The Pandemic Stopped Time, But For 30-Something Women, The Clock Kept Ticking

Life & Love

At the onset of the pandemic last March, Calgary Brown, then 39, was living in a one-bedroom apartment in East Los Angeles with her roommate and their two cats. The two cooked together, often grocery shopping at the 99-cent store to keep their expenses down. (Brown had taken a pay cut when she moved west to become a non-profit consultant after leaving a cushier corporate gig in San Francisco.) Her quarantine setup was great for a while… until it wasn’t. Turns out, there’s a limit to how much togetherness even the most compatible of friends can tolerate. By the fall, Brown was ready to get out of her apartment—and Los Angeles.

So she boarded a plane to Mexico and never came back. “All because of fucking COVID,” Brown said recently by phone. She settled in Mérida, Yucatán, where she rented a loft with a plunge pool and four times the amount of space for $900—the same rent she was paying in L.A. “Fucking COVID” had some silver linings for Brown: She’s now considering applying for permanent residency in Mexico. Because the cost of living there is so low, she’s no longer concerned about working at some “crazy corporate job.” The move, she says, allowed her to take the pressure off herself to be an “uber-exceptional, career-achieving Black woman.”

“Everything is much more attainable for me here,” she added. The pandemic accelerated Brown’s impending realization that, in order to live the life she wants, it has to be outside the country. “Self-care in the United States is cost-prohibitive.” The pandemic gave her an escape hatch out of a system that, in many ways, is rigged against her. (Black women earn almost a third less than white men, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. And women of color have been the hardest hit by pandemic joblessness.)

In an alternate reality, one without COVID, Brown would still be in L.A. “I’d be counting my pennies all the time and running around like a chicken with my head cut off,” she said. “The pandemic made a lot of people think about different ways of living. I had to figure out how to have a less stressful life. Now I feel so liberated.”

Brown is part of a cohort of 30-somethings (she turned 40 last month) that had their lives upended and reshaped by the pandemic at a very intense and pressure-cooker life stage. The thirties are typically when women are furiously trying to climb the career ladder, have a family, or do both simultaneously. The decade can be fraught (and fulfilling), but it often feels like there’s a lot at stake. Because there is.

“I want to do it before it’s too late.”

First, there’s the twin ticking of the biological and career clocks. Women in their thirties are always racing something because these are some of their prime childbearing and career years, a cruel reality of modern womanhood. As the New York Times recently noted, delaying childbearing into one’s thirties “has become a broad pattern among American women almost everywhere.”

If there was a mantra for women in this cohort, it would be: “I want to do it before it’s too late,” referring to any number of aspirations—starting a family, a company, becoming financially secure, or any other typical milestones of traditional adulthood. Often by “too late,” these college-educated, upwardly mobile 30-somethings often mean by 40, which, for many, still signals the start of middle age.

Given the countdown many women in their thirties are closely monitoring, what happens to them when life came to a grinding halt during a once-in-a-generation global pandemic? Five women with very diverse backgrounds and circumstances, ranging from a Navy wife whose husband was deployed during COVID, leaving her raise their toddler on her own for a year, to a 34-year-old who used quarantine as an opportunity to freeze her eggs and start a company—paint a picture of how this period forced a number of reckonings related to ambition, mental health, parenthood, financial security, and fertility, along with more existential questions about finding meaning and purpose in their lives.

To Freeze or Not to Freeze

“This new generation doesn’t feel pressure to get everything done in their twenties,” said Lindsay Silberman, 34, a beauty and travel influencer who froze her eggs this past spring.

Silberman, who has written candidly about her conflicted feelings over having kids with her husband, said the decision to freeze her eggs during a less hectic period in her life afforded her the opportunity to confront a “harsh reality.” She explained: “You have your eye on the prize career-wise and then, all of the sudden, you have a fertility assessment and things aren’t looking like they did when you were 27.” During lockdown, Silberman also launched a luxury home brand called Hotel Lobby Candle. (Their first batch of candles sold out in 24 minutes.)

“You have your eye on the prize career-wise and then… you have a fertility assessment and things aren’t looking like they did when you were 27.”

“I’m glad I [froze my eggs] when I did because it’s only going to get more difficult,” Silberman added. “I’ve seen the heartbreak of IVF and I just wanted to hedge my bets.” The whole process of freezing embryos cost her $17,000 from start to finish, a process she documented on Instagram. Silberman’s only regret is that she wishes she had done it at 30.

What emerges from talking to 30-something women about the last year is that children—whether to have them, when to have them, and how to care for them—was a defining feature of this period.

Becoming a New Parent

In April, Dr. Ruchi Murthy, an infectious disease doctor in Ontario, Canada came across a study in the Lancet Psychiatry, a top-tier scientific journal, that found a higher proportion of mothers had clinically significant depression and anxiety symptoms than pre-pandemic.

Dr. Murthy, who is 35, gave birth to her first child, Serena, in April 2020. “I didn’t have an opportunity to pass over my daughter to a friend so I could take a shower or be on my phone for 10 minutes,” Murthy recounted. “Support was almost non-existent. The fact that we’re all still standing a year later is a win for all mothers.”

“Support was almost non-existent… The fact that we’re all still standing a year later is a win for all mothers.”

