When a woman hits her 30s, she’s expected to have it all: a trailblazing career, a loving family, a great home. But is this realistic in 2019, or is the pressure causing us all to suffer a tri-life crisis? Stylist investigates.
I’ve spent my day too stressed and distracted to achieve anything, sulkily scrolling through Instagram while sniping over text with my boyfriend.
My dad sends me a message: “Are you in for dinner?”
I can’t afford to go out. “Yes, I’m in,” I reply.
No, I’m not 14. I’m 34 and have recently moved back to the UK after five years of living abroad. This isn’t how I pictured myself at this point in my life – living with a parent, unmarried, child-free and unable to scrape together a deposit to buy a poky flat.
Women in their mid-30s are now said to be facing a “second adolescence”, as we struggle to navigate through a quagmire of daunting life choices.
We’re worrying about having children and getting married, switching careers, and struggling to buy our first homes in a narrow period of a few years — all while trying to make our lives look flawless on social media.
The feeling is affecting women everywhere. US journalist Rachel Symes recently tweeted about how tough it is to be a 33- to 38-year-old woman. She called this time “the swerve” because of the “lurches and swerves” we take as we reevaluate our lives and squeeze countless major decisions into a tiny window. Her tweet, which quickly went viral with over 9,000 likes and counting, clearly touched a nerve.
Married with children
For many women, our biggest fear is missing our chance to have a child. More of us than ever are having children later in life, with recent statistics from the Office of National Statistics revealing that for the first time, more women are getting pregnant at 30 or older rather than in their 20s.
Zoe Fernandes, 33, is a single woman from Kent. She works as a project manager and owns her own flat, but still feels as though she needs a husband and a child before she can legitimately call her life a success.
“There is a huge pressure for women in their 30s to be settled down, to have this ideal life, to be married, to have babies,” she says. “I am actually genuinely happy, I love my life… but at the back of my head, I feel like that’s what I need to do.
“You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got this biological clock ticking’. You’ve got a million thoughts going on constantly.”
As Zoe’s story shows, a wedding is also seen as vital to happiness in our 30s, despite marriage rates reaching historic lows in the UK, with less than half of women now married. For me, the question of when my long-term boyfriend will propose is an irritatingly popular topic at social events.
The most recent data shows the average age for a heterosexual woman’s first marriage has risen to 31.5. But the desire for the perfect day has also grown, and the average wedding now costs £31,974, up from £5,000 since 2017, according to wedding planning service Hitched.
All of this comes up on top of us facing unprecedented financial challenges, with the cost of living increasing and house prices skyrocketing. The average age of first-time buyers has risen from 31 to 33 over the past decade, as revealed in the 2017-18 English Housing Survey, while the number of 20- to 34-year-olds living with parents, like myself, has grown to one in four.
Rowan Dale, a teacher from London, recently married and is now trying to conceive while saving for a first home. She feels overwhelmed with fear for the future.
“Once your friends start getting pregnant, you feel like it’s time, but I probably would have given it a couple more years if I weren’t 36,” she says. “There’s that anxiety that maybe if I leave it a bit later, it’s going to be too late.
“I lie awake at night thinking, how can we support ourselves? How do you juggle all the responsibilities? I don’t think it’s quite the same for men because I think women take it a bit more on themselves.”
She has a point. ONS analysis has shown that women put in 60% more unpaid work than men, with duties including caring for children or elderly parents, cooking and housework, as well as the “emotional labour” of managing those responsibilities.
Rowan and her husband have now decided to move to Wales for a more affordable lifestyle. “I have about £2,000 worth of savings, which isn’t enough for a deposit on a house,” she says. “The housing market is pretty impossible, so it kind of makes us revert back to that second adolescence.
“In myself, I feel much more grown up, but I don’t have all the materials at my disposal that a proper grown-up would have.”
The dream career
As well as the societal pressure to settle down, simply maintaining our earnings becomes harder work for women in their 30s. The gender pay gap widens after the age of 30, coinciding with an increase in part-time work, particularly among new mothers. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that mums suffer a “striking” long-term pay penalty from going part-time.
