“You thought that when you arrived at X age you would be finished, but we’re not ever finished.” Kayleen Schaefer talks with Zibby about her experience interviewing eight people in their thirties over the course of a year-plus. She redefines what it means to be an adult, and refutes the notion that everyone else has it figured out.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kayleen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Kayleen Schaefer: Hi, Zibby. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I know that we’re here to talk about your latest book. You have also written Text Me When You Get Home about female friendship. Your latest book is But You’re Still So Young about thirtysomethings. I just finished reading Fade Out about your search for your brother. Now I’m obsessed with that story, so we have to talk about that too.

Kayleen: Of course. That hasn’t been brought up in a while. I wrote that in 2016, I think.

Zibby: It’s so good. Can we start by talking about that? Then we’ll get into your next book.

Kayleen: Sure. Yeah.

Zibby: It’s a Kindle Single, which I had never actually even heard of before because I don’t have a Kindle. That’s interesting. It was a very short, almost like a novella about your brother and his disappearance and how close you used to be and your search for him, and Jared Leto. It was really great. Just tell me a little bit about that. Then I kind of want — maybe you shouldn’t say it on the — I want to know how things are with him now and what happened after the story.

Kayleen: A Kindle Single, I don’t even know if they do them anymore, to be honest. I’m not sure. It was this format where writers could go, like you said, novella length, so longer than a magazine feature story but not a whole book. I had been missing my brother. At that point, I think he had been gone for about two or three years. I wanted to go look for him, but I wanted a structure to do it within also, if that makes sense. I knew I wanted to write about this in the context of my own story and something that I was doing. It was the longest thing I’d ever written at the time. I knew he was Mexico, but we didn’t know where in Mexico. That was the first hurdle. Then we got it narrowed down in Mazatlán because my mom had been in communication with him some. Then we ended up hiring a private detective to help us, and she did. It was the first thing I’d really ever tried to write without knowing how it would go. At first, as you read in the book, it didn’t go very well. My brother was not happy we came to find him and didn’t want to see us. It’s old, so I’m not spoiling the ending. At the end, he was glad we had come. That didn’t mean that he was going to come back to the States. There was a reconnection. I was really glad that we had made that trip and had that reconnection.

Zibby: Do you talk to him now? Is he still there?

Kayleen: We talk, but it’s sporadic. We used to be really close. We used to live together as adults. It’s sporadic. He’s around. I would love to hear from him and he would love to hear from me, but it’s not an immediate relationship. I don’t hear from him every day or even every week. That story was my first experience at just trying to do something personal but also report about it and write about it, which is what I also ended up doing then with But You’re Still So Young. I ended up interviewing eight people in their thirties throughout a year, a year-plus actually, and didn’t know what was going to happen in their lives. I just took a shot that something would. When it started happening, I was like, all right, yes, this is happening. These peoples’ lives are changing.

Zibby: You incorporated your own life too, which is great. It was like a memoir with cut out little passages and then everybody else’s life, and you guys all unfolded together.

Kayleen: Exactly. My life was a little bit of a cheat because that stuff that mostly happened to me — not much was written in real time. Some of it is. The ending is, for sure, because I continued to write and report during this pandemic that we’re still in. With the people I follow, it’s really dropping into their lives and seeing, what’s going to happen to you over this year when you’re in your thirties?

Zibby: What are some of your main takeaways from life in your thirties, especially having analyzed this decade so thoroughly?

