The Mid-30s Awkward Phase No One Tells You About

How to navigate that confusing in-between time from our 20s to 40s .

Woman with long dark hair sitting alone at a bar with a drink graphic illustration
Photo: Uyen Cao

I was a late bloomer. At 8, I looked 6. At 13, I looked 8. In high school, I kind of still looked 8. And this usually worked to my benefit. I came off as precocious, advanced even. At 22, my first job out of college, I raised my hand in an all-staff meeting to ask when happy hour would be — I knew a thing or two about having a job, and going out for drinks after was it. But sometime in the 12-ish years since, I've figured out that "adorable youth" is not a sustainable identity.

And so I find myself at this late stage reaching to define who I am other than the young person in the room, which, all of a sudden, I most often am not. In No One Tells You This, her memoir about turning the corner on 40, single, child-free, and in a career tailspin, Glynnis MacNicol writes that 39 is "the age at which women make do with what they have, take the parts and make them into something usable." It stands to reason that in the years leading up to that age of reckoning, we haven't yet figured out what we've got to use. To me, this feels like waking up and realizing I have forgotten to do something crucial. But it also has a surprising kind of quality, like reaching into the pockets of a winter coat I just pulled out of storage: What do I have here? Did I put it there on purpose?

Objectively, what I have is great, and I’m grateful for it: my health and that of my family; a job that, as recently as a year ago, I would’ve considered a dream; a husband who keeps me laughing (and who comes after me when I recede into my dark places), and a 3-year-old daughter who has exploded my life with joy. But I don’t feel any more done answering life’s big questions than friends I know who are trying on second or third careers, living alone for the first time, or just coming out. What I believe any of us in this phase have in common is the pressure to appear as if whatever our life is right now is exactly as we had planned — and we are not still trying to pull it together, frantic beneath the surface like a duck. I am 35, and I am a duck. It’s possible, maybe for a time, we are all ducks.

“You sort of have this image in your head that doesn’t reflect how you feel inside,” says Margit Detweiler, founder of TueNight, a storytelling series, newsletter, and private Facebook group for women in midlife (though that is not her preferred terminology). “You’re not wearing a cardigan sweater set suddenly. You’re still in your jeans and your cool sneakers and you’re just like, Whaaat? What happened here?” What has happened is that generation by generation, we have delayed certain life milestones. The average age of getting married is creeping upward. In 2016, for the first time in history, more American women became mothers in their 30s than in their 20s. Millennials are getting more advanced degrees than previous generations — some living with their parents into their 30s to do it. We have found a way to buy ourselves more time for so many of life’s pursuits, by most accounts a positive change, but one that has opened up an in-between place where things can get kind of weird.

In so many words, Rachel Sussman, LCSW, a New York based therapist, tells me this is all in my head. Rather that, generally speaking, this age range is the happiest and most fulfilling time for women. I suspect she’s reporting back through nostalgia’s rose-colored view, which would be like if I told a high schooler that those were the best four years of my life. I had some good times, but my subconscious has had two decades to erase the rest, or at least reallocate storage space to the rap verse in TLC’s “Waterfalls,” and the list of food items that are banned at my daughter’s daycare — “Clear blue and unconditional skies / have dried the tears from my eyes / No more lonely…” nuts of any kind, sesame seeds, eggs, candy.

“There’s this narrative that by the time someone is 40, they have it all figured out, like how to wash their face and take care of their skin — up to a year ago I wasn’t even washing my face at night,” says Kate Spencer, author and co-host of the podcast Forever 35, on which she and Doree Shafrir talk about beauty and self-care through the lens of this pre-middle aged phase. “The assumption that we’ve all got this figured out by now, it’s just not true. We’ve, I think, created a space where we talk about it … and it feels like we’re allowed to be new at this, even though, culturally, it doesn’t feel like that’s available.”

Culturally, what is happening now is a new take on aging that’s celebratory, rather than silencing. (Think of the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Janet Jackson, and Jane Fonda, each of whom rarely appears in a headline without her age attached.) And thanks to former ad exec and MakeLoveNotPorn founder Cindy Gallop, there’s a hashtag for it and everything. “I started the hashtag #sayyourage,” she tells me in an email. “I basically tell people how old I am wherever possible — I’m 58 — I shout it from the rooftops.” If 58 brings with it a mountaintop-high kind of feeling, 35 is more of an, oh, huh.

