Five things that have surprised me about my mid-30s

Sometimes I like to stop and think about my mother when she was my age.

At 36, she had just settled into a new home in a foreign country with three kids under the age of 10 and a husband who travelled extensively for work. It was so hot and humid where we lived, on the north coast of Papua New Guinea, that mould bloomed across the walls unless they were wiped down with bleach every few days. Our yard was encircled by a tall security fence with loops of barbed wire on top. The ground rattled with regular earthquakes, and the nights were punctured by the distant sounds of screaming and occasional gunfire. She said she felt so homesick and depressed sometimes that she prayed she’d get sick and die.

I think about this early 1990s version of my mum, and my heart goes out to her. I can’t help but be awestruck by her courage and resilience, the way she kept getting up the next day, washing our school uniforms, writing in her diary, cooking shell pasta with Heinz tomato sauce and grated cheese because we liked it, returning to the classroom as an early years teacher, and venturing out into unknown territory where she stuck out like a sore thumb with her pale, freckled skin and green eyes. It also feels unsettling to me that our mid-30s selves are so far apart, so different.

At 36, I'm only just feeling my way into a career, I'm not married, and children seem more like a ‘probably no’ than a ‘probably yes’. I do not own my own home, and I’m not paying one off. Yet. It's only in the last six months or so that I've drawn some lines in the sand, made some important decisions, and set firm goals about what I'd like to do and achieve, beyond merely existing or surviving. In many ways, I feel like I’m starting out in my mid-30s — defining myself, building a life, and putting down roots — where other women strike out a whole decade earlier in their mid-20s.

Oddly enough, as I type these words and reflect on where I’m at in life, it occurs to me that — even without realising it — there are certain ideas about age and milestones and success I’ve somehow internalised despite my best efforts to actively resist or question them. House? Husband? Kids? Career? Why are these the yardsticks against which we measure a woman's life?

Perhaps the most surprising thing about my mid-30s so far has been just that: they’re so far removed from the unconsciously engineered life I had in mind for myself.

Here are five more things I wasn’t expecting:

One. The dizzying pace of time. This year has, of course, been a funny one, but I can’t shake the feeling that time is accelerating. I guess it makes sense when you think about it. At five years of age, one year represents 20% of your life. When you’re 20, the year shrinks to only 5%. Even so, the sheer pace of life continues to bamboozle me. November last year seems like yesterday. I’ve been working within the same organisation for nearly two years, but I still feel new.

Two. The complexity of my social world. Relationships seemed simpler and easier when I was younger. Even just a couple of years ago, I would have described myself as a social introvert with a wide and deep friendship network. I didn’t think twice about investing in people. I was insatiably curious and easily able to dip into a significant reservoir of energy, attention, and empathy for those around me.

I’m not sure what’s shifted — or why— but my mid-30s have turned into perhaps the loneliest period of my life so far. I’m more calculated about the energy and effort I expend; I’m hyper-aware of asymmetries and unhealthy dynamics, and conversations with other women no longer feel like the safe, supportive places they once did.

I often wonder whether social media has a part to play in this peculiar sense of relational ennui and alienation. Platforms like Twitter and Instagram (at least in my experience) really turn up the volume on a more performative, diatribe-y way of expressing ourselves, and I sense that there are simply more ways to curate our social worlds, to include and exclude, to communicate our admiration or our judgment. I wasn’t expecting to notice or care whether I belonged to any particular 'cool group' at this point in my life, but these feelings have not only lingered but amplified, especially where they overlap with the professional space.

Three. The pain associated with childlessness. There’s a lot to unpack here, so I won’t do more than flag it. But I didn’t realise how profoundly self-conscious I would feel about the reality that I’m leaning into my late 30s and haven’t had a family. I’ve never been someone intent on having kids or someone who’s assumed it would just happen for me. Nor have I rejected or foreclosed that possibility. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about, and I continue to think a lot about it. What surprises me is the way in which being childless or childfree is a position women are still expected to defend, especially the way in which the choice not to have children is so often aligned with selfishness and the experience of being childless is regularly associated with a form of inexperience or naivety about the meaning of life, the nature of love, and so on. It's a difficult sense of deficit or FOMO to navigate, and I don't feel well equipped to do so.

Four. The prevalence of sexism. I’m not sure how I remained so blissfully ignorant of, or immune to, the suffocating tentacles of sexism for so long. However, I’ve got a feeling that being raised in a conservative Christian context — and struggling with a sense of validation and self-worth for much of my adult life — has something to do with it. The first time I felt acutely aware of men and women both behaving and being treated differently (in the workplace) was when I graduated in 2018 and was teaching full time across an undergrad and postgrad writing program. That year, all my PhD supervisor’s warnings about the ‘mediocre middle-aged white guy’ suddenly seemed to manifest. I started to notice how men with as little experience as I had intuitively conducted themselves with much more confidence — and stepped into much bigger opportunities. I endured microaggressions from a mature-age male student for an entire semester (he ended up lodging a formal complaint about me to my head of school) and was routinely talked over, mansplained to, corrected, or ignored by male colleagues when I expressed an informed opinion or drew upon my expertise in a particular area.

A couple of years onwards, these experiences have only intensified. I work in a completely different environment now, but it’s interesting at best and thoroughly demoralising at worst to observe how differently men and women treat other men as professionals, how much more fiercely women have to advocate for the same type and level of respect, agency, and autonomy. The fight against arrogance and paternalism is real.

Five. Acne! My mother used to comment bitterly on how insulting it was to deal with hormonal acne and grey hair at the same time. Well, that shit is getting real. Over the last 18 months or so, I’ve started having issues with the skin not only on my face but also my décolletage and back. It’s almost as if my body is reminding me that I have a hormonal cycle (refer to point three) and it’s time to blow the cobwebs out of my uterus and put all this chemical chaos to work. Also: didn’t Tina Fey say that at some point, your body wants to be disgusting? When is that supposed to start? Asking for a friend.

What has surprised you about getting older?