Kayleen: When I started the book, I started at the end of my thirties. I thought, oh, gosh, I didn’t do in my thirties what I thought I would do. I don’t have this adulthood that I envisioned from my parents on adulthood and from TV shows. Growing Pains was huge when I was growing up. I wasn’t unhappy with this. I thought I really learned a lot. The milestones that I did accomplish were the ones that seemed right for me when I did them. I’m glad I had to struggle with achieving them. I felt like that was true for a ton of other people in their thirties, but you also get this definition of adulthood that has been around since the 1950s. Many people just think that’s what everyone else is doing. Even though I knew it wasn’t true, you just butt up against the stereotype the whole time. The five things that sociologists say make you an adult are completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child. Seventy-five percent of people used to do that before age thirty, three-zero. I know that’s not happening today, for sure, but the stats also bear that out. In the 2016 census, only twenty-four percent of people had done that by age thirty-four. You see those stats, but there’s still this frame and this idea that, no, until you do those five things, you’re not an adult. I set out to find and talk to people who hadn’t done those things but who were clearly adults and were working to figure out which of those milestones they wanted, which ones they wanted to reject, which ones they were struggling with and might not get. I wanted to look at what was really happening instead of just this framework that we have that is clearly — there needs to be a different model, but there hasn’t been a new definition set out.

Zibby: You had a quote in the book. You said, “It feels wrong to admit I’m still working on it. I don’t know if this is right. I thought it would be different. I can’t do it.” I totally relate to that. Everybody has these preconceived notions. It’s okay to be like, well, hmm, life is not — nothing all makes sense. I feel like your forties are what I thought my thirties would be. I feel like when I got to my thirties, it would be smooth sailing. This is great. That is not what thirties were like most of my friends and me, I would say.

Kayleen: It’s super interesting because I was in my twenties when the idea of emerging adulthood and the quarter-life crisis really became popular. It seemed almost like this permission slip. Okay, you’re allowed. In your twenties, you can totally find yourself. You can go live in New Zealand for six months. You can sleep on a living room floor for three months. You can have a job for two days and then decide, I don’t want this job anymore. It was this permission to try on all these different selves and really dig down to who you were and what you wanted. For some reason, we seem to say then when you hit thirty, you can’t do that anymore. There’s this arbitrary age-thirty deadline that’s in a lot of our heads. If you think about it, it’s just crazy to think you can go from being twenty-nine where it’s like, definitely, you have freedom, try on these things, figure yourself out, and then you hit thirty and it’s like, but wait, I’m just supposed to snap to everything? There is this feeling that that’s the way that it’s supposed to be.

Zibby: This is just one of those things I feel like I want to go back and tell people. They’re not actually going to listen to me. I’d be like, yeah, okay, uh-huh, right.

Kayleen: I wanted to tell people.

Zibby: I know. You spent a whole book on it. I hope they listen to you.

Kayleen: A big part of it was I wanted to be like, you’re not alone. You think that everyone else is just checking off these things in a nice orderly fashion and knows exactly what they want and who they are and is super happy. We are all dealing with a lot of uncertainty, especially now, especially this year.

Zibby: The amount of people I know in my forties who have made major life changes is really high, divorce, new careers. I feel like some of my friends are now getting to a stage where their kids are a little bit older and they can try new things. I don’t know if you’ve found this with your group of people too. The thirties, there’s just a lot of change, even pandemic aside. I feel like the forties are the time of risk-taking. People are like, if not now, when? They’re a little bit closer to the mortality. Most people have had someone they’ve lost. They have lost someone.

Kayleen: I do think in every decade you can find this sense of, you’re not finished. You thought that when you arrived at X age you would be finished, but we’re not ever finished. There’s this sense of, especially in your thirties, when will I have arrived? When will I know how my story ends? When do I have everything settled? The disheartening-yet-true answer is never. I do think that there’s a lot of optimism, too, in this idea that we’re not settled. If you look at that fifties model which most people did follow, they did set their lives out. They were settled by the time they were thirty, and so they didn’t really have any choices. That takes away a lot of the anxiety of having all these choices and being like, did I make the wrong one? I could always make another choice. I could always switch careers. I could always divorce. I could always decide to have kids. I think that there is beauty in having these choices because you do get to pick what you want for yourself. Your life is open in a way that I think is more enriching than if we’re all just put in one mold and one way of living and told that that’s how we have to do it.

