It’s my birthday. I will celebrate with friends today, and tomorrow as well. But to be honest, I have mixed feelings about birthdays the last few years. I know it has something to do with not being where I am “supposed to be” at this point in my life, as I was reminded by a list a friend posted to Facebook the other day about differences between your 20s and 30s. At least half the things on the list assumed that everyone in their 30s has a spouse and children. And I always thought I would. But now I’m nearing the end of my 30s, and the likelihood that I will be a wife and mother before I’m 40, if ever, seems smaller all the time.
As a child, I never imagined myself any older than 23. The only reason I even thought that far ahead was because that’s how old I would be in the year 2000. That was the future, some faintly magical point in time that felt so far away I may never really get there. By the year 2000, my grade-school self was sure that I would have gotten tall and thin, graduated from Harvard, and married Michael J. Fox. But I decided I wanted to focus on my career as an actress/scientist/rock star for a while before any babies came along. I had spent enough time around babies to know that they take a lot of work. I thought I would hold off on having kids until I was 25, which seemed revolutionary to someone growing up in a small town where women married and started families usually long before that.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the wedding of one of my “surrogate children,” a girl I started babysitting when she was a preschooler and I was a recent high school graduate. When I used to take her and her brother to their little league games, school events, or on outings to the local Walmart, adults would tell me how good I was with them, what great practice this was for raising my own children someday. I believed them, and made mental notes of everything I learned from this trial run of parenting. Nearly two decades later, I’ve probably forgotten most of it. At the wedding of this child-who-is-now-unbelievably-a-grown-woman, some of the other guests were people I had not seen since those babysitting years, since I was in my 20s or even younger. They caught me up on their lives – marriages, births of children and even grandchildren – and asked what was new with me. I told them things are pretty much the same.
That felt true in the moment, but it isn’t, of course. I don’t have any marriage or baby news to report, but a hell of a lot has changed in my life since I was 25, now that I think about it. I spent four years in seminary and earned a Master’s degree. I traveled to the Middle East, where I swam in the Red Sea, floated in the Dead Sea, went inside one of the Great Pyramids of Giza, rode a camel, and walked in the footsteps of some of the heroes and heroines of my faith, even prayed where Jesus prayed. I completed five grueling units of Clinical Pastoral Education, training as a hospital chaplain. I won a coveted position as a staff chaplain at a large and busy level 1 trauma center in one of the most beautiful cities in America. And for over five years I worked the overnight shift, when some of the worst and most tragic events in a hospital take place. I preached my first sermon, my first funeral, and my first wedding, all of which I’ve done a few more times since then and hope to keep doing, because I discovered that I love doing them and I’m pretty good at them. I made wonderful friends, adopted my first dog, bought my first car and my first house, wrote my first book, rode my first zip line and did my first free fall, went on some fun dates and some awful ones, made stupid mistakes and wise decisions, and learned, and learned, and learned.
Part of what I learned and am still learning is to let go. I have to finally let go of some of the dreams I had as a little girl. I’m never going to graduate from Harvard or marry Michael J. Fox. Those are pretty easy to let go (although MJF and I would have made an adorable couple – I’m the perfect height for him). I’m also never going to be a mother at 25, or 30, or 35. I can’t be a bride at any of those ages either. These dreams are much harder to let go. As I enter a new year of life, I’m trying to give myself space to grieve those things, even as I celebrate the new possibilities that each year brings. I’m doing my best not to so narrowly define those possibilities as well. I think 37 is going to be the first birthday I haven’t told myself, “This is the year I finally get skinny!” or “This is the year I finally find love!” Not to be bitter about it, but the body type I have always wanted is not within the realm of possibility for me; it’s best I make my peace with the body I have, use it to its fullest potential, and stop hiding anytime someone pulls out a camera because I’m afraid I’ll look fat in the pictures. And love? I had my heart broken badly enough at 36 that I’m not in any rush to go out and find love again anytime soon. I’ll let it find me. Or not.
All of this might sound pessimistic, but I’m actually hopeful. It’s not easy to be hopeful when you’re walking through depression, but I am. Not hopeful that I’ll get all the things I want or that this will be the year things finally go my way; that would just be naive. What I’m really hoping for is that this year I can shed some of what has been weighing me down for years. Losing physical pounds would be nice (and I’m still going to try), though mainly what I need to take off is the burden of comparing myself to other people. That is a crushing weight. I don’t know what 37 will look like for me, but I’m damn sure it won’t look like 37 for my mother or the woman who sits next to me at church or my high school best friend or the hundreds of people posting perfect family photos to my Facebook newsfeed. When I blow out the candles, I won’t be wishing for a life like theirs anymore. I’ll be wishing simply to live the life of Stacy Sergent a little better, a little lighter and braver and wiser and happier than I was at 36. That would be enough.