Dispatches from a Combat Zone: My 30s

By Cara Marsh Sheffler / photo by Jonas /

When I was ten, I wanted to be Murphy Brown, knocked up by a hot war correspondent. When I was a little older, I wanted to be Candice Bergen, with her stunning, strangely pointed nose and a lion of French cinema for a husband. It was 1992 when I turned ten, which means I am old enough to know I mustn’t wait to fuck, marry, or murder my role models. I now realize I may instead serve as a war correspondent myself, offering dispatches from the dark, indifferent heart of a different kind of combat zone: my 30s.

A bit about me, how I arrived at this moment on the barricades. Firstly, I was precocious. My parents, for reasons I fail to comprehend, had let me watch Sex, Lies, and Videotape as well as Goodfellas when I was in second grade, and James Spader and Ray Liotta became my first movie crushes. I’ve been inextricably drawn to unconventionally handsome, charismatic creeps ever since.

Between those premature viewings and my 30th birthday, I have endured a healthy smattering of clichés, ranging from the undergraduate summer in the Norman countryside spent as a hungover artist’s model rolling around in confectioner’s sugar to a fun romp through a long-term boyfriend’s psychotic break after his Brooklyn apartment building collapsed. I could give a TED talk on the differences between Italian and French men; I’ve been cheated on and I’ve been the other woman; I’ve been proposed to—formally and informally—and am happy, actually happy, to report it all came to nothing. I may be a degenerate, but one with a rigorous sense of ethics.

I was, in fact, relieved when I turned 30. I’d be lying if I didn’t say 29 was a rough birthday, but 30 was a huge relief. It almost felt as though my 20s were a tube of toothpaste I had squeezed to the point of being utterly crimped and flattened beyond recognition: there was nothing else to find therein. On the one hand, when I turned 30, I assumed a certain amount of gravitas would become me, that at least—perhaps in my better (worse?) moments—I’d be a bit less of a disgrace. On the other hand, I’d osmosed so many essays and advice columns about women feeling better about themselves, their bodies, and their faces at 30 and cattily thought to myself, “that’s because their vision is going…”

All of this was thankfully wrong: gravitas seems like a bore and I do, somewhat inexplicably but mostly explicably, feel a lot better about myself. Yet, what strikes me most is what hasn’t changed since turning 30. If a woman’s 20s are fraught with the stress of living up to an elusive physical prime that our profoundly misogynistic society equates with a chance at happiness, her 30s are crammed with equally misogynistic myths about the necessity of certain milestones (e.g., betrothal, breeding, property ownership) and attendant mythological creatures, such as The Silver Fox.

I understand women are biologically attracted to stability much as men are biologically attracted to fertility, but if you think I’d rather find some salt-and-pepper architect from Cobble Hill naked in my bedroom than the friendly surfer sales staff at Saturdays, you are out of your fucking mind. (Apologies to Richard Gere and Jeremy Irons.) Some may physically age better than others, but—strictly speaking on aesthetics—there’s a lot to be said for one’s 20s. Beyond aesthetics, I think it’s a sexist fallacy that men do it better than women. Of course this varies on a case-by-case basis.

I won’t go into the prevalence of this stereotype in America as opposed to other countries: I will simply speak for my own nationality, as a 32-year-old female New Yorker. My friend Kadi recently remarked that she doesn’t know a single male friend who doesn’t somehow wish he had his hairline, his waistline, his body, or his stamina from his 20s, but she also doesn’t have any female friends who aren’t so much more content in their 30s than they were in their 20s. This isn’t delusional. I’m not saying my face and body didn’t have their good points five to seven years ago, but I know a thing or two about corporeal husbandry now. For instance, vodka, I’ve learned, is a poor moisturizer.

The most straightforward way to put it is that turning 30 is a bit like receiving successful treatment for bipolar disorder: the highs aren’t as high and the lows aren’t as low, but that’s mostly because you realize both the mania and the depression were situational, chemical, and—ultimately—manageable. Yet, at the same time, I cannot shake things the way I used to, but this isn’t altogether bad: it’s the sure sign that I’ve managed to prioritize—triage in combat-ease—successfully and what’s left in my life is close to the bone and vital.

