37 Going On 17
I probably won't be any more "together" 20 years from now, either.
As a writer for young adults, I spend approximately five days a week in the head of a teenager. So it wasn't until I received a tweet from a reader expressing her dismay that, at 37, she was the same age as the mum in my latest novel All About Mia that it actually dawned on me how old I would be on my next birthday.
Yep. Thirty. Seven.
I've never been much of a planner. As an actor-turned-novelist, a tolerance for uncertainty has been compulsory my entire adult life. Equally, I've always resisted the pressure to hit certain milestones at predetermined points. Just to be clear, I'm not living some kind of drawn-out student existence; I bake my own granola, have multiple ISA accounts, flip my mattress on a monthly basis, and am generally regarded as "the sensible one" amongst my friends. However, I can't ignore the fact that turning 37 officially tips me into my "late thirties", forcing me to acknowledge that the usual markers of grown-up life have been conspicuously absent from my life so far.
My baby boomer parents bought their first property at the tender age of 20. My older sister (a nurse) followed in their footsteps and bought her first home at 25. Although I’m financially stable, the idea of owning a property scares the shit out of me. It’s not that I don’t want my own home, far from it. The problem is, I think I'm in love with the fantasy version of being a homeowner – the one where my house looks like an Elle Decoration photo shoot at all times and the washing machine never breaks down. I'm under no illusions that the reality would be rather more modest.
If I’m honest though, it’s the commitment that scares me. If I have a mortgage to repay every month, how I am supposed to run away to Peru on a moment’s notice? Not that I’m planning to run away to Peru anytime soon but I like to know the option is there. You know, just in case. For some people security takes the form of bricks and mortar; I’m learning that for me, it’s all about freedom.
In 2014, the average age for women in the UK to get married was 30. I am officially late. Rather a lot late actually.
I’ve never dreamed of a big white wedding. As a kid I didn’t fashion veils out of toilet roll or practice my signature with my crush’s surname. Not that I’m against the idea of marriage, not at all. Most of my friends are married, and on the whole, they seem to quite like it. Equally, I’ve never really worried about being in the unmarried minority. I always assumed I’d get around to it eventually and when I did it would be worth the wait.
However, having recently come out of a 7½-year relationship, whether I like it or not, I'm aware of my age and unmarried status in a way I most definitely wasn't the last time I was single.
This awareness is largely unemotional. I have no qualms about being an older bride, or indeed perhaps never being a bride at all. When I’m ready, I’d love to meet someone I care about (and who cares about me) enough to want to make such an official commitment, but I would always value that bit (the meeting someone you really, really like bit) over the piece of paper and expensive party.
I've always been pretty noncommittal about whether I want kids. I like them. I'm good with them. I love my niece and nephew so much it makes my heart hurt sometimes. But do I want kids of my own? I've been waiting patiently for my biological clock to tell me what's what, but so far it's been pretty nonchalant about the whole thing.
I recently had a fertility "MOT" in the hope the results would force me to figure out how I feel, but its conclusion (everything seems to be in order but it won’t be like that forever so GET A BLOODY MOVE ON!!!) left me more confused than ever.
For the record, I think I'd make a good mum. I’m organized, kind, patient, good at cake decorating, and not afraid of hard work. So why does still it feel like such a question mark? The lack of partner obviously plays a role, but I doubt it accounts for all my hesitation.
"The thing is," I told my therapist recently, "If I had a gun pointed at my head and they said I had to decide there and then if I wanted kids or not or they'd pull the trigger, then I'd probably say yes, I do want children." He frowned. "And exactly why does there have to be a gun pointing at your head, Lisa?" A very good question, actually.
At 9 years old, I decided I wanted to be an actor. Painfully shy, I didn't pluck up the courage to tell anyone about my career choice for another five years. By the time I did and started performing in local amateur dramatic productions as a teenager, I'd fallen head over heels with the total and utter exhilaration of being on stage. I ignored all the warnings about how difficult the profession is, stubbornly declaring I'd rather die than do anything else with my life.
Having graduated with a degree in performing arts and signed up with the dodgiest theatrical agent in London, my professional career never quite hit the dizzying heights I’d hoped for. I laughed a lot and travelled quite a bit and made all sorts of mad and brilliant friends, but I wasn’t getting the sort of roles I wanted and never experienced the same level of joy I'd felt as a teenager performing old-fashioned musicals in draughty theatres for the sheer fun of it. More importantly, deep down I think I knew I didn’t quite have the talent to ever reach the top of my game.
It was around this time I discovered writing. I was temping in an office at the time and desperately craving a creative outlet. With not quite enough work to fill my day, I started writing a vaguely autobiographical novel for adults about an out-of-work actor. It took me two years to complete and was rejected by every literary agent I sent it to, but I didn’t care; I’d fallen hard and fast for something new and sensed this was only the beginning of a lengthy love affair.
Later that year I started temping at the Gender Identity Development Service. It was my work there with young transgender people that directly inspired my debut novel, The Art of Being Normal.
I’ll never regret the years I spent attending terrible auditions and living out of a suitcase because ultimately they nudged me down the path I’m on now. Dreams change. And that’s ok. I just wish I’d known it a little bit earlier.
Although I enjoy getting dressed up and like to think I scrub up ok, "groomed" is in no way my natural state.