Jude Peppis-Clay, 36, had a baby three years ago while working in charity communications. But, after she split up with her son’s father and moved back to her hometown in Hampshire, she found it virtually impossible to find a job she could balance with single motherhood.
She cut back to working two to three days a week in order to mitigate the rising cost of childcare. “I feel like I have experienced a regression,” she says. “In our 20s, it was OK to not have everything figured out. It was OK to be in an entry-level job, a house share, dating several people and struggling with finances. But by the time we reach our 30s, we’re expected to have sorted that stuff out.
“I know I haven’t. I took a step back in many aspects of my life when my relationship fell apart and, although there’s no regrets there, I do sometimes feel like I have slipped back down the ladder of life.”
When we turn 30, the expectations for where we should be in life literally jump overnight. This is, inevitably, a recipe for disappointment.
Jude says the effort of performing in every area of her life has left her feeling run-down, miserable and unwell. “Being a working mum is exceptionally tiring and taxing – but everything else like dating, seeing friends, going to the gym and taking care of life admin has to fit in around it,” she says. “There’s often the looming question about whether I would have another baby.”
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“I definitely still feel the pressure to have it all,” says Jude, who has started a parenting blog called Gluing Cheese. “Not just for me but also for my son.
“We should have a house and garden with a trampoline, not a flat. I should be there for him when he’s at the school gate, but I also should be striving for a successful career.
“Being single is fine… but it’s only temporary, right? As soon as one life goal is achieved, I feel like I have to move on to the next. The lessons of Bridget Jones still apply.”
The anxiety factor
Sam Owen, psychologist and author of Anxiety Free, says she often meets women battling low self-esteem as they question why they haven’t hit the targets they set for themselves in their 30s. “The pressure for women intensifies because of cultural norms that perhaps don’t apply anymore,” she says. “There’s this silly idea that if you’re single in your 40s, you’ve failed in some way.”
Dr Owen says that our anxieties around these expectations can be damaging to our health. “We can get into negative thinking habits such as worry, and worry is linked to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression,” she says.
A 2016 study found that, across countries, women are twice as likely to be affected by anxiety as men.
“Stop telling yourself that you’ve failed in some way because of the parameters that friends and family measure their lives by,” she adds. “Tell yourself you’re living a life that is right for you.
“Avoidance doesn’t work, but taking action to resolve the issue causing your anxiety does. Set realistic goals that are specific and time-bound, as that makes us three times more likely to achieve them.”
In many ways, women in their 30s have it better than ever. More than 70% of adult women are in work, and we have the freedom to explore different roles: research commissioned by the Association of Accounting Technicians found that a third of us had changed career, and one in five were thinking about doing so.
The “child-free” movement – with role models including Jennifer Aniston and Kylie Minogue – has been liberating. More women are choosing to freeze their eggs and benefit from more time to decide whether to become a parent, and how that could fit into their lives.
Still, all these options can feel overwhelming, with the ideal of the high-flying woman with an adorable family writ large.
Robin Bela was working in advertising when she moved from India to Edinburgh at the age of 22. She completed an MBA and was married within four years. But she was unhappy, and by 31, she was getting divorced, moving house and starting a new career as a life coach.
“I was depressed, I was overweight,” the 39-year-old says. “It felt like a prison… My yoga wasn’t working, my meditation wasn’t working, nothing was working.
“I had to be honest with myself, that this wasn’t right. Because I had come from a very traditional background, it was very hard for me to take that step. My family was already asking me why I wasn’t doing what I had studied for. They couldn’t understand it.”
Robin decided to rewrite her life, and she now believes the challenges of her early 30s were transformative.
“It was quite a hard period, but I think it was very empowering for me,” she says. “I was more controlling when I was younger, I was working like crazy.
“You can’t force relationships, it has to happen when you’re relaxed and happy, not out of to-do lists. Now, I have more openness and confidence, which makes me comfortable with not knowing what’s next.
“I have more trust that the right things come at the right time.”
Here’s hoping that she’s right.
Images: Getty, Unsplash