Catherine dreamed of stretching her wings, but could she move from CA to DC and leave her parents, refugees from Vietnam who gave her everything?
It happened. Earlier this year I turned the “Big 3-0,” a brand new decade ushering in a new phase of adulthood that feels foreign to me. On my birthday I remember thinking “I don’t feel 30.” I didn’t have any anxiety about turning 30; it simply felt weird because I’ve realized that I have a mental disconnect from what I imagined 30 to be and where I am at 30 in my own life.
As a kid, I had a very different perception of adulthood and what 30 looked like than I do now. 10 year old Chelsea thought that 30 year olds were full-fledged adults who had followed a traditional life trajectory after finishing high school: college, job, marriage, house, and children. After all, that was the example I had grown up with in my own family and it’s what I saw in many of the families I knew. My mom and dad got married at 21 and 23, respectively, and started their first careers by the time I was born five years later, followed by my sister shortly thereafter. While my family was considered lower-middle class, my parents were able to save enough money to build our house, which we moved into before I started kindergarten. That’s what 30 looked like to me as a kid. Looking back on my ideas of adulthood, they were defined by what I considered to be a sense of establishment and stability in both professional and personal life.
Fast-forward 20 years and the early adulthood that my parents experienced definitely does not reflect my own experience. Financially speaking, there are a lot of factors that contribute to this disconnect, such as living in different parts of the country with drastically different costs of living, being financially independent and self-reliant as opposed to living in a dual-income household, and accumulating student debt. It’s not just the finances though; I’m in a different place in my life mentally and emotionally, which influences both the relationships I’ve formed and the support system I’ve built for myself.
The cost of living in Washington, DC is extremely high and for most millennials it means having roommates and sharing spaces. Home ownership is relatively affordable in my home state of Ohio and I have many peers there who have reached this benchmark. I feel much more on par with my DC peers, few of whom have been able to afford home ownership. For the past three years I have lived in a sunroom, sharing an apartment with two roommates. I basically live in a greenhouse: it’s mostly windows with sliding glass doors that separate my bedroom from the living area. My goal was to have a bedroom with a real door by the time I was 30, which I thought was a low-bar, achievable goal. I didn’t hit that benchmark.
While I am still a little sour about not having a more temperate room with a door that has hinges, the choice to continue with this living arrangement was very purposeful and has afforded me more financial benefits than I would otherwise have. My rent is relatively low, which allows me to allocate funds to other priorities, such as saving for my own home and retirement, chipping away at my student loans, and having the flexibility to travel and be social. Even though the living situation itself does not make me feel like much of an adult, the process of prioritizing other financial goals does.
This feeling of missing milestones that my parents had reached is, actually, not entirely new. During my 20s, I remember hitting ages where my parents took major life steps and thinking that I was nowhere near where they were. My mom was 21 (“basically 22,” in her words) when she got married; I turned 21 while studying abroad in Luxembourg. In their mid-20s, my parents had started their first careers and were thinking about starting a family. My mom even moved on to a second career by her mid-20s and completed her master’s degree to pursue a path that she was more passionate about. When I was 24, I moved to Washington, DC to start a graduate program and received my master’s degree at 26, the same age at which my mom gave birth to me. My mid-20s were largely spent focusing on my master’s degree and starting a career. I used that time to build a network of friends and professional contacts in a city that was previously unfamiliar to me. While I was in a relationship during that time, I, at times, prioritized my academic work and professional life more than my personal life and sometimes felt it difficult to strike a healthy balance.
By 30, my parents had two children and would later go on to have two more. At 30, I have struck a better balance between my personal and professional life and am investing time in both aspects of my life. I’m starting to think about marriage and starting my own family in the next few years and I’m in a serious relationship with someone who I hope will be part of that future family. I know that I want kids, but at 30, I don’t feel ready yet, financially or emotionally.