When I was a teenager attempting to tame my fringe in pre-GHD times, it never dawned on me my hair would continue to misbehave as an adult. Similarly, I imagined one day owning a streamlined wardrobe full of tasteful black and navy, every item perfectly laundered with a hanger of its own. As it is, my job as a writer ensures I spend the majority of my time dressed like one of the bedridden grandparents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Upon leaving the house, unless there’s a very specific dress code, I tend to err on the more casual side of things, favouring skinny jeans, T-shirts, and Converse. I often have mini epiphanies and vow to only buy timeless "pieces" from shops like Cos and Jigsaw from now on, only to forget and buy yet another corduroy pinafore dress from Topshop similar to one I spotted on a 7-year-old just a few days later.
The thing is, I secretly quite like turning up at literary events and having teenage readers compliment me on my trainers or my dungarees. I like the fact that my wardrobe is full of comfy clothes I enjoy wearing. I like the fact that sticking on a posh dress and heels for a special occasion still feels a bit like playing dress-up. Most of all, I like knowing every time I put on an outfit, I'm doing it for myself and no one else.
Maybe there'll come a point at which I trade in my slogan sweatshirts and high tops for something a bit more befitting my age, but right now you’d probably have to wrestle them off me.
"Can I get you a tea or coffee?" I’m regularly asked. The following exchange usually goes something a bit like this:
Me: Oh, no thanks. I don’t drink hot drinks, actually.
Awkward pause while they stare at me like I’ve got two heads.
Them: Not even fruit teas?
Them: What about hot chocolate?
Me: Not unless it’s that really thick sort you have to eat with a spoon.
Them: So what do you drink when everyone else is having a tea or coffee?
Me: Water mostly.
Them: How odd.
Some people seem genuinely offended about it. Or try to convince me I’m wrong, as if they know what I like better than I do. Or regard me with suspicion, like they can’t quite fathom how I’m functioning without caffeine running through my veins.
To be fair, I always assumed I’d start drinking hot drinks at some point. Only I didn’t and it seems a bit late to start now. I’ve tried tea (looks and tastes like dirty dishwater) and coffee (smells like a bonfire, tastes like evil) and concluded they're not for me.
Once again, to all the tea and coffee obsessives out there who are no doubt shaking their heads with disapproval right now, I am truly sorry.
Remember when you were a little kid and you went to a family party and all your aunties got a bit drunk and danced like crazy people to "Come On Eileen" or "Oops Upside Your Head" and ended up rolling about on the carpet in fits of giggles? Or non-uniform day at school where your teachers would come in wearing jeans and do something daft on stage for charity like mime to "Mysterious Girl" by Peter Andre or dress up as a chicken?
When I was younger, witnessing adults acting "silly" both delighted and confused me. For the majority of the time, all the adults in my life conducted themselves in an entirely grown-up manner, so these rare insights into their secret fun side were oddly thrilling. They also gave me hope. Unlike a lot of my peers, I was never in a great hurry to grow up. Although I sensed I wouldn’t come into my own until adulthood, the appeal of being a grown-up was far more to do with fun and freedom than responsibility or settling down.
Having said this, I never dreamed I’d be in my late thirties and still indulging in ridiculous role-play games with my best mate Dave, or playing with Lego when I’m hungover or making up dance routines in front of the mirror. I like to think I’m sensible about the things that matter – money, my career, my health etc – but I love that silliness is still very much part of my life, even as I hurtle towards 40, and I like to think my younger self would be pretty happy about that too.
A boisterous toddler, I morphed into a painfully shy child. I remember feeling like I was bursting at the seams with words and opinions and personality but having absolutely no idea how to let them out. I was a worrier and a dweller and a bottler-upper, agonising over simple tasks like asking to use the toilet during class or making a simple phone call.
My shyness dissipated a little as I got older and discovered drama, but my school reports continued to say I needed to "contribute more in class", and I still had the tendency to clam up in situations where I felt uncomfortable. Although my year out (spent working in an office) gave me bags more confidence, my shyness reared its head once again when I started university.
Although I quickly forged a few close friendships, my performing arts course was full of big personalities and I struggled to be myself in larger group situations. Once you have a reputation for being quiet, every time you choose to speak up is loaded with pressure to say something interesting or worthwhile, and as a result the temptation not to say anything at all is huge. Those first few months, I remember being convinced that life would always be this way, that I’d always feel slightly on the outside of things, quietly waiting for someone to notice and invite me in.
Fast-forward to today, and when I tell people I used to be really shy, they usually laugh in my face. Not that I’m overly gregarious or the life and soul of the party, but I’m usually quite confident and chatty and unafraid to introduce myself to strangers or start a conversation. Previously afraid of doing things by myself, I regularly dine out alone, enjoy solo trips to the theatre and cinema, and recently holidayed alone for the first time, and loved it. I’m open and vocal about my worries and rarely dwell on things once I’ve worked them through, and I’m always asking questions, my shyness no longer getting in the way of my natural curiosity. Basically, I’m doing all the things I never thought I would manage, let alone get a kick out of.
And that’s the thing. As a kid, and even as a 19-year-old at university, I was convinced I was defined by my shyness and there was nothing I could do about it. I still have shy moments, but I’ve learned how to navigate them. One of the nicest things about growing up is realizing nothing is set in stone; we’re works in progress until the very end, and I continue to take great comfort in that.
The older I get, and the more people I speak to, the further I’m convinced no one has it "together" (quotations very much intentional), even the ones who look like they do on the outside.
I grew up assuming there was a magical point in adult life at which everything just slotted into place and you were done developing. The realisation we are never "finished" and probably never will be was at first alarming, then curiously liberating. I love that I’m constantly evolving, that my opinions and attitudes continue to shift, shaped by the people I meet and the experiences I have.
At the age of 37, I may not have met many of the traditional milestones of adult life, but you know what? I think that’s just fine.