Zibby: Yes. Back then, people had “a” job.

Kayleen: For years.

Zibby: And that was it. You would have that job. Someone the other day said something about my kids, like, what do you think they’re going to be when they grow up? I can’t wait until we find out. I’m like, it’s not like that. They’re going to have fifty-seven jobs. Maybe they’ll have one job for their lives. It’s possible. I just switched jobs. Everybody can switch. There’s never, she grew up to be a podcaster. No, that’s not it.

Kayleen: know what a podcast was.

Zibby: Exactly. Who knows what these kids are going to do? What we know for sure is that it’s going to change. That, I think, is the beauty of it. Yes, I’m with you. When there are so many choices, I’m often like, let me change this. Let me try this. Maybe I could do it a little better. I’m with you on the anxiety front. At the same time, how many of those women were at home being housewives miserable, perhaps, in 1950s and had no way out? They just needed a podcast mic, and they would’ve been fine. No, I’m kidding. It’s super interesting as a topic for all the exploration that you did. I love it.

Kayleen: It’s a tricky thing writing about a decade of life because, like you said, it’s different for everyone. Everyone’s going to experience their own life. It’s unique to them. I really struggled a lot with — I know that is happening to some people in their thirties, and I think to a lot of people in their thirties, but it’s a very hard thing to try to make a sweeping statement about a decade of life. That’s why I wanted to choose real people to focus on and to follow. I could drill it down to their specific stories. In their stories, you can also extrapolate things that are happening in society now. The birth rate is at its lowest in thirty-five years. Marriage rates are decreasing. Our financial stability, a lot of school debt. Now we’ve been hit by two once-in-a-lifetime recessions, the 2008 recession and then the current recession because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most common living situation for people eighteen to thirty-four is with their parents, which is the first time that’s ever happened. It was happening before the pandemic, but the pandemic has only exacerbated that. It is really interesting, that switch and the way that you can still be an adult and live in your parents’ house. There’s nothing inherently wrong with staying there to save money or staying there because the cost of living is crazy in the city that they happen to live in but you also want to be in. I just think there’s this way of looking at adulthood that’s not the traditional way but that is the traditional way now for a lot of people.

Zibby: Agreed. I know. My husband’s like, my littlest guy, “When he goes to college, we can stay in LA all the time.” I’m like, “We’ll probably be living with all the older kids still.” They’ll be out of college. They’ll probably be back home.

Kayleen: You might. I think it might even get more popular. I was really shocked. At the beginning, I was just trying to figure out, how big is this? How much of a delay is this? Many of the experts that I talked to said they don’t even think that the average age of first marriage, of having kids has hit its highest yet. It will continue to increase. This won’t be a delay soon. It’ll just be looked at as normal course of life. I do think there’s a little more room in all of these shifts. They’re going to get pushed and more popular. I don’t think we’re going back to when people moved out of their parents’ house and were married and had a house and had kids at age twenty-two.

Zibby: I’ve talked to some people younger, like early thirties. They’re like, nobody wants to get married anymore. Everyone just lives together. I’m like, what? They’re like, yeah, it’s not a thing. People just are not sure they’re going to get married. I’m like, huh, interesting. Have you heard that too?

Kayleen: Yeah. They do surveys about what makes you an adult. What do you think will make you an adult? Being married is always very low on the list. Financial independence, a stable career, those things always, always outrank getting married with this age group now, which is interesting because this is a shift primarily caused by women. I think that men also want to delay. Obviously, the age of marriage for men is a little bit older, the average age of first marriage. I think it’s twenty-nine for men and twenty-seven for women. It might be twenty-eight for women. The shift is primarily caused by women of waiting later because a woman didn’t used to be able to start her life before she was married. When I say that, it’s sort of wild that that’s in our current history, but it really is. You had to get married. Then maybe you could have a job. Then you could have kids. Then you would have a house. For women, marriage was always the first step to achieving any of these other markers of adulthood. Some of them couldn’t even leave their parents’ home before they got married. That broadening has broadened a lot of other things too.