Another part of the mental disconnect is related to where I am in my professional life. As a kid, I thought that 30 year olds were several years into their jobs and moving forward, in a linear fashion, in their careers. 30 year olds were real adults in my mind, who held important jobs and were already established in their professions. While I do know people who fit that mold, I and many of my peers do not. My path has not followed a clear trajectory and I have had many jobs that I consider to be “nontraditional” in the years since I graduated from college. I was an AmeriCorps service member and a substitute teacher prior to attending graduate school. After graduate school, I worked in federal consulting, and I am now employed at a non-profit that works on higher education issues. None of the jobs I’ve had really align with my bachelor’s or master’s degrees. In my current role, I often feel like a glorified administrative assistant, providing customer service to higher education institutions. I thought adults did more important work than that. Therein lies perhaps the greatest disconnect: my career trajectory does not make me feel like an adult.
Not to mention the variety of part-time jobs and internships I’ve held throughout my 20s and still hold. Growing up, I thought that part-time jobs were for high school and college students only, as I didn’t know any adults working in part-time positions. I’ve had multiple part-time or short-term jobs since graduating from college and I have continued to work one, sometimes two, part-time jobs for the past three years. Nowadays it’s called a “side hustle.” I have taken on part-time work not because of financial necessity, but for personal interest and “fun money.” The extra money I make each month is put toward the “extras” that always seem to pop up, such as gift-giving or travel. I sometimes feel like a teenager going to a Saturday job, but at the end of the day, I’m happy to have a little more financial flexibility.
I know I am not alone in saying that 30 is not what I expected it to be. As a generation, millennials are experiencing life landmarks later than prior generations and postponing benchmarks such as home ownership and children for a variety of reasons, including job opportunities and student debt. I do have friends who have hit those traditional landmarks, going to college, starting jobs, getting married, buying their first home, having kids, and establishing their careers -- in that order. Many of those friends are back in Ohio, where the cost of living is much lower than in Washington, DC and different social norms contribute to different priorities. In my experience in Washington, DC, for example, there is an emphasis on education and career development before other milestones.
30 feels complicated. Personally and professionally, I’m not where I imagined I would be. The professional side is a challenge that I’m continuing to work through. On the personal side, I’m feeling pretty content, but I don’t yet feel the sense of establishment that I associate with adulthood. I’m not sure when I will, but as the saying goes, “it’s the journey, not the destination.” To me, this is 30.
Chelsea Fowler is a non-profit researcher with an enthusiasm for women’s history and free museums.
I started this essay over a year ago. Since then, the toddler who was just learning to talk is organizing house concerts and reciting Dr. Seuss. And I’ve had a daughter, now three months old. I don’t know how to raise two feminists—that is, two humans with the courage to challenge the status quo instead of using it to advance their own interests. Perhaps the hope I feel simply because of their existence is outsized, nothing they or any of us can deliver on. But in the time since I first started writing this piece, it’s become even more clear that every act counts—even one as simple as teaching them to talk.
Talking with a two-year-old, especially one who thrives on ritual, is all about who’s in and who’s out—this is how we treat our friends, this is how we do things in our family. It feels tribal at times. I remember seeing responses by residents of Del Ray, a liberal neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, when posters stating “Around Blacks, Never Relax” and “You’re Losing Your Country, White Man” appeared on cars in May 2017: “this is not who we are.” Solidarity is important; we must condemn hatred and threats. But the urge to dissociate seems to deny the fact that we all harbor xenophobia—and that we need to address those feelings at the individual level. The conditioning, parenthood is teaching me on a whole new level, begins with bedtime stories.
Watching my son discover language is—after childbirth—the most wondrous experience of my life. Yet with each new expression, I feel less equal to the task. Owl or crow, airplane or satellite, the other night a little riff about the horizon—we, the adults around him, affirm his reality through repetition and elimination. He finds delight in naming, but how much of that is because of the response his words elicit? I fear that in gaining the power of language, he’s losing sensitivities that might serve as surer guides.
From the beginning, I’ve seen him using language to understand what goes together and what should be left out. He might confuse a mango for an orange, but somehow I doubt that he’ll call a book a car. “Let’s get the mail,” I remember saying, not expecting him to pay attention. And the next day, he stopped by the door to search for envelopes, finding significance in a place that he’d trotted by a hundred times before. We applaud this kind of precision, this ability to differentiate, but patterns exist through exclusion, and this too shapes our worldview.
