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A Late Bloomer Makes The Case For Rejecting Life's Typical Timeline

Jun 29, 2021
Originally published on July 2, 2021 4:25 pm

Updated July 2, 2021 at 1:06 PM ET

The phrase "late bloomer" can feel like an insult and an indictment for those who live up to their potential later than society's expectations. But in her new memoir, Thanks For Waiting: The Joy (& Weirdness) of Being a Late Bloomer, author Doree Shafrir challenges the notion that life's milestones need to follow a linear narrative.

For Shafrir, being perceived as a woman who wasn't meeting certain goals — the right job by 25, married by 30, having children and owning a home by 35 — and lagging behind her peers felt terrifying. She says popular media she consumed in her 20s — like Sex And The City, which centered on the capital of youth — fueled that anxiety and set an impossible standard for those without the same opportunities and privileges.

"That was what we all watched and what we all internalized," Shafrir says. "And what I internalized from that was you turn 35, and you disappear. And so to me, age 35 was always like this Rubicon that, once crossed, you're just gone."

NPR's Ailsa Chang spoke with Shafrir about reevaluating her own life goals, watching her younger sister get married before her and the power of pop culture to shape our own ideals. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On the moment where she first felt out of step with her peers

I think it was in my mid-30s. I had been in a long-term relationship until I was 33, someone who I thought I was going to get married to — I lived with them — and then it just didn't happen. We didn't have a big, dramatic breakup; it just kind of didn't happen. And then I was like, "OK, I'm 33." Getting married was something that I wanted to do, but I had to have these kind of hard conversations with myself of like, "Did I want to just get married? Did I want to get married to this person and it didn't work out? Like, what do I want in my life?

Ballantine Books

On comparing herself with her younger sister, who got married before her

I think she had a confidence that she was going to do things on time. You know, just because you have confidence doesn't mean that you're going to necessarily get married at 27, but I think that was part of how she saw herself, as someone who was going to get married at 27. So I envied just that calmness in accepting who she was and being OK with that, and that took me so much longer to do.

She's also seven years younger than me. So one of the things that I talk about in the book is going to her wedding — and she did get married at 27, and I was 34 and single. I did want to be happy for her, — and I was happy for her and I was excited to be there — but there was this little bit of me that was like, "Oh, it's never going to happen for me, and I'm just sad and lonely." And that kind of negative self-talk was hard for me to get out of that headspace of.

On making misguided dating choices because she came of age late

I think I was also a late bloomer when it came to dating and sex in the first place. I didn't have my first real boyfriend till I was almost 22. I didn't have that wild college life that I think a lot of people do. And so what ended up happening was I had that wild college life in my 30s. There were some things that I probably should have learned [earlier], like don't date someone who you work with who lives with his girlfriend who also works with you. But here I was, at 33, learning this lesson. I do think I needed to kind of go through a lot of the things that I went [through], even though they were really painful — and I look back at some of them, and I'm just like, "Oh, my God. Like, what were you thinking?"

On how she hopes more people's decisions to reject the norm will positively influence the next generation.

I hope that as more women make this choice, we will start to see more kinds of role models, more people out there. I know when I was in my 20s, I didn't know any women in their 40s who were childless and happy. I just didn't know them: I didn't see them portrayed in pop culture; they just were not around. If they were portrayed in pop culture, they were portrayed as like, very sad.

So I'm really hopeful that we can start to create those alternate stories and that Gen Z, they won't even think twice about it. It'll just be a decision that they can make, and that's totally fine.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

I am 45 years old. I'm not married, and I don't have kids. And those three facts alone might cause a lot of people out there to see me as something of a late bloomer, a woman not quite caught up with most other women her age. I am so tired of this narrative. And that is why I was elated to read Doree Shafrir's new book, "Thanks For Waiting." It's her memoir, and it details how she felt out of sync with most of her peers, whether it came to her career, landing a boyfriend, getting married or having kids. But she learns that doing things later in life or differently is an act of self-determination, not tardiness.

Doree Shafrir joins us now. Welcome.

DOREE SHAFRIR: Thank you for having me. Really excited to be here.

CHANG: So when did you most powerfully feel out of step with your peers? At what age was it, like, most palpable?

SHAFRIR: I think it was in my mid-30s. I had been in a long-term relationship until I was 33, someone who I thought I was going to get married to. I lived with them, and then it just didn't happen. We didn't have a big, dramatic breakup. It just kind of didn't happen.

CHANG: Yeah.

SHAFRIR: And then I was like, OK, I'm 33. Getting married was something that I wanted to do, but I had to have these kind of hard conversations with myself of like, did I want to just get married? Did I want to get married to this person and it didn't work out? Like, what do I want in my life?

CHANG: Yeah, totally. I mean, what is it about the mid-30s? I felt that, too. Why is the...

SHAFRIR: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Pressure most intense during that decade, do you think?

SHAFRIR: I think for me personally, when I was in my early 20s, like, "Sex And The City" was (laughter) - that was...

CHANG: Totally.

SHAFRIR: ...In the zeitgeist. That was what we all watched and what we all internalized. And what I internalized from that was you turn 35 and you disappear. And so to me, age 35 was always like this Rubicon that once crossed, you're just gone. And so I think I'd always had that in my head. And then I turned 35, and I wasn't dating anyone seriously. And I started seeing all the people around me who I thought were my peers in kind of life things getting married, having children. And I was suddenly like, oh, well this isn't happening for me. Will it happen for me? I don't know. And what does that mean for how I see myself...

