are. You will often hear famous women who’ve reached a certain age – and it tends to be the women, far more than the men – talk about how liberating it is to stop worrying about what people think of them.
I like being far less cynical than I was a few years ago. Cynicism’s a very teenaged trait; you embrace it when you’re young because you feel vulnerable. You don’t know anything yet, you haven’t got any hard-won wisdom, so you zip it up like a jacket and decide that it will protect you. It doesn’t protect you, however, it simply stunts you. Adulthood is two things: learning to look after yourself, and realising what it is that makes the world go round. And the thing that does make the world go round isn’t in fact money, or even love. It’s joy and silliness. Find the humour in a terrible situation and you take the heat and pain out of it – and furthermore, you regain the power over it. Find tiny moments of joy in everyday life – the colour of the sky at sunset, “really good soup” (DB’s suggestion there; drummers are not as rock’n’roll as you’d think), the fact that ‘Boaty McBoatface’ topped an online poll to name a £200m research ship – and you’ll never stop being curious about the world.
It’s really important to be silly – you shouldn’t forget how to be ridiculous just because you now have to pay your own council tax. My current favourite silly things are: the word “buttock”, dancing badly to “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, and terrible puns. The more tenuous the pun, the better.
I like knowing how to check my own “privilege” (nauseating though the phrase is), and once you can do it to yourself, it changes your relationships with other people. You learn to shrug off the criticism that comes from people who didn’t notice when Lady Luck slipped in and pulled a few strings for them. You take more notice of the words from people who are self-aware, honest, and without ego.
I like finally being on the same page as my own eyebrows (they know what they want to do, I know what I want them to do, and we’ve found a nice middle-ground that suits all three of us).
I’m never going to be a get-up-and-go sort of person; I take ages to get ready in the mornings and I’m not ashamed of that. I thought DB was going to propose marriage to one of my friends who said she only takes half an hour to get ready; I’ve never seen his face light up like that. “But, but – you’re a woman,” he said. “You mean there are women who can do that? I… I need to sit down.” I’m facially quite high-maintenance, and I won’t pretend I’m not. I like taking the time to do some serious eyeliner, or a proper scarlet lip. It emboldens me, which is useful.
I like knowing that eggs go on cooking after you take them off the heat (Granny taught me that one), that the key to most good cooking is generous seasoning (that was DB), and that risotto only comes together when you’re staring pleadingly at the pan thinking “is this ever going to come together?”
I like knowing – finally – that big, angry, loud arguments rarely solve anything. DB has had his work cut out the last five years, trying to undo the bad habits of the previous 21. I like knowing that the way I feel today is not necessarily how I’ll feel tomorrow, and that this applies to other people too.
I’m starting to know what works for me, and what doesn’t. I know the failsafes that will improve a bad day – a long walk, a short run, writing something, reading something – and all I have to do is take the first step. The rest comes when you put yourself in the right place. I know that the things you dread are rarely as bad as you think they will be (with the exception of wisdom tooth surgery – it’s everything you expect and worse), and that you shouldn’t send or reply to any messages between the hours of 11pm and 7am. Good rarely comes from it.
So if this is getting older – gaining a stronger sense of who you are with each day that passes, and maintaining as strong a sense of silliness as you possibly can – then it’s not all bad.