In her novel The Passion, Jeanette Winterson writes, “You don't have to ask a child about happy, you see it. They are or they are not. Adults talk about being happy because largely they are not. Talking about it is the same as trying to catch the wind. Much easier to let it blow all over you.” I wish this physical and existential liberation for my children—of course I do. Whether it’s pride, or humiliation, or curiosity, I want them to perceive and be able to name their feelings—and then to have the courage to speak them out. But is this not the most entitled statement of all? Because embedded in it is an assumption that they’ll have recognized and checked their privilege, that they’ll listen as much as they talk, that they’ll allow others the space to be caressed by happiness, however they define it—even if that makes them uncomfortable. Talking is joy for my son, just like music is joy, and he has an audience wherever he goes—but when his sister’s turn comes, will her declarations be considered profound or just cute?
In Karak, Jordan, there’s a relationship to difference that I want to learn more about. In this community, Christians and Muslims have defended one another, educated one another, and relied on one another to facilitate conflict resolution for more than a thousand years. In the face of occupation and crusades and extremism that might turn these groups against one another, they have been unwilling to be divided. How do the people in Karak teach their children to see one another as equals—what language do they use to elevate what their cultures have in common, to revere each other’s houses of worship? It’s encouraging that identity can be constituted not by a narrative of exclusion—we who are persecuted, we who are haunted by our past, therefore we who must be wary of you—but one of interdependence. In this community, it seems, there is hope and bravery in the mere act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
I hope that our sons and daughters access language to cross over or help others do the same, even when they don’t feel ready, even when the outcome might be frightening. I heard an interview with the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Cullors, in which she said:
There’s two Americas. For those of us who’ve lived in it, it was not in a box. We were experiencing it on a daily basis. It’s been trying to expose it to the America that has kept it in the box and that has been able to have the privilege to not witness, to not go through. I think now that that’s been exposed to the other America, you can’t put that back in. There’s no turning back.
I can’t prevent my children from acquiring language. I want them to achieve fluency, and more. And I acknowledge that for a while it will be all about telling red from blue, sugar from salt, safety from danger. But if I can help them understand language as a way to dismantle certainty—like the assertion that white supremacy has nothing to do with us—I think I’ll have learned a lot about myself in the process.
Those posters in Del Ray are an expression of racism and violence that I’ve been shielded from. Sooner or later, I’ll have to explain it to my children, and the prospect is daunting. Conversations about equality will be different with my daughter than with my son, and that’s devastating. So I try to remind myself that uncertainty means open-mindedness, too. We live with a friend, my children’s godparent, who is gender fluid. The other day, I heard my son use their pronoun correctly—which is more than most adults who come through our house can do. This felt like an accomplishment worth celebrating.
Tara is a Vermonter who lives in Columbia Heights, DC. She works in international education with a focus on China. Tara's writing has been published in The Atlantic and by the Woodrow Wilson Center's China Environment Forum. She was the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Service at American University from 2011-2013. Tara loves reading (especially fiction), running in Rock Creek Park, and checking out new playgrounds with her kids.
I am a progressive woman who ran for office and lost. The day after the election my e-mail inbox was flooded with notes of congratulations on a good run, pleas to continue the fight as a write-in candidate, and well-intentioned supporters who were quick to remind me that “Barack Obama lost in his first primary race, look how that turned out!”
It’s true that 2018 has been a banner year for first-time candidates, especially for women. As a progressive, half Jewish, half Latina, working mom, my campaign for a seat on the Washington, D.C. Council was grounded in the belief that our government shouldn’t work for the few at the expense of the rest. That every single voice in our community matters.
Even though I wasn’t able to unseat an incumbent who was given institutional support and cover from our local version of the Old Boys’ Club, every voice in our community still needs to be heard. That didn’t change because I lost.
