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Adulting as a Woman in the Bay Area: Turning 30 (and What to Do About it)

My 30th birthday, a little over a decade ago, was a mess. Drug-addled, depressed, and lonely in the city, turning 30 in San Francisco was a turning point. A few years of therapy, tons of yoga, and a hefty dose of self-compassion, and I was back on track. Why is this period—especially for women—so difficult? And does it have to be this hard?

city-1284414_640The astrology-minded would remind us that 30 is the period of our Saturn return, catapulting us into a sort of rebirth. Who will we be on the other side? More importantly, who do we want to be? Exploring your “shoulds,” and practicing setting boundaries, can be helpful ways to answer this question and navigate life into adulthood. Here are a few ideas and guidelines on that theme:

The “shoulds” are everywhere. A natural result of turning 30 is an assessment of “where you are,” in comparison to “where you should be.” Whether it’s work, romantic relationships, finances, housing, we have these embedded stories about what adulthood is supposed to be like. And then there’s reality. The reality is that San Francisco is frickin’ expensive. The reality is that longer lives, hook-up culture, and the economy have changed traditional norms around family and marriage. The reality is that dance parties are really, really fun, at any age. It’s as if traditional societal expectations haven’t quite caught up with the culture, and today’s emerging adults are caught in the middle.

What to do about it: Find the “want.” “Shoulds” can be contradictory. “I should go out more and be more social” versus “I should be more careful with money.” It quickly becomes confusing. Which one do you follow? Well, with every should, there is also a “want.” Sometimes they’re same, but not always. Take some time to explore these for yourself. Do they match up? You “should” be on Tinder. But do you want to be? You “should” do more yoga. But do you even like yoga? Exploring what you want, what excites and enlivens you, can sometimes counteract the powerful sway of the “shoulds.” You might begin to see where those “shoulds” came from (Fashion magazines? Instagram posts? Mom?).

Speaking of mom… Moving into adulthood makes relationships with our parents especially confounding. Some parents were adoring of us as little ones, but aren’t totally sure how to parent adult children. Many of our family dynamics, our “roles,” remain intact, even as we try and get beyond them as we grow up. We may have gotten labeled—consciously or not—at some point in our upbringing. Maybe you were the “loud one” or the “emotional one” or the “peacemaker” (the latter leading you, perhaps, to a career as a therapist….ahem). If there was any abuse or addiction in your family, these roles might be even more deeply ingrained or traumatic.

What to do about it: The key word here? Boundaries. Setting boundaries with parents is, without a doubt, really tough. Things get even trickier when you’re relying on them financially, emotionally, or for housing or health insurance. The (power) struggle is real, so to speak. But once you’ve decided what you want, as opposed to how you should be as a daughter, what would it be like to set those boundaries? To tell your parents how often you want to talk to them (once a day or once a month)? Or that you don’t want to talk about dating with them? Or “No, staying at my place isn’t a good idea, I have three housemates”? Whatever it might be. What would it be like to do that?

Ah, the complexity of housemates. Bay Area rent is absolutely ridiculous. You have to be a C-level executive to afford your own place, and even then it’s dicey. So most of us have to share our living space and this can be really, really tough—especially when both our “should” and “want” is to have our own one bedroom (with a patio, tub, and…dare to dream…a dishwasher), but we can’t afford it. Another common “should” for women in our culture is that we “should be accommodating.” Kind. Generous. In the context of a living situation, “kindness” can result in not articulating our needs. This is a recipe for accumulated resentment, which leads to familiar blow-ups over things like shared food or taking the garbage out.

What to do about it: Practice having hard conversations, so resentment doesn’t build up. This is another boundary issue and it’s a great idea to practice setting boundaries with housemates, where the stakes aren’t quite as high as with mom and dad or a romantic interest. Practice tolerating the discomfort of awkward conversations about day-to-day issues. Guidelines for doing that? Use “I” statements and avoid telling the other person that they made you feel a certain way. “I got angry when you said you’d clean the bathroom, but didn’t,” as opposed to, say, “You really pissed me off.” This is a practice, it takes a while to get it down. But communicating this way can help mitigate defensiveness and lead to deeper understanding.

There’s more. Lots more. Drugs and alcohol, career direction, handling finances, body image…young women are up against a lot, in a culture where the allegedly polished, fanciful lives our friends are up on Instagram and Facebook, making us think we “should” have it more together than we ever could. I encourage all women going through this transition into adulthood to find support: maybe it’s close friends, maybe it’s exercise, maybe it’s artistic expression, maybe it’s individual or group therapy. Self-exploration results in more strength, insight, and self-esteem—and learning to find it now will serve you quite well on the other side of 30.

Emily Fasten

Emily Fasten

Emily Fasten, MA, MFT is a therapist, group facilitator and writer in San Francisco. With a master’s degree, more than a decade of corporate writing experience, a regular yoga practice and a pretty good sense of humor, she is committed to helping clients be honest—in the here and now—about their experience; to be in self-aware intimate relationships with others; and to cultivate joy, aliveness and humor in everyday life.

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