I guess twenty-one is supposed to be the big birthday of your youth. But, for me, turning twenty is a marker that seems particularly significant. My years of teen angst and confusion are behind me, supposedly, and now I should do things that people in their twenties do: wear heels even when nobody’s forcing me to, pretend that I somehow ‘just can’t drink as much as I used to’, and laugh at the immaturity of hopeful and naïve eighteen-year-olds as I sip the red wine that I swore I hated before I was introduced to Oxford formals.
Yet as I sit as I have done for four months within the confines of my room at home, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m still, I don’t know, seventeen?
I can’t remember what was going through my head as I neared my birthday at the peak of the pandemic in April; it almost feels as if it didn’t happen. I don’t like making a fuss on my birthday, anyway: the past two years featured a simple trip to Spoons with my school friends, the day always falling in the Easter holidays, and I’m content with nothing more than a cheeky drink and a good catch-up while my friends hand me homemade birthday cards and we share pitchers. Obviously, this year, this was off the table.
As I floated through the first day of my twenties, not being able to visit what is far from Britain’s finest drinking establishment, did not seem to be a great tragedy. I sat around and did what I wanted to, I hosted a birthday video call with my friends, and my parents ordered Pizza Hut for dinner. It wasn’t a particularly exciting day, and yet everything I did felt imbued with some personal significance.
I don’t think I’m alone in not enjoying making a huge occasion out of my birthday. We all like a bit of attention, but forcing yourself to have a good time can lead to the day ending with a tinge of disappointment. You either don’t have as much fun as you envisioned you would, or your plans are weighed down by a reminder of the unrelenting passage of time, or some other existential reality that hits you in the face every time you celebrate an essentially made-up occasion. And still we pretend the things we do on our birthdays are important. Perhaps, on a fundamental level, we need things to look forward to. We need times where we can let go of our responsibilities without any guilt, and we all want to believe that our ordinary lives are special – in the words of girls on TikTok, we all want to be the main character.
For a lot of university students in lockdown, the past four months have seemed like a time warp. Having grown used to independence and acting more and more like adults, we’ve been thrust back into our pre-eighteen-year-old lives. I feel like I’m seventeen, my life revolving around what my parents do, as I sit in my room which reflects my interests three years ago, and occasionally venture into the park with my friends. Maybe it’s because I never had the stereotypical coming-of-age experiences associated with being a teenager, but I can’t help but think that I’m missing out on a defining moment of my youth.
Turning twenty in lockdown has exposed even more just how performative the rituals we take for granted are. For me, there’s a tension between the sense that I’m supposed to celebrate another year of life with an exciting celebration, and yet being perfectly content having a takeaway and hosting a group video call. A tension between the sense that I’m finally supposed to be growing up, and the reality of my independence being out of reach. Maybe returning to uni for my final year will mark the moment when I feel a little older. Though, Oxford’s eight-week terms also have their own essence of unreality to them.