The surge of new progressive candidates has already changed our country for the better. New ideas have been introduced to our communities, many of which will eventually become laws. People have rallied around progressive messages and policies like Medicare for All, stronger unions, paid family leave, and immigrants’ rights. Many incumbents – from Republicans to moderate Democrats – have had to change their positions on key issues because they were forced to realize the old way of doing things was no longer acceptable to their constituents.
The progress we have made has been hard-won, and will continue to be felt for decades. But for all of the energy we are collectively pouring into November 6, we haven’t yet considered the reality that not all of these new progressive candidates will win. So, what happens then?
That’s up to us. My suggestion is that we keep going.
A number of national groups are doing a tremendous job changing the political landscape and supporting new candidates with diverse backgrounds and experiences who are challenging a political system that has been built to keep them out. Run for Something, Get Her Elected, Emerge America, She Should Run, Democratic Socialists of America, and others deserve credit for investing in emerging leaders (including yours truly) who had the courage to put themselves out there, fight for a better community and challenge the status quo.
As a candidate, this infrastructural support was critical to building a credible campaign. For example, through Get Her Elected’s national network of more than 2,000 volunteers, I was linked with a public speaking coach who offered her in-kind services to train me for upcoming events, interviews, and debates. Because of Run for Something’s endorsement, our campaign attracted a local volunteer who took our homemade website and helped elevate it into a first-rate, branded communication and organizing platform. And, on a personal level, the leadership from these organizations stood behind me during a contentious primary race in which my opponent’s supporters – mostly older white men – often resorted to leveling sexist comments against me and suggested I “wait my turn.”
These organizations deserve credit for seeing through the bullshit of the kiss-the-ring patriarchy to change politics for the better. It’s up to us to support the work they’ve taken on in 2018, and make sure we build on it in the years ahead.
And, as far as these organizations have propelled new leaders, win or lose, they will need help in whatever happens next. We ought to be prepared to support them.
If elected, progressive leaders will need to prepare for life in office. In a political system where financial influence and shadowy deal-making is seen as business as usual, newly elected progressive leaders will be counting on our support so they can stay true to their ideals, values, and community. It is up to us, as progressives, to continue to support these leaders as they transition to governing so they don’t ever feel the need to fall into place within the current system.
Of course, some candidates will lose on November 6, and we must continue to nurture and cultivate their work into the future, whether or not it means another run for office down the line. It is up to us to make sure we support these leaders because they just might change the world someday. This is a good time to remember, once again, that Barack Obama lost his first race. We can help by keeping former candidates engaged in politics so that our system reflects a bigger, more inclusive, tent, through local advocacy and activism. We can support and encourage these leaders to chart out next steps, either as a future candidate or as someone who helps propel and recruit the next community leader into office.
For those of us who are former candidates who were unable to win our races, it is our obligation to not un-see the poverty, disparities, inequality and struggle in the communities we worked so hard for during our campaigns. We also have an obligation to not un-see the broken political systems that in many ways have been shaped to keep people like us out. And because we’ve been given the opportunity to get these views from within, we cannot abandon our ongoing obligation to help make things right.
In the time since my campaign wrapped up, two local fires have displaced the very community members our campaign sought to elevate, many of whom are still without stable housing and are suffering from health issues months later. Affordable, safe housing is a challenge faced by many across the US, and in the community I sought to represent I still see it as my obligation to hold my local elected officials – the “winners” – accountable to the voiceless and marginalized individuals living in these communities. And I’m grateful that so many progressive advocates and allies in my community have taken it upon themselves to make it their obligation as well.
At a recent event for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she stated that the “antidote to despair is action,” and I agree wholeheartedly. Since losing my race, I’ve been focused on engaging in activism wherever I can. I testified at a hearing in September ahead of a DC Council vote to repeal a ballot initiative that voters overwhelmingly supported (Initiative 77), which would have raised wages for tipped workers. I brought my daughter to protest the Kavanaugh confirmation on Capitol Hill. I’m knocking doors for Leslie Cockburn (VA-5) and Abigail Spanberger (VA-7), and organizing phone banks for Lauren Underwood (IL-14) and Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND).