CHANG: Right.

SHAFRIR: ...And how other people see me?

CHANG: And let's just be clear. I mean, the benchmarks - the milestones that you speak of in this book, like marriage, buying a home, having a career - these are milestones that people of a certain privilege can afford. Right?

SHAFRIR: Yes, definitely. Yeah. And that's something that I am very mindful of. Like, I am very conscious of the fact that these things that I've internalized are these kind of middle, upper middle-class white American milestones. But that didn't make them any less real to me.

CHANG: Sure. One person you talk a lot about in your book, whom you compare yourself with a lot, was your sister. You kind of held her up as the standard, how she seemed to effortlessly glide through life, achieving all the right things at all the right times, whether it came to a boyfriend, marriage, kids. And what I thought was interesting is you attribute that to her, quote, "unwavering confidence" in herself. Is that how you see it now, that it takes real confidence to make someone do things, quote-unquote, "on time"?

SHAFRIR: Well, I think she had a confidence that she was going to do things on time. You know, just because you have confidence doesn't mean that you're going to necessarily get married at 27. But I think that was part of how she saw herself, as someone who was going to get married at 27. So I envied just that calmness in accepting who she was and...

CHANG: Right.

SHAFRIR: ...Being OK with that, and that took me so much longer to do.

CHANG: And she was your younger sister.

SHAFRIR: Yes, Ailsa, to clarify...

CHANG: Let's be clear about that, yeah.

SHAFRIR: She is my younger sister. She's also seven years younger than me. So one of the things that I talk about in the book is going to her wedding. And she did get married at 27, and I was 34 and single. And it was - I really - I did want to be happy for her. And I was happy for her, and I was excited to be there. But there was this little bit of me that was like, oh, it's never going to happen for me. And I'm just sad and lonely. And that kind of negative self-talk was hard for me to get out of that headspace of.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, let's talk about wanting to be in love because your dating life, I mean, it was...

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: ...Sort of, the way you describe it, one wrong turn after another. What do you think stopped you from making the right choices when you look back at that time in your life now? Or do you think you needed to date all the wrong people for a while before you could meet the right guy, who eventually became your husband, Matt?

SHAFRIR: It's an interesting question because I think I was also a late bloomer when it came to dating and sex in the first place. I didn't have my first real boyfriend till I was almost 22. I didn't have that, like, wild college life that I think a lot of people do. And so what ended up happening was I had that wild college life in my 30s. So I think I - there were some things that, like, I probably should have learned, like don't date someone who you work with who lives with his girlfriend who also works with you.

CHANG: (Laughter).

SHAFRIR: But here I was at, like, 33 learning this lesson. And yeah, I do think I needed to kind of go through a lot of the things that I went to, even though they were really painful. And I look back at some of them, and I'm just like, oh, my God. Like, what were you thinking?

CHANG: I mean, you totally celebrate this idea that sometimes it just takes longer to learn what you do want in life, what you should want. What about wholly rejecting or declining some milestones? Like, I'm sort of speaking for myself.

SHAFRIR: Yeah.

CHANG: Deciding I didn't want to have kids was a huge step for me. But it was part of realizing the kind of life I wanted to have.

SHAFRIR: It makes me think of my friend Glynnis MacNicol's book that came out a few years ago, "No One Tells You This"...

CHANG: Yes.

SHAFRIR: ...About being in your 40s and single. And she describes her experience of living this very fulfilled life, but people kind of not believing her.

CHANG: Exactly.

SHAFRIR: They just, like, don't get that she's actually happy.

CHANG: Because it's scary - right?

SHAFRIR: Right.

CHANG: ...For someone - to see someone reject all these social conventions...

SHAFRIR: Yes.

CHANG: ...And still be happy. It's scary.

SHAFRIR: Yes.

CHANG: What's does that say about the decisions you've made?

SHAFRIR: Exactly. Exactly. So I hope that as more women make this choice, we will start to see more kind of role models, more people out there. I know when I was in my 20s, I didn't know any women in their 40s who were childless and happy. I just didn't - I didn't know them. I didn't see them portrayed in pop culture.

CHANG: Mmm hmm.

SHAFRIR: They just were not around. If they were portrayed in pop culture, they were portrayed as, like, very sad.

CHANG: Or forced into decisions...

SHAFRIR: Yes.

CHANG: ...About not having kids because they couldn't. Right? It wasn't this volitional thing.

SHAFRIR: Exactly. Right.

CHANG: And that's a really great point. Like, part of the problem - part of the reason these conventional timelines still circulate in our society is because there aren't enough role models out there.

SHAFRIR: Exactly.

CHANG: There are more now. But...

SHAFRIR: Yes.

CHANG: ...Part of the reason these timelines still perpetuate is because we don't have enough alternate stories.

SHAFRIR: Yeah. So I'm really hopeful that we can start to create those alternate stories and that Gen Z, they won't even think twice about it. It'll just be a decision that they can make, and that's totally fine.

CHANG: Doree Shafrir's new book is called "Thanks For Waiting: The Joy And Weirdness Of Being A Late Bloomer."

Thank you so much for being with us today.

SHAFRIR: Thank you. It's so nice to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE KINKS' "THIS TIME TOMORROW (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.