Zibby: I’m happy to be alive now and to be my age. Tell me a little bit more about writing. Are you an everyday writer still? Do you like to always be working on something? Do you like more journalism? I feel like your book was much more journalistic. Where are you now with writing?

Kayleen: I do like to write every day. I have an infant. I used to like writing first thing when I got up. I’d stumble to the coffee maker, make coffee, and sit down at my computer and write. That was the time of day when my brain was still foggy enough that I wouldn’t overthink what I was doing and wouldn’t be like, this is terrible. I can’t even believe you think you’re a writer. My sleepy brain overrode that confidence cutting. Now I have — he’s ten months old. That morning writing, I’m trying to get back to it. I would be up at six AM. Then he would wake up too. I would be doing it in the dark. I was like, this is untenable. I just can’t do it anymore. Now I have to try to write when he naps. I thought he’d go to daycare. In the pandemic, he just hasn’t. Now it’s writing when I can. It’s nice to have restrictions on it. I know he’ll probably sleep for an hour. I can write for an hour. That’s nice. I’ve heard a lot of moms say this before I became a mom. You really drill down to the essential. You can’t screw around anymore. You , I can start this in twenty minutes or whatever. It’s like, you have only twenty minutes. That has been helpful in my continuing to write, just having these very shorts bursts in which I can write. I do a lot of writing in the front seat of the car while my boyfriend drives and the baby sleeps in the back. I do it whenever I can as needed or when I’m feeling like I have something that I need to get down.

Zibby: Nobody must have met your baby. He must have been in the pandemic this whole time. Is that right? His whole life has been probably at home.

Kayleen: Correct. I was really thinking that I was going to be great with this “it takes a village” method of raising a kid. I was very excited about that, all my friends, my family. It’s mostly just been my boyfriend and me. I really hope that that doesn’t last forever. It won’t, obviously. I had to really shift that mindset.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Kayleen: I have a ton of advice for aspiring authors. It took me a while to find my voice. I write about this in Text Me a little bit. I always was pretty like, I want to be literary. I want men to like what I read. I want to be serious. I’m writing for this imagined male lover of literature, whoever he was. Whoever Richard Ford’s readers were, that’s who I wanted too. That’s not me. That’s not my voice. When I actually found my voice, which happened a lot with Fade Out and a lot with Text Me, I was writing as me. I didn’t have in mind of being high-minded or serious or literary. To any writer, don’t try to be what you think you should. As hard as it is, just try and be who you are on the paper. People will like that. You may not think they will. I had my doubts. Is anyone going to like these stories that I want to write? They will. The fact that you’re being genuine and authentic comes across so much better than if you’re trying to just be what you think other people want to read or what might sell or anything market driven.

Zibby: I totally agree with that. When I was growing up, my mom always used to say, “Just be yourself.” I was like, who even is that? That is the worst advice ever. I don’t even know who I am at all. Turns out, that’s the key to everything.

Kayleen: It really is. Actually, one of the characters in my book, he had a lot of relationships. The one he has settled into, he just decided to be himself. We were talking. I was like, “Just be myself.” Then he was like, “No one’s going to like that. No one’s going to want that.” This woman did. She does. Now he’s himself and he’s comfortable in this relationship. It really applies across the board as everything. Just try to know your core and what you value. You’re going to be great.

Zibby: So simple. Thank you so much for this conversation. It was so fun. Thanks for coming on my show and for all of your books.

Kayleen: Thank you for having me. Thank you for reading. It was lovely to talk to you.

Zibby: You too. Hopefully, we’ll meet in person sometime.

Kayleen: Definitely.

Zibby: Good luck with your baby.

Kayleen: Bye. Thank you.

Zibby: Bye.


But You’re Still So Young by Kayleen Schaefer

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