This activism has been therapeutic, and it has been contagious. It has also made me realize that the work doesn’t end on November 6, 2018, and in many ways it is just beginning.
I don’t have all the answers, but one thing is certain: if we are to view ourselves as a progressive movement, rather than a moment, we have an obligation to continue to invest in those first-time candidates who stepped forward this election cycle, from School Board to Congress.
We can get to work now by supporting organizations that survey candidates’ needs and future plans; provide a platform that highlights the ongoing work leaders are doing to improve their communities; maintain infrastructural support to organize and run voter registration drives; provide mentorship opportunities; develop documents and guidebooks on lessons learned during 2017-2018; facilitate networking support to link leaders with national organizers running issue-based campaigns; focus on the specific needs of women and communities of color; and expand our collective volunteer base to help support and propel these individuals and the movement they helped advance.
This will take time, money, dedication and perseverance. Just like every other movement in the history of our country. Let’s get to work.
Lisa Hunter is a community activist and progressive mom who spent the last decade working in Democratic politics and health policy. Most recently, Lisa ran in the 2018 Democratic primary for the Ward 6 seat on the Washington, D.C. Council. Prior to running for office, Lisa was a health policy consultant, served in the Obama administration on implementation of the Affordable Care Act, worked on Capitol Hill, and served in the Peace Corps.
Coming out can be messy. There are of plenty of factors eager to complicate the already indefinite search for one's sexuality or sense of self. In my own experience, I have found trauma to be one of those factors that has clouded any sense of security I have held with my identity.
I am currently in my first year at Smith College and I identify as a queer woman. I came out to most of my friends sometime between my sophomore and junior year of high school, and came out to my parents, as well as became more public and open about my identity at the end of my junior year. Concurrently, while trying to make sense of how I felt and who I was, I was also aiming to navigate the impact that trauma had on my sexuality. In January of 2017, a week after I had participated in the Women's March on Washington, I visited some good friends on a college campus, where I found myself in the basement of a frat house being raped by a complete and utter stranger. My rape felt (and still feels) painfully like each story and statistic I had been perpetually warned about, “naive girl gets drunk at frat and is' taken advantage of.’” The words "no" and "stop" sat in my mouth the entire time, as I choked on my tears, and physical pain gutted me with no warning. It was raw and unsparing; and the thought of it still stings. The immediate period of time following my rape was nauseating and confusing; I felt as if I was constantly trying to invalidate each passing emotion, and it was exhausting.
I now attend a women’s college in one of the most queer cities in the country, Northampton, Massachusetts. My choice to attend this school was influenced by the fact that I was assaulted, and living here feels safe and liberating in ways I could have never imagined. Though, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t carry my trauma with me to college, and still struggle to navigate when friends leave campus and ask me to go to frat parties with them. Or that attending a women's college means that we don’t have our own issues of rape culture on campus, because we do. The remnants of my rape are scattered everywhere, no matter if I go to the queerest college in the country or back to the campus that stole from me.
Shame is a heavy thing; it is insidious and seeks to pull us away from our core, from the feelings we know to be true. I have learned to greet shame with honesty, and allow it to stay as long as it needs and to interrogate the place that it is has come from. I have found this to be the only way to become unrestrained from the notion of being "allowed" to feel a certain way, or take up a certain space. This unbinding has lead me to a newfound lightness, one of freedom and clarity. This isn’t to say that letting go of these feelings that have held me hostage is easy, because it hasn’t been. It has taken many angry journal entries, poems, therapy sessions, and time to recognize these realities. I still have hard days. Still mourn the steady trust for people I used to carry. Still mourn the girl I was that January day, unscathed from the trespassing that was yet to come. Still mourn my belief of a world in which women’s bodies are their own. Though, today I sit easier in my own skin, knowing there is a reckoning occurring in the midst of our pain, a world of women eager to rise.
Eliza is a Psychology and Education major at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. On any given day, Eliza can be found reading poems, jamming to SZA, or FaceTiming her twin brother. Follow her on Instagram @emankin.