I turned thirty-six running for a train.
I’d left an emotional night out which included a fantastic Letters Live performance and a reunion with a school friend I hadn’t seen since school. Eighteen years of bright, intense newness and unutterably comfortable familiarity; finding out things about each other in the context of feeling a connectedness that meant the conversation couldn’t run dry.
The clock struck midnight as I bolted from the Bakerloo to the Metropolitan line at Baker Street, heading for the last train out in my direction. It felt so right to be alone, doing a simple grown up thing, as I eased over the line of my mid-thirties. This decade in which I can finally have said to have worked some stuff out about myself – in which I was already a wife but became a mother, a home-owner, a manager, an aunt for the second time, a resident of somewhere other than London for the first time. I’ve given up sugar and taken up drawing. I’ve started wearing red lipstick and stopped caring how it looks.
I’ve always been a quick learner but a slow bloomer. It took the better part of thirty…something years to walk with a spring in my step; growing up as a fat kid you generally want anything but to take up space (that’s the problem, you take up too goddamn much space, ffs), but at some point you hope to learn that you have as much right to that space as anyone else. Even after I reduced myself in size quite considerably, however, I still couldn’t quite get my head around it; words, journalling, blogging were the only spaces in which I gave myself a little elbow room, and even then I generally preferred to stay below the parapet as much as possible (read this, please, but only if you don’t know me and there are not too many of you).
On my wedding day, aged twenty-eight, being stared at was made bearable only by the love of my husband-to-be, some extraordinary hair and makeup help, a lot of very beautiful satin and, crucially, corsetry. I deflected compliments, and shared wedding photos weeks later still wishing there were a hundred things I could change about my stance, my expression, my body… my face. I’m not going to pretend that my thirties have fixed everything about this. I definitely have wobbly moments, daily. I change outfits that don’t look right at the last minute. I don’t post the first selfie.But with every year that I add, I lose an ounce of capacity to give a shit.
In the last couple of years I’ve been able, for the first time, to enjoy dressing as something more than an emo statement (teens) or a way of blending into the background (twenties). I’m now neither two fingers up nor window dressing. I’m able to express sentiments I hadn’t given myself permission to feel before. Having a child undoubtedly had an impact – when your mum, a family friend, the midwife, her trainee student midwife and your husband have watched another entire person, albeit in miniature, emerge from an intimate area of your anatomy, you cannot help but dispense with a certain amount of self-consciousness. I am now beginning to square with actually courting a certain amount of attention; obviously that comes with massive caveats, but leaving the house with gold superhero leggings on I did have an inkling that people might talk to my knees more. To me it was more important to express some fun and experience myself being – as I saw it – brave than it was to worry about what other people would think or say. But it took the cumulative experience of three decades of being me to make that possible. Such a tiny, insignificant thing – a thing that only a gallon of privilege would allow to be an issue – but for me a small but noticeable marker that I have changed.
Recently, my daughter has developed a certain amount of shyness and self-consciousness. Online safety training at school has led to a blanket ban on sharing images without her express prior approval in case “someone shares it and laughs at” her (to be honest, if she’s nailed that understanding at five, then I’m considerably less worried about what she might get up to at fifteen). I’m not going to try to talk her out of it, in part because I’ve learned the hard way that this is actually impossible – you cannot be reasoned into a certain way of relating to the world. But now I can pin just a little of my personal progress on her – give myself the motivation to keep acknowledging the shuffling steps forward – because now I’m also an example for someone. Another thing my thirties have given me.
When I turned thirty, I didn’t really stop to think about it. I was pregnant, tired and hungry. I knew I’d ticked some boxes I’d vaguely hoped to do so by then, but I was too busy feeding a sudden, desperate addiction to cheese and tomato toasties and trying to work out how to extract a distinct individual from my nether regions to consider it all much. Plus, to a certain extent, I expected to have changed. Twenty is only just not-a-teenager. Thirty is a grown-up. If I hadn’t made any progress, then there was definitely a problem. But the growth I’ve unexpectedly packed into just six years since then hit me with unexpected force on an almost empty train, juddering out to the Home Counties, on a freezing cold March night I’d spent with someone who was my best mate when I was six.
Thirty years later, instead of running around the playground, I’m running for a train – tipsy, content in my own company, wearing bright pink lipstick and a form-fitting mustard yellow dress, darting towards forty with only hope tugging at my hand.