Has the pandemic freed us from tick box culture?

Writer and editor of Sister Magazine, Beccy Hill, got married just before she hit the big 3.0. You know that heavily documented age by which we should have ticked off numerous big life events and well, started acting life a grown-up, right? Well, maybe living through a pandemic can help us learn something about the expectations that society/ourselves/our families place on us, and perhaps learn to let go of them…

I got married in April this year. Now I guess this counts as a major-traditional-before-30 box that I managed to tick while I was still 29. But on the day, I didn’t worry about my age, whether I was making the right decision or what it “meant” on a wider scale.

“MARRIAGE WAS NEVER SOMETHING I NECESSARILY SAW FOR MYSELF – IT WAS ONE OF THOSE THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO OTHER PEOPLE, LIKE BUYING A HOUSE OR HAVING A WELL-PAID YET STIMULATING CAREER… I NEVER DREAMT OF A WEDDING, A HUSBAND AND ALL THE THINGS THAT STEREOTYPICALLY COME ALONG WITH THEM.”

In fact, I felt surprisingly calm. I got ready at my flat with my mum and my sisters, and two friends did my hair and make-up. However, in the cab on the way to Hackney Town Hall, I thought, “Thank fuck there are only 13 people, and not 120!” Being dressed up to the nines after months in loungewear suddenly felt ridiculous. I’d even spent that week walking around the house in my heels, because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had to wear a pair.

Marriage was never something I necessarily saw for myself – it was one of those things that happened to other people, like buying a house or having a well-paid yet stimulating career. I spent most of my time from 18 to 24 single. Bar many diabolical dates, I enjoyed being alone. I never dreamt of a wedding, a husband and all the things that stereotypically come along with them. I guess, without making anyone want to throw up, I hadn’t met the right person. Most of my relationships were, to put it bluntly, pretty shit. I always felt let down or disappointed, or like I couldn’t be my true self around that other person. To repeat a line from my wedding speech, I’d never met someone quite like D before. Someone so kind, accepting and who loved me just the way I was (okay, full permission to vom now).

I didn’t get married because I felt pressured to. Or because I am rushing to have kids – the complete opposite, in fact. Raising a child feels like possibly the most intimidating job one could be tasked with, and one which I am far too selfish to undertake. The planet is also totally fucked, just in case nobody had noticed. I guess I got married because after being in a true partnership with D for six years, which involved moving countries, the deaths of two parents and a global pandemic – it felt like we were already bound together in a way that goes far beyond an official piece of paper.

“MARRIAGE WAS NEVER SOMETHING I NECESSARILY SAW FOR MYSELF – IT WAS ONE OF THOSE THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO OTHER PEOPLE, LIKE BUYING A HOUSE OR HAVING A WELL-PAID YET STIMULATING CAREER… I NEVER DREAMT OF A WEDDING, A HUSBAND AND ALL THE THINGS THAT STEREOTYPICALLY COME ALONG WITH THEM.”

I still feel like I am too young to be married, though. I cringe every time I say ‘my husband’. I hated saying I was engaged or that I had a ‘fiancé’. It felt like either I was showing off, or that it would give people an idea of me that couldn’t be further from who I actually am.

My mum got married when she was 23 – for context, it was the ‘90s and she was called a “spinster” on the certificate. Even so, when I think back to myself at 23, I was still interning (for free) while working in retail and other odd jobs to pay my rent. I spent all my time with my friends, making my magazine and partying as much as I could afford – in retrospect I was practically responsibility-free. At 23, I felt on the cusp of adulthood, and certainly not the time to propel myself into the thick of it. Back then, 30 felt absolutely ancient, and honestly I never spent much time dwelling on turning 30 myself – why would I, I was young? Like many other things at that time, it was a problem for future me, and I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

Turning 30 wasn’t something I was particularly fixated on pre-Covid, but it has undeniably been on my mind as of late. While I am writing this, I am on my eighth day of isolation after testing positive. After 18 months, and a mere three weeks after my first vaccination, I guess corona finally caught up with me.

“YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO DREAD TURNING 30 – IT’S MEANT TO SERVE AS A REMINDER OF THE LOSS OF YOUTH, THE SOLIDIFYING OF ADULTHOOD, AND COME WITH A LIST OF THINGS YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO HAVE CHECKED OFF BY THE TIME YOU REACH IT. BUT HOW RELEVANT IS ANY OF THAT IN 2021, REGARDLESS OF THE PANDEMIC?”

