In September, I turned 33. I have not yet succumbed to the fear and dread with which many people experience birthdays. Sure, I could do without the ravages of age—the new lines crinkling my face, my butt’s slow and steady southward migration, the sad Vince Guaraldi music that plays in my head whenever I see my boobs. But it seems silly to get neurotic about the inevitable (oh, that I could apply this sage insight to my other neuroses). Why not embrace the new number, enjoy the concrete justification to Treat. Yo. Self? Open presents, eat cake, get your feet rubbed. Get your feet rubbed while eating cake and opening presents!
My mother did not like aging. She’d stand in front of the mirror, fingers pressed to her temples and gently pull her skin upward. If she had the funds, she’d “absolutely get a little lift,” she’d say. No doubt. At some point she resorted to practicing a program of facial muscle toning she’d seen advertised on late-night TV. She would isolate certain areas of her face—the skin around her eyes and mouth, for instance—and perform almost imperceptible micro movements meant to firm her face and uncrease her wrinkles. Like Face Kegels or Smizercise (no wonder Tyra’s face is so firm).
Though I have taken to slathering my face in moisturizer, so far my 30s have been more about figuring out who I want to be, refining my values, and being kinder to myself. I haven’t become Buddhist or discovered some wellspring of deep insight. I’m just tired and (with the help of therapy) more aware of how exhausting my inner critic is. My insecurities are tiresome; they’re boring me to death and keeping me from trying new things, taking risks, or gaining some deeper understanding of myself that doesn’t comport with my idealized, imagined self.
By 33 my mother was stuck: she was married to a domineering and possessive husband, she had a seven-year-old kid, she had left the workforce, and she had given up her car. She had no money of her own. But she was a chronic optimist (read: denialist), and she powdered her anxiety with fantasies of fabulous odd jobs she could find and business ventures she could start. Maybe she could find a small art gallery in need of her discerning eye, or an antiques shop where she’d be paid to share her enthusiasm for ornate gilded mirrors and Queen Anne furniture? One summer we crafted flyers for her own interior design consultancy as if we were advertising a lemonade stand or a neighborhood babysitting service. Mom loved planning and dreaming but rarely acknowledged the obvious: he would never let her do it. For a few weeks we’d be consumed with ideas, drawing logos and cold-calling art, antique, and furniture shops we found in the Yellow Pages (oh, the ‘80s), and then reality would seep in and the idea, the possibility, would fade.
When I think about the bullshit my mother was already steeped in at my age, the quicksand underfoot that sucked her down further the more she denied its existence, I can begin to grasp the colossal waste that is my self-doubt, my tiptoeing through life. In risking nothing, I risk not growing, not knowing joy, not finding new passions, not being seen and heard and known for who I am when I’m not getting in my own way.
For my birthday, I didn’t want much. I discovered a new favorite cocktail and ate cold, crisp oysters. Henry wrote “MOM” on a card all by himself, and he and Adam worked together to make me homemade ice cream. My teenage brother convulsed with laughter as he presented me with an “OMG YOU’RE OLD” balloon and a bag of chocolates. Instead of reviewing my Pinterest “wish list” board, I started perusing the community college course catalog. Maybe I can expand my limited high school Spanish or learn the basics of web design or finally take a writing class? I’ve had a weird itch to try piano lessons, and why the hell not? Maybe I’ll suck and embarrass myself, and maybe I’ll practice failing without feeling like a failure. More than anything, I’d just like to try and play and revel in the luxury that is Having Options. I’m grateful to have a family that supports me, that will laugh with me if I fall on my face and then ask, “What’s next?”
Erica Nikolaidis is a freelance copy editor living in Portland with her husband and son and their flatulent dog, Nona. Originally from Florida, she has been slowly venturing westward, first to Colorado and then to Oregon. Her superpowers include better-than-average vision, safety enforcing, the ability to identify famous actors in early bit parts, and making obscenity-laced banners. She's been slowly losing her mom to dementia since 2007 and writing about it on Mommy Needs a Minute since 2010.