As this post goes live, we’ll be boarding a boat in Ciudad del Carmen, a shrimp-town-turned-oil-city on the Gulf coast of Mexico, and traveling down the Palizada River to a synonymous town of 3,000 people, and only Pueblo Magico in Mexico’s Campeche state, to take pictures for our upcoming adult coloring book, Colouring Mexico (more coming soon, I promise!).
I’ll also be turning 35. Yep, today is my birthday.
Most people don’t count thirty-five as a milestone birthday, and for most people, it isn’t a birthday associated with firsts. But for me, it’s the first birthday in my life where I feel like I’m starting to get old, that time is getting away from me, and that doors are starting to slam behind me in a way they never have before.
If you’re 50, or 65, or 80, and you’re reading this, my concerns probably seem a bit ridiculous to you, and I’ll give you that. If I make the average Canadian lifespan for a woman (81.24), I’m only 43 percent through my life. And getting older is certainly preferable to the alternative.
And yet, things I thought about doing even five years ago…they’re starting to seem less possible.
I haven’t talked about it ever on this blog, but an email I received last week, combined with the naval-gazing of a birthday, reminded me.
You see, I just got news that I’m listed as a co-author on a paper that was just submitted to the World Journal of Otorhinolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. Um, yeah…
About five years ago, when Geoff and I were living in Taiwan for the second time (and after Geoff got deported from Taiwan), I decided I wanted to go to medical school. I’ve been intrigued by medicine since high school, and had always thought it’d be a career I’d do well in, and find interesting. Combine that with the fact that I’ve always had a deep-seated desire to be in either a helping career or a creative career, and with adult coloring books not on my radar yet, I decided to give it a shot. At 30 years old, completing 2 years of prerequisites and then 3 or 4 years of med school, plus residency, felt challenging but doable. But it also felt like a “now or never” decision, like the window quickly was closing.
And so we did it. Geoff, to his credit, got on board with my med school plan almost immediately. One of the many things I love about that guy is he is always up for my crazy plans, egging me on (It’s my working theory that Geoff secretly LOVES crazy plans).
So we moved back to Canada. I enrolled in first-year science classes at UBC, sharing lab equipment with a delightful 18-year-old named Sophie, who had to keep reminding me it would be ILLEGAL to meet for a beer after class. And I threw myself into medical-type things with 1000% enthusiasm: I joined the board of directors for a national medical charity, becoming secretary; I volunteered for another medical charity that builds trauma centres in countries where accidents claim lives due to lack of accessible care; and I became a research assistant to an ENT surgeon, which required me to be on-call to enrol post-surgery patients in a randomized trial, and monitor their progress.
I did all of this while also trying to understand chemistry, improve my math beyond that of your average 9th grader, and study for the MCATs. And also have a somewhat normal life as a married 30-year-old.
Predictably, I burnt myself out and was pretty stressed out. But it turned out that was a good thing, because all those things I was doing — on-call research, a normal job (in this case, being a student), board of directors work, and marriage — that’s exactly what my life would have been like had I become a doctor.
And it was not. for. me.
The realization sunk in gradually. Over time, over Friday night beers and nachos as was tradition in our Vancouver lives, we started saying things like, “well, once I’m a doctor, we can go work anywhere we want in the world.” And once those conversations started, there was no going back. I realized the lifestyle of being a doctor would probably make me miserable, and we collectively realized we could actually go anywhere in the world right now, without a pit stop for medical school.
And so I decided not to enrol in the next round of prerequisites, not to take the MCAT, and not to apply to med school. And we set about creating the life we have now.
The point of this story isn’t that I regret not becoming a doctor. Quite the opposite. It’s that I feel like the window for those life-disrupting, “what if” shots just keeps narrowing. Every year, it gets harder to take the kinds of risks I’ve spent the past 20 years or so taking, which has always followed the pattern of eschewing security and comfort for adventure and newness. Those risks, ultimately, have paid off handsomely for me in terms of the relationships I’ve formed, experiences I’ve grown from, and career advancement I’ve been afforded from the confidence that comes with crossing China by yourself without speaking the language, or figuring out what to do when your husband is temporarily paralyzed by a doctor in Bolivia (true story).
I guess the question I’m struggling with is this: what does it mean for my life when I start questioning the kinds of calculated risks that make me me, and that have shaped my successes, relationships, and our lives?
So that’s part of how I’m feeling today…existentialish. But there’s another side to the coin, as well…
I remember reading something, somewhere, that middle age is the unhappiest time in people’s lives. Whenever psychologists ask adults to rate their happiness and general satisfaction with life, people are happy in the 20s and early thirties, and then there’s a huge dip, where they basically become miserable from their late thirties through their forties and early fifties. Then the happiness returns in our fifties, and through to old age. There are individual differences, of course, and people’s health and situations and temperament impact their answers, too, but when all of that is controlled for, people are generally the most miserable in middle age.
I don’t feel that way. Maybe it’s just that I haven’t hit the misery of my life yet (something to look forward to), or maybe it’s that I’m too damn optimistic. My theory is it’s because we are trying to live life the way we want, and despite it being far from perfect, I get to spend 24 hours a day with Geoff; stay in beach-house penthouses for $30 a night; meet up with friends around the world; and make colouring books that help people see our world for the seriously amazing place it is.
And so despite all the uncertainty of our finances, our homelessness, and our existential angst over procreation, and despite the fact that I’m heading into what will supposedly be the most miserable years of my life, I’m rooting for 35, and think it might just be the best year yet.
Cheers, from a newly minted 35-year-old.