Maternity leave was not at all what Murthy had envisioned when she thought about spending time with her newborn. Instead, those months were spent doomscrolling on Twitter and scouring The New England Journal of Medicine trying to learn everything there is to know about COVID, all while trying to figure out how to pump and breastfeed. The latter pursuit did not translate so well virtually. “My husband would hold the laptop at an angle so the lactation consultant could show how to get the baby to latch,” Murthy said. That was the moment she decided it was all too much.

If Murthy had any doubt about the trajectory of her career pre-COVID—she wondered how a baby would change her feelings toward work—the pandemic has made her want to lean in more intensely, bucking the overall trend of women who have exited the workforce during COVID. “I feel more urgency now as an infectious disease doctor,” she said. “The pandemic has changed my life in a very empowering way.”

Raising a Toddler Alone

Before the pandemic, Christine, 33, already knew 2020 was going to be a tough year. Her husband, a member of the Navy, was deploying, and she had a two and a half-year-old son. She was staring down at a long stretch—10 months—of being a single parent to a very active toddler. “I thought deployment was going to be the worst part of 2020,” Christine, who asked to use only her first name, said. But it was a global pandemic, and the accompanying challenges and limitations made 2020 one of the hardest—and most illuminating—times of her life.

At the beginning of lockdown, Christine, who lives in what she calls “a very red” part of Pennsylvania, was working 12 to 16 hours a day. “I had a team that needed to be managed a lot,” she recalled. In the fall, months longer than she, or anyone, had anticipated the pandemic lasting, things really began to go off the rails. “My son’s behavior was out of control,” Christine said. “Both of us cried every night, and I was the only one dealing with it. There was no break for me.” She made the decision to send her son to daycare as a means of survival.

“My son’s behavior was out of control… Both of us cried every night, and I was the only one dealing with it. There was no break for me.”

As if the early parenting years aren’t hard enough, throw in pandemic decision matrixes where the options often feel like you are choosing between life or death (and sometimes are). The pressure and anxiety was overwhelming for Christine.

This generation of millennials were brought up on a steady diet of girl power and “you can have it all.” But those adages were created outside of the COVID bubble. They most certainly didn’t factor in working 12-plus hours a day while taking care of a toddler on your own during a global pandemic. Something had to give. Christine faced the hard reality that she couldn’t very well stay at her high-pressure job and took a less demanding gig, giving her more bandwidth for the herculean task of solo parenting.

Then the panic attacks started. “My heart would race, I would cry uncontrollably, and my whole day would be ruined,” Christine said. At her sister’s suggestion, she started seeing a therapist. “Having that objective outlet to validate all the stress in my life was helpful.” Christine certainly wasn’t the only one on the brink. According to YouGovAmerica, the number of people in their thirties seeking mental health counseling increased dramatically during the pandemic. Even Christine’s son has a therapist.

Reflecting back on the last year, Christine said it felt like COVID “became the new STD.” She described a common tendency by ambitious women in their thirties to mitigate every single risk in pursuit of effortless perfection. Yet, by this past spring, hindsight made the hard-fought year of 2020 seem a little brighter, and Christine was able to give herself grace. Her husband is back from his deployment and her son is doing well. “I feel like I have a lot to be proud of,” she said.

Hitting the “Reset” Button

Before the pandemic, Gerri Nguyen, 34, a Jersey-City-based accountant whose parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam, led a very fast-paced life. She worked 90 to 100 hours a week at a big accounting firm and would travel to the West Coast bi-monthly. That all changed practically overnight when quarantine began. “The pandemic really forced me to slow down,” Nguyen said over the phone. “I realized that my job doesn’t define me, and I don’t want it to.”

COVID was a reset moment for Nguyen who, in retrospect, feels she was just gunning for the next promotion or advancement without asking herself, “Do I really want this?”

“The pandemic really forced me to slow down. I realized that my job doesn’t define me, and I don’t want it to.”

Though she hasn’t quit her job and doesn’t have current plans to, four million others across the country reportedly abandoned their desks in April. As The Washington Post put it, the pandemic has resulted in “workers reevaluating, reprioritizing, and reflecting on what they do.”

For Nguyen, the pandemic put things into perspective. She discovered, like many, that a two-hour meeting could take 30 minutes. “I would rather spend my extra time in my personal life,” says Nguyen, who got engaged to her fiancé in December.

According to Nguyen, 40 is the new 30. “If you had talked to me in my twenties, I would have told you I want to be married by 30,” she said. “I want to have three kids by 36. I’m 34, and I just got engaged. I don’t even care about a wedding at this point.”

This writer turns 39 later this month. As a working journalist and mother of two (I gave birth to my second child in March 2020, a week before the world shut down), the last 16 months left me feeling flattened, and I genuinely fear the ambition I had in my twenties and early thirties may never fully return. What I do know is that my kids need me, and I want to be fully present for them.

Amidst the challenges of pandemic parenting, I’ve managed to find something profound in motherhood—a kind of satisfaction and contentment I previously thought could only be derived from professional achievements. There is a clarifying urgency when I think about how the world will definitely go on if I don’t write a certain piece or publish another novel, but my children would undoubtedly flounder.

It’s still too early to say what I’ll do with my new post-pandemic mindset. But like my fellow 30-something women, I feel a reserve of resilience many of us never knew we had. And that’s the most comforting feeling of all.

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