Furthermore, that need to prioritize has forced me to learn how to take care of myself in a way that pays dividends daily. (Somewhere, the 23-year-old version of myself is looking up from a bag of drugs and cackling as she reads this.) If in a woman’s 20s, vanity is thrust upon her by a culture that values her youth in direct proportion to her attractiveness, in her 30s—I’ve found—vanity to be a tool at my disposal. I’ve also learned to cut women a lot of slack on vanity because we each must carry around our faces and bodies like brand packaging.

Well-being is a bit of a blood sport these days, what with everything from underwater spin classes to all-lascinato-kale juice cleanses, but in your 30s, your body must be heeded. I don’t pretend to be an expert or even a success story, but a word of advice: SLEEP. I think it was Voltaire who once said that sleep is not happiness but not to sleep is unbearable. This isn’t a beauty tip, so much as it is a psychological one.

In my 30s, I’ve also found—if not yet mastered—the art of cutting my losses. A disclaimer: I have little faith in the human capacity for change. I do believe we, as individuals, are who we are on a fundamental level. While it is possible to redirect or find radically new channels for our energies and proclivities (e.g., your former coke fiend bestie who has morphed into a yogi), true change of character is a rare thing.

Recognize that most people in your life will probably not change. Recognize you will never “fix” the person whom you are dating. Recognize that anyone who hates himself or herself is a poor choice for a romantic partner. To quote Lauryn Hill: “How you gonna win when you ain’t right within?” Learn to understand when someone genuinely loves your company or doesn’t. Don’t force meaning onto romantic situations that have none, but also realize that sometimes a distraction is sometimes very necessary. Once you get what you need, leave, but know that you will always be balancing between the two extremes of total meaning and total distraction.

Socially, be tolerant, but don’t let fake friends waste your time. Though many friends of mine will laugh at this assertion, I have learned to be less confrontational in social settings, but I’ve also learned to cut off many altogether. This might mean ensuring two acquaintances of mine are never in the same room at once or cutting someone out of my life entirely, but I’m starting to understand every relationship—romantic and otherwise—must be enjoyed at a proper distance, which is perpetually in flux. I’ve also learned not to compare my problems to anyone else’s: we all carry things differently for different reasons.

This leads me to one of my mantras since turning 30 or thereabout: no one person is everything anymore. Even the most intense romantic relationship will have a backdrop that, even if it doesn’t include children, may include career demands beyond what existed in one’s 20s, dying parents, miscellaneous family crises, and a social fabric that is likely vast and vastly uneven in its intensity. My parents, who got together at 22, grew up together—and that won’t happen for me. In a sense, they are lucky they grew up into people who still get along and want the same things in their 60s; if I ever do settle down, it will be as someone far more entrenched in my habits and that is something to accommodate—to a point. I’m still looking for that point.

However, I do know that whenever I do find that point, my opinion of it will simply be a matter of perspective at any given moment in time. Perspective involves compartmentalizing.  One area of your life is on fire: find another to put your energies into until the flames die down. Of course, those others may also be engulfed in flames, but that’s why there is red wine.

You probably have your shit together a lot more than you give yourself credit for in some ways—and a lot less in others. And that’s normal. Your 30s may well be a more consequential time than your 20s, but that doesn’t mean they need to be more serious or somber. True, your face will change, but so will everything else. Your face might even change for the better, but it will change.  Mine has shifted from stress and the sun I refuse to give up, as well as from a workout regimen that might be mildly psychotic. And while that regimen works wonders to combat stress, it also enables me to enjoy time spent in the sun…but this isn’t the worst of vicious cycles. It’s the poison I pick and I’m old enough to know that simply having the chance to pick my poison means I’m hashtag blessed. 

Learn to take care of yourself, so you can be more comfortable with yourself and more confident than you ever imagined you’d be at 23. Create room to grow from experiences old and new and from friends and lovers old and new—older and younger. This is more of a tactical, intentional feat than it reads on paper, but one that also requires improvisation. As you soldier on, while doing your best to keep an open mind, know when to cut your losses, because—dammit—40 is just around the corner. And moisturize!

Cara Marsh Sheffler is a New York-based freelance writer, editor and translator. She co-founded Works & Days Quarterly.