At 35, you’re too late for many age-based accomplishments, but kind of just realizing it. For example, this might be the first time you sit down to watch the Olympics without believing, on some level, that it could be you out there ice dancing to the Jurassic Park theme. Meanwhile, you could be pregnant with your first child, helping her with chemistry homework, or still undecided about kids. You could be on a second marriage, or swiping your way to your first-ever relationship. You might be living with your parents, or caring for them through illness. You may be CEO and founder of your own company, but you’re not making any 30 Under 30 lists. You are in the twilight of your fertile years, and beginning your skin’s alarmingly fast descent into becoming the texture and moisture level of those receipts at the bottom of your purse.

“Life is long and bumpy and weird, and the pressure to appear like you have it together in every aspect of your life is very real,” Spencer says. Paddle, paddle, paddle. “Certainly it’s different for everybody — it could be late-30s, 40s — but I kind of looked around and went, ‘something’s different. I feel a little ... different,’” Margit Detweiler tells me. “It’s a betwixt-between feeling of, like, you’re curiously young and old at the very same time.” Like the Forever35 founders, she used this feeling to create a space that would get women talking about what aging is really like.

You are never more aware of how special and unique you aren’t, then at 35 when you’re just paddling along and doing things and not breaking any records for being old nor young while doing them. Yet you’re racing against the clock to get, as Glynnis MacNicol surmised, a clear sense of what you’ve got and what you’ll do with it, so you have precisely zero time for anyone else’s drama. You are more on your bullshit than possibly any other time.

For example: If you leave every get together with an old friend, sighing that she’s been doing and saying the exact same shit for the last 15 years, now is the age at which you realize she has left those dinners thinking the same about you. If you are lucky, you have started to recognize what your own same-old shit is. (Hello, “I really am going to start working out soon.”) The upside is there’s a nice friendship shorthand that comes from knowing someone on this level; the downside is the searing shame at having diagnosed your chronic bullshit but not fixed it by now. Having grown up, but also not.

At this age, you could look 25 and not be taken seriously at work, or you could look 55 and be ignored everywhere else. Based mostly on whether you lived by those painfully obvious beauty best practices — hydration, SPF — which never seemed necessary, until they did. I’m not saying this is a choice we should make intentionally, but it’s a thing that happens and it is awkward to wake up one day and realize that by failing to choose one you have essentially chosen the other. Meanwhile, the next generation of women, now in the workforce, grew up learning how to cook for the ‘gram, how to curate a precise personal aesthetic, how to achieve exacting hair waves on YouTube, and they not only know what body serum is, but they’ve been using it preventatively since before Glossier launched, when they were freshmen in college.

I came of age in the years between when “home economics” was taught in schools and when all of this was a learn-it-yourself online situation, and there’s a particularly female sort of imposter syndrome that comes with feeling like the adult in the room, and also wanting to ask all the younger women how to do things you just assumed you’d end up knowing.

“I don’t think that goes away,” Detweiler says. “When I started TueNight in 2013, I [had] this feeling of being a Gen-X-er in midlife of, ‘hey, I used to be a hipster badass and I still feel like I’m that, but my knees hurt, and people are calling me ma’am.'" It’s cognitive dissonance from the moment you wake up until your (ever earlier) bedtime.

And amid this slow-burning secret identity crisis, you have to get up and put on pants, though what size or style is a minefield. You have to eat breakfast, but some foods are less allowed now than before, even if just gastrointestinally. You have to put on makeup, but first a heavy accounting of what works now and what doesn’t must be done. Eye cream? Yes, very much, the kind with active ingredients. Try to find out what body serum is.

Despite the name of her podcast, Kate Spencer says she hears from women in their teens through late-middle age with whom it resonates. “We get a lot of women who are still in college or just out of college, and the interesting thing is the general themes are the same, like navigating self-esteem and caring for ourselves, or career and love; all these experiences are really universal, no matter anyone’s age.”

Rachel Sussman, the therapist, says, “It’s totally up to you to define how to live your life.” Sure, like that takes the pressure off. “People have so many options and it can be overwhelming, in that there isn’t a straight path forward any longer,” she adds. “And I think the more that can be talked about, the easier life transitions and life stages can be for people, and they’ll feel less lost knowing that this isn’t clearly laid out, and they do have to put time and energy into it.”

Sometimes I’m up at night thinking about what I used to think I’d be by now. I thought I’d look my age, which would mean having an enviable wardrobe and a logical beauty routine. I’d spend a lot of time laughing at salads and wearing tailored jeans to the playground, when I wasn’t at happy hour plotting to change the world. I thought I’d be rich. But then, I thought what I have now would mean I was rich. I try to think about that the most.

What I never considered, even for a second, was that I’d spend my late-30s being a duck.

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