On Turning 30 in 2020

I used to dread my 30th birthday.

Being 20 always seemed cool to my teenage self: smack dab in the middle of college or finding some footing with adulthood. I always picture Spider-Man as a twenty-something. The FRIENDS gang are all twenty-somethings at the start of the show. I didn’t have a lot of real-life examples growing up, but 20 just always felt like the prime!

When I turned 26, I started telling people I was riding “the slippery slope to 30.” This was not a positive thing. Thirty felt too real, and I didn’t feel that I was meeting the expectations people have of thirty-somethings. Every time I visit my primary care physician, the main lecture is, “We need to work on your love life.” Many friends of mine have kids now, or they’ve nailed down a solid career. The pressure was on, especially in the age of social media. You can’t help but compare your life to other folx your age and wonder if you’re on the “right track.”

Then COVID-19 hit, and I spent the second half of 29 adjusting to social distancing, working from home, and masking up. It became pretty clear that this was going to be the reality of my 30th birthday, and this pulled the anchor down even deeper. I’d hoped that maybe I’d celebrate 30 doing karaoke with friends, sharing a meal, and then spending time with family. How lonely was the real day actually going to be?

And almost paradoxically, turning 30 has been one of the best and most joyful birthdays in recent memory, even considering the strange context all around me.

To set this up, last month I decide to do a modified Whole30 with a friend: We’d do the traditional 30 days limiting certain foods, and this time we’d also cut Facebook. I logged on once or twice to post book updates on my author page, but other than that, the app was gone from my phone and I took careful measure of how this affected me.

Y’all, it was amazing. I felt more “free” in those 30 days than I’d felt all quarantine. I wasn’t comparing my life to anyone else’s. I wasn’t getting into political fights, or logging off in a bad mood because of somebody’s overt racism. I wasn’t chained to my phone checking notifications at Facebook’s will.

And I decided that Facebook didn’t need to go back on my phone at all. (Watch The Social Dilemma for more on this. Netflix, y’all!)

What was more: with 30 right around the corner, I’d realized that there was something almost . . . lonely about my Facebook birthdays. Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way: I’d spend most birthdays chained to my phone, watching the notifications bubble up. Each would bring me joy, but by the end of the day I’d be wondering how my day compared to last year.

Had I lost anybody?

Did I get less “wishes for joy” than when I turned 28, or 27, or 20?

Did the folx who posted actually remember, and did they all mean it?

Do I actually even know all of them?

Do we talk at any other time besides this one “Happy birthday” we exchange every year?

And aw man, now I have to comment back to every single person.

Sure, this might be severely over-analyzing, but all of this really made me dread turning 30 in a pandemic. I thought Facebook would only magnify all this.

So, I hid my birthday on Facebook. 😀 Only I could see it, muahaha!

And this turned out to be awesome.

Now, if Facebook birthdays feel lonely, how does it make sense that hiding it made it less lonely? After all, it really cut down the number of wishes I got today. It’s probably been the least “online birthday activity” I’ve had since high school.

But some people remembered! And their texts, emails, and good thoughts meant that much more. Every time one rolled in, I was beaming. Wow, some of my coworkers thought to put it on their Outlook calendar! Dang, I haven’t seen my “broski” in over a year, but he’s consistently remembered the day since we were 21. And OMG, my grandma discovered texting!

So I did get out of the house for a few hours, and I enjoyed a socially distant lunch with my best friend. And yes, that friend outed my birthday on Facebook. But after I came home to finish a quiet day cooking dinner, listening to music, going to class on Zoom, I read their comments, and the few that trickled in felt a lot more genuine. I didn’t want them not to wish me a happy birthday–I just wanted them to mean it if they did. (After all, you should’ve seen the guy who rang me up for a bottle of wine at Target. “Wait, 9/21… isn’t that TODAY?! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MAN!” Thanks, Target guy.) Maybe that’s high maintenance, and we just need to accept the convenience and accessibility of the Facebook birthday. But there’s a trade-off, and I found it to be worth trading in the large, somewhat lonely Facebook birthday for a small, quiet day that felt a little more real than I ever remembered. (And if you want to “remember” without Facebook, “remember” Earth, Wind, and Fire: the twenty-first night of September!)

To be clear: No judgment on my part if you let Facebook share your birthday! I’ll wish you one if I see it, but I’d love to get to the point where I don’t need it. 😀

So if you’re curious, I ended my day filled not with existential dread (okay maybe a tiny, human portion of that), but profound gratitude. If I have a few good people who really care, access to higher education for that long, late night Zoom class, and fond memories of my twenties, then hey, 30 won’t be so bad at all, even if I’m starting it in the hellscape that is 2020. Bring it on.


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