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35 Things I've Learned In 35 Years

If only I could email this list to my twenty-something self...

How many candles did you say?! 
How many candles did you say?! 

Somehow, I turn 35 this month. It’s not old, I know, but it’s a solid age planted firmly in adulthood. Which, should make sense, I have two kids, a husband, a house, two dogs and even two chickens. Still, I don’t always feel grown up. Often I have to remind myself those are my dishes to clean and my phone calls to make and no one else is going to do them for me.

I always imagined I’d be squarely focused on a career by now, not at home with my children. How little did I know then. I had no idea being home was exactly what I’d want. I had no sense I’d chase fluttering dreams and dabble in a little of everything. I never thought myself a "hummingbird." But, here I am, a freelance writer and a mom. It’s exactly the lack of pretense I never anticipated. I thought I was going to be a lawyer, for goodness' sake, (and then an economic analyst, and then a teacher in low-income schools…).

And, that’s exactly why I’m writing this, thirty five years in (and hopefully at least another fifty to go) — to look back and realize how far I’ve come and how much farther I have left. There’s not a single part of me thinking I’ve figured it all out. Still, if only my twenty-something self were listening maybe I could’ve skipped some of that anxiety and depression. Thirty-five is the most comfortable I've ever been in my own skin.

Here’s what I’ve learned (and am constantly re-learning).

1. You have to pick a job for the work not for the title. I thought I needed to be a lawyer or something with a fancy label but I truly never felt more proud than when I started telling people I was a teacher. There was humility and purpose to the role that felt way more empowering than simply picking something I thought others would find glamorous.

2. Purpose vs. pleasure is a real battle. Ideally we have a balance of both, but when we live too far in either extreme we’re missing out. Right now my purpose is my children and my pleasure is my writing and truly that’s enough. I think we get too sucked into the pleasure end of things. Maintaining social calendars, buying new things, chasing me-time. What about purpose? What are we doing to make this world a better place? I don’t ever want my answer to be “nothing.”

Right now my purpose looks something like this.
Right now my purpose looks something like this.

3. Good things often come with discomfort. If it makes you nervous you might be on the right track. Comfort and avoiding risk don’t get you far. I've made my biggest strides when I've decided to do things that scare me.

4. Ask for what you want. If you want a raise, different work accommodations, or a promotion, ask for it. The worst you’re going to be told is “no.” And, in my experience, you might be surprised by how often the answer is actually “yes."

5. If your job is making you miserable, leave. I know, easier said than done, but having dealt with intense anxiety and depression while slaving away in a cubicle, I recognize the difference it made to walk away. It didn’t matter how much money I was making or if the job sounded good when chatting with strangers. I was sick to my stomach and thought I had IBS. I was battling insomnia. I only weighed 95 pounds. All of those things went away when I let that role go.

6. You may have to try many jobs before you find one that sticks. I know in my bones teaching and writing are the things I’m meant to do, regardless of whether I go back to a classroom anytime soon. Still, it took me many jobs to figure this out.

7. Being a hummingbird pays off. Like I said, I tried a lot of things but they all led me to this moment, where I’m able to stay home with my girls and write. If I were rigidly stuck on a different path I'd be missing this time to do both of those things.

8. Patience can be joyful anticipation. Seriously, next time you’re feeling impatient, think of what you can happily look forward to, instead. So much in life is all about the way you look at it. A simple adjustment in perspective can make your entire existence better. 

9. Recognize your own power in overcoming anxiety. Yes, everyone is different and some people will need more extreme approaches than others, but I can tell you my anxiety was bad. I could hardly function. I had an anxiety attack when I got a dog, (actually, both times I got dogs). But once I labeled it and started paying attention to it, I took major steps to make it go away. I changed my job. I moved out of the city. I took probiotics and B vitamins and started yoga. It wasn’t instant, but it worked. I can now generally handle life events without freaking out.

10. Make health a priority. In my teens and early twenties, I ate whatever I wanted. Sometimes I had crumb donuts with a Coke for lunch. I didn’t make the mind-body connection even though I ended up in the nurse’s office at school because I felt like I was going to pass out, (gee, maybe it was all that sugar and caffeine?). In my late twenties, I started experimenting with food and paying attention to how different choices made me feel. Now I can hardly eat junk food because I realize it makes me miserable afterwards.

11. Don’t skip the exercise. For years, I dabbled. I’d run for a few months or go to pilates until my pass ran out, but I never stuck with anything. As soon as I was sick or went on vacation and skipped a couple sessions, I’d let it go altogether. Now I realize not exercising isn’t something I can afford. My body aches and becomes sluggish when I don’t. 

12. Yoga can be magic. I mentioned it helped me conquer my anxiety but it has also given me transcendental experiences, (and no, I don’t do drugs). There are whole other universes in our brains and I’ve seen this with yoga. Yes, totally trippy.

13. Have the ice cream but don’t lose your momentum. When I was younger, I’d have dessert and then give myself license to eat as much crap as I wanted for the rest of the day. I’m learning it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can indulge and then still take care of yourself. In fact, it feels much better that way and causes way less guilt.

14. Perfection doesn’t exist. I was one of those annoying people who thought saying I was a perfectionist was the best flaw to share at a job interview, (and I really did believe I was one). However, two kids in with work and a house to run, the idea of perfection now makes me laugh (and cringe). Trying to do it all exactly right all the time is misery. It’s not even possible.

15. Messes mean you’re busy living life. I still like a clean house, but I’ve gotten more comfortable with my mess. I leave dishes in the sink so I can take my daughters to the park or a playdate. I skip vacuuming so I can sit down and write. I let the laundry pile up so my husband and I can enjoy time together on the couch. Now when I see an immaculate house I wonder what the person cleaning it must be missing.

