I stopped counting quarter- and half-year birthdays sometime between diapers and Barbie dolls, partly because no one cares that you’re 12 and one quarter, but also because as I got older, age lost its luster.
But a weird thing started happening to me in the last few years.
It started at 25. Suddenly I was marking my quarter birthday, and then my half birthday, and then my three quarter birthday. Soon I could tell anyone that I was 25 and a half, or 26 and three quarters, or 27 and one quarter. I wasn’t throwing myself a party. Far from it. I noted these markers in my head not as something to celebrate, but something to dread.
If you asked me at 21 where I thought I would be at 27, I would have said married. I grew up in the Modern Orthodox Jewish world, where people start dating for marriage in college, and walking down the aisle in your early 20s is the norm. I started dating my sophomore year of college, which means I have been dating, as in seriously dating for the purpose of finding a person to spend my life with, for over six years. That’s more years than I spent in high school. More years than I spent in college. More years than I have been working.
I have a distinct memory of turning 25, lying in my bed, and thinking this is it. This is my year. I’m meeting him this year. And then 25 and a half snuck up, and I was heartbroken over the guy I’d briefly dated and broken up with. Soon, just like that, I turned 26.
The strange thing is, I’m not sad about the fact that I’m not married. I know if I had gotten married at 21, my life would look very different right now, and I’m not so sure it would be in a good way. I did a lot of growing up in the past six years. A lot of growing into myself. Sure, I’ve dated more guys than I ever thought I would have dated, and I would trade in many of those bad dates for a chance to finally be with the right person. But I also learned a lot about myself. I learned how to open up. How to be comfortable in my own skin. How to treat my body with respect. In a way, the success that I was seeking was probably not what I truly wanted or needed.
And I don’t feel old. I actually feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I look at my friends who are tied down by spouses and children, many of whom are really happy, and I’m grateful for the freedom being single affords me: both the big things — like being able to travel at the drop of a hat — and the small things — like being able to buy those pair of overpriced sneakers I’ve been eyeing without anyone checking my credit card statements.
I’m sure most people aren’t surprised I’m not yet married, because in many circles, 27 is still considered pretty damn young. But that doesn’t discount the fact that I’m not where I thought I would be at this age, and that’s a strange thing to grapple with. And it also doesn’t discount the fact that often being single, especially when you want to be with someone, when you’re trying to be with someone, when you thought you would be with someone at this point in your life but you’re not, is lonely.
To redefine what you view as your own success, what your community views as success, what your family views as success, is a challenge. Which is not to say you can’t be successful and be single. I think there are plenty of avenues in my life where I’m successful. But when a chunk of your life has been working toward a goal, a belief that you’ll reach a certain place that seems to just happen for everyone else, it’s a rude awakening when it doesn’t happen quite so easily for you, even when you’re going on dates, and you’re swiping through apps, and you feel like you’re doing whatever you’re supposed to be doing. Even when you know you’re happy with where you are.
Because there’s no way to deny the fact that by some metric, you’re failing. You’ve failed at this big goal you established for yourself. And however happy you are with your single life, it can still feel pretty lonely.
But what you start to learn when you’ve been seriously dating for a while is that there are a ton of people in the same boat as you. Maybe they set their marriage or commitment age to a different number, or they started dating later, or they date less often, or they have a harder time connecting to people, or they suck at apps, but there is this strange sense of camaraderie in knowing that you are together in your loneliness and together in your failure, and maybe, just maybe, you’re not actually failing at all. Maybe you just need to adjust. To shift gears. To reset your expectations and refocus your goals.
So I thought I would be married at 27, and I’m not. I also thought I would be the pink Power Ranger when I grew up. Sometimes things don’t pan out the way you planned, and you adjust your expectations and move on. Maybe my definition of success, my expectations, were just wrong. That doesn’t mean I failed. It just means I need to recalibrate.
It means I’m not where I thought I would be, but I’m somewhere else.