Around the one-year mark of the pandemic, my mother and sister and I began litigating who was missing out on more, from an important-life-experience perspective. My sister was 24 when the whole thing started, so I nominated her. She didn’t yet have a proper friend group set up in her city, and she hadn’t had a chance to establish herself at work — neither of which seemed likely to happen from the living room. My mom was missing 57, which didn’t seem horrible, but, as she said, every year counts. We agreed I probably was faring the best. I was 27. I’d lived with my boyfriend for more than a year in an apartment beneath a close friend’s. We didn’t have children. In fact, I’d often sit on Zoom from my kitchen and watch my parent-colleagues less and less gently herd their toddlers offscreen and think, God, if there ever was the right time in my life for a global pandemic to strike, this would be it.
Three years and more than half a dozen variants later, I began to reconsider. Reemerged, I found strangers and friends alike were exceedingly curious about various new topics like, Did I happen to know a wedding venue in Brooklyn suitable for 150? And did I think I’d ever consider moving outside the city? Seven times in a two-month period, I was asked if I’d be freezing my eggs. All of which seemed strange, because — well, I hadn’t yet realized I’d turned 30.
That COVID warped our perception of time is well established — studies show that stressful experiences tend to make it feel unclear how much time is passing, especially when one is confined to one’s home for months on end. It felt fast, it felt slow, it’s now hard to remember at all. With some time and space from that urgent, panicked period (did that happen yesterday or the day before? How long has it been since I’ve seen another person?), some new questions have started to come up. Like, if we slept through three years of normal life development, how old are we exactly?
This pandemic skip — the strange sensation that our bodies might be a step out of sync with our minds — happened to people of all ages. We’ve heard of those freshmen in high school, who, never having attended middle school, went back to their classrooms punching each other like 12-year-olds. A friend skipped from 57 to 60 and, when she started dressing up to leave the house again, realized she felt distinctly out of sorts in her clothes — her dresses felt suddenly too short or too colorful. (At 57, she said, patterns felt ironic. At 60, they didn’t.) My skip, I realized, had carried me swiftly through what would have been my last couple years of socially permissible carelessness. And what I’d dropped into didn’t especially appeal, particularly after having been trapped in the house-cats-in-a-bag style for three years: real adulthood with all its attendant concerns.
We’ve gone back to the office, the parties and weddings have resumed, and the WHO has declared an end to COVID as a public emergency. And yet I keep stumbling into this same conversation, most often with women in their early 30s, who are staggered to find they are, in fact, their own biological age. As I’ve grown further acquainted with this particular stretch of life, this has begun to make sense — there’s a tight arithmetic to these years. Compressing it further wasn’t ideal. One of my colleagues started the pandemic at age 29. Now, she wants to make up for the time she lost: to travel with her husband, to work, to go to dinner with friends — all the things a young, carefree person roaming around in the city might concern themselves with. But she also wants to have children, and she’s worried she needs to settle down and start soon — according to obstetrics guidelines, her body is now two years away from being considered “geriatric.” “I’m really 31 in my head,” she told me recently. But she’s also really 33 in form. “Which is a problem, because now I actually don’t have time for my brain to catch up with my body.”
Another colleague, who made the same skip as me, said an older friend had once told her that 27 was a special year — you’ll finally feel confident, the friend had said, you’ll finally have some money, it’s the last time nobody is attached. But during her 27th year, the lockdown happened. “Many of my friends moved in with partners at the start of it,” she says, “and we entered these domestic, nuclear situations, where we were at home, cooking and tending house, not going out, and generally living like 35-year-olds.” When she emerged from the pandemic at age 30, she was jarred to realize things weren’t shifting back to how they were before. Everyone was married, or almost married, and nobody (including herself, really) wanted to go out anymore, though she was suddenly receiving a lot of invitations for couples trips. Another colleague said she and half of her friend group, refusing to acknowledge that they’re now 32, are experiencing a sort of second youth — rarely staying in, spending money on trips and clothes and dinner without thinking about how much it all cost. “Maybe when I’m 40, I’ll start being financially responsible,” she said.
It’s possible that there is no worse pandemic skip, that every three-year period lost was equally painful in its own way. I talked to another friend, who experienced a skip similar to my sister’s — 23 to 27. “I feel like I blinked and am now in the second half of my 20s,” she says.
The thing I observed of my sister a few years ago seems true to her now: She says she’d just started to feel like she was finding her footing, socially, career-wise, when COVID hit. Now, “I’m five years into my career, and
I still feel in my head like I’m just starting out,” she says. She’d thought, in the beginning, that her sister’s skip was worse: Her sister was a college sophomore in 2020 and was rushed out into the real world. “But now” — as her sister enters those formative, fumbling-around-the-city years she herself had to shelve — “I’m kind of jealous of her.”
We’ll never know if any of this was the pandemic, or if we’re just narcissistic New York City Peter Pans or anxious maladaptives. Maybe those 34-year-olds would have been worried about whether to have children at 34, pandemic or no pandemic. I asked my friend, the one who had recently turned 60, what she thought. She said that in her experience, moving from one decade to another, from one phase of life to the next, was consistently hard. But, she suspects, it takes a lot of living alongside other people — watching their breakups and thinking about your own relationship, watching their faces change and wondering if yours has too, watching them get married, and have kids, and move cities, and all the millions of other choices they made in the service of forward movement — to look properly at yourself and realize you’re not just the same age as you were before. So watching no one for three years, while still spinning around that bend — hindering.
I can see my friends up close now. Everyone’s moving ahead with their lives in one way or another, because what else can you do, really: It’s time to make choices. In many cases big life-defining ones — too bad that they’re being made right on the heels of a once-in-a-generation black hole. Maybe in ten years, we’ll wake up and look around at our families and have a collective, early midlife crisis. Or maybe we’ll just keep moving forward and, like every generation before us, ignore the sinking feeling that none of us are ready for any of this in the first place.