16. I don’t skip time with my husband. The first couple years of parenthood, I went to sleep at the same time as my daughter because we co-slept and it made things easy. Then I got pregnant with my second daughter and I didn’t have the energy most nights to stay up after a busy day teaching. My husband and I went nearly three and a half years like this. I’d sneak out a night or two a week, but for the most part I was missing out on being alone with him (not to mention on being alone with myself). Then something shifted and it was no longer an option. I made the necessary changes to regain this time in the evenings for both of us.

17. Sleep training a baby isn’t as bad as it sounds. Yes, every baby is different and my youngest is more chill than my first, but I’m also different the second time around. I know what I need for my own sanity and this includes some off-duty hours in the evenings (and enough of my own sleep!). While some babies give this to their parents without a fuss, neither of my girls did. I had to train my second to go to bed on her own. It wasn’t easy, and yes there were tears, but I’m also certain she’s just fine.

18. I deserve time to myself. Really, I should make this a mantra and repeat it throughout my day. It’s so easy to put myself last. But lately I’ve been reclaiming my own time. I go to the gym, take yoga classes, sit in the sauna, take a shower. I trade weekend mornings with my husband, he gets Sundays and I get Saturdays. I work most afternoons and two full days a week. All of these things are for me.

19. It’s okay to take care of my appearance. I went through a phase where I didn’t spend much time on myself because I thought it was a waste of time. Now I’m realizing it goes a long way in making me feel more confident. I can still go out without this type of self-care and feel fine in my own skin, but I’m realizing it’s okay to operate both ways. It doesn’t make me vain or shallow or mean I’m wasting my time on the days I choose to give myself a little extra care.

20. Friendships change. Plain and simple. Sometimes you have to let go. And, on the flip side, it’s okay to have fewer close friends as you get older. Your family starts to occupy some of those slots and that’s just reality. Acquaintances are great for networking but not for sucking up all your time. We can only manage so many relationships in life. That’s a fact, (or at least a scientific theory).

My new besties.
My new besties.

21. Some people are going to disappoint you and you can’t change them. But you can still be kind, even if that seems counterintuitive. When you stop letting others control your feelings, you’re free.

22. Sometimes you have to say “no” for your sanity. I can’t stand when life is so full there’s zero downtime. Social engagement after social engagement can be exhausting. It’s okay to pass.

23. And sometimes you have to say “yes” for the adventure. On the flipside, I really believe we have to say “yes” to things that make us nervous. For example, I never would have embarked on a girls road trip to catch a friend’s roller derby match two states away if I’d stuck with what felt comfortable. “Yes” can be exactly what we need.

24. Motherhood is both the hardest and best thing I’ve done. Unoriginal but true.

25. The things you put on hold won’t matter as much as you think. I was scared of losing myself in motherhood, but it turns out I’ve found so much more. I’ve realized strength I didn’t know and all that other stuff is still there, even if some interests have to wait. 

26. Domesticity isn’t something to fear. I never dreamed of being a stay-at-home mom. In fact, my twenty-year-old self probably thought that sounded boring. But, when we let go of what we think other people value we’re able to focus on what matters. I’m happy at home with my kids. Yes, working from home is part of this equation, but I’ve realized I don’t need a fancy title to feel accomplished.

27. You can't do everything. There’s only so much time in a day, week, month. It’s not my job to accomplish everything. Other people can help. Tasks can wait for later. Letting some things go is a hard-learned secret to happiness.

28. Life comes in seasons. Having a baby or small child can feel like the hard parts are going to last forever, but they don’t. Just like college comes and goes, kids get bigger, jobs change, life is constantly moving you to the next thing. This can be bittersweet but there’s no way around it so you might as well embrace it.

29. No one lives forever. For some reason this one has been hitting me extra hard lately. Maybe it was a recent passing in my extended family or having to field questions from my four-year-old about heaven. Our time here is temporary. We don’t even know when it ends. I’m trying to accept this as part of life. We all go.

30. Age is relative. In my teens, thirty sounded old. In my twenties, forty sounded old. At 35, really nothing sounds old anymore. My parents don’t seem old. My grandma is hanging in there like a champ. I want to get better with age. I think it’s possible when we stop worrying so much about what numbers mean.

31. Always ask, “Is this how I want to live my life?” I’ve wasted too much time surfing my phone and getting sucked into social media, (among other things). The one question that always snaps me out of it — “Is this how you want to live your life?” Whatever the real answer is, write it down. Envisioning your future is a powerful tool (pretty much everything cool in my life existed on a piece of paper first).

32. Find your voice. I’m an introvert so my voice has always been easier to express in written form. Still, I’m learning to stand up for myself and others with my physical presence. I went to my first protest this summer in response to the children being detained without their parents. I shared to social media. I put myself out there and realized the importance of not being quiet about the things I care about, (even though it still made me nervous).

I don't ever want to wonder if I should have done more to stand up for others.
I don't ever want to wonder if I should have done more to stand up for others.

33. Live despite the chaos. Yes, I want to change the world for the better, but I’m also learning to operate through the hard parts without losing hope. Between the environment, politics, and a disgusting amount of violence, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and even scared. I feel those things, too. But, the trick is still living our lives the best we can. When we stop experiencing joy all the bad stuff wins.

34. Remember love is what matters most. Really, when you think about it, the biggest challenge to violence and hate is love. The more we can spread love in everything we do the better for everyone on this crazy planet. And, this includes ourselves. Surround yourself with love and you’ll feel happier.

35. Trust happiness. I’m still learning this one, but there’s no use in waiting for the other shoe to drop. If you’re happy, revel in it. Know you deserve it. And if you aren’t, know the answer is always waiting right around the corner. There are so many moments in life I couldn’t imagine things getting better, whether I was at a low or a high point. But then life surprised me. Trust it.