Turning 30 is a heavily documented experience. We’re in no short supply of films, TV shows and literature that reference the poignancy of the age. You’re supposed to dread it – it’s meant to serve as a reminder of the loss of youth, the solidifying of adulthood, and come with a list of things you’re supposed to have checked off by the time you reach it. But how relevant is any of that in 2021, regardless of the pandemic? Those ideas already felt antiquated, but under a Covid lens, even more so.

Before I continue, I realise that the pandemic has been hard on everyone. I also realise that we are sick to death of talking about it, and attributing our many different problems to it. Life is now split into two parts: there is BC (before-Covid) and WC (with-Covid). And hopefully, eventually, we’ll get to PC (post-Covid). But my point is that we now see the world differently. I often think how lucky I am to have been able to experience everything it had to offer for a solid 28 years BC. I haven’t been stopped from sitting my GCSEs or my A-Levels, or been locked down in student accommodation. I also haven’t just turned 18, with my new ID ready and raring to be flashed to a bouncer, but unable to legally enter a club for the first time. Nor have I had to stay at home for my own and others safety, instead of being at the bed or grave side of a loved one to say goodbye. Covid has undeniably robbed people of many firsts, and also of many lasts.

“COVID HAS UNDENIABLY ROBBED PEOPLE OF MANY FIRSTS, AND ALSO OF MANY LASTS.”

So as I approach yet another “major” milestone in my life, while still very much in the grip of the pandemic, it’s hard to not compare things to life BC. To think that back in March 2020, I wouldn’t have envisioned spending the remainder of my twenties stuck inside under strict restrictions. That this disease would ultimately cull the amount of celebrating, memory-making and people-engaging that make life worth living.

When I was 26, my dad died suddenly of a rare and undetected heart condition, and like the pandemic, it turned my entire world upside down. Overnight I became much more cautious, anxious, and worried than I had been already. Akin to the Covid crisis, I lost a huge part of my identity. I took time off work, I barely got dressed for weeks, and I couldn’t watch TV or listen to the radio for fear of seeing or hearing something that would remind me of him. I didn’t know who I was without him, and everyone’s roles within my family had to shift and adapt. I had to rediscover who I was, and as we emerge out of restrictions and back int the world, I can draw a lot of parallels between these strange times and the early stages of grief.

“MY DAD WAS 57 WHEN HE DIED. THE BIGGEST FEAR I HAVE ON THE CUSP OF TURNING 30 IS THAT I TOO COULD BE OVER HALF WAY THROUGH MY LIFE. THAT’S WHY SPENDING THE LAST YEARS OF MY TWENTIES STUCK INSIDE HITS DIFFERENT.”

My dad was 57 when he died. The biggest fear I have on the cusp of turning 30 is that I too could be over half way through my life. That’s why spending the last years of my twenties stuck inside hits different. I feel like I haven’t got time to waste – none of us do. It’s cringe and clichéd, but life is so unbelievably precious, yet most of us wake up and take it for granted, myself included. How can we not when we have spent the past 18 months counting down the days to freedom, wishing time away so we can go back to “normal” again? It’s impossible to “live for the moment” or “live every day like it’s your last” when you are confined within your own four walls.

I am really trying to feel positive about turning 30. Generally, there’s not much to be positive about (the planet is literally burning, Covid cases are rising, terroism is rife, I won’t continue this list) but we have to work with what we’ve got, and that might be my biggest takeaway from living through this intense period in history. Not to sound morbid, but none of us know how much time we’ve got left, or what challenges lie ahead. If we’re presented with the opportunity for joy, we should seize it with both hands. So instead of worrying about all the things that I haven’t achieved by my 30th birthday, and that I’ve never made it onto a 30-before-30 list, I’m going to put on a killer look, gather as many friends as possible, and spend the night at The Karaoke Hole in Dalston. Because honestly, in 2021, it feels like just surviving is enough of a reason to celebrate.

I started writing this essay before my birthday, and after turning 30 can confirm that it doesn’t feel any different – just like getting married – and there’s beauty in that. These ‘milestones’ aren’t as big of a deal as we build them up to be, or as society and pop culture has built them up to be. Age is just a number (seriously though) and I find it so bizarre that we let it hold us back. “I’m too old to wear that” or “I’m too old to do that” are all phrases we are so used to hearing or saying. Ticking life’s boxes in a linear trajectory is hopefully something that the pandemic has helped us to be free from. Because who knows what wonderful things could happen once we are.