I am 38 years old. Most days, I still feel like I’m 28. I’m learning how to navigate all the strange and exciting, though sometimes difficult, experiences of adulthood. Many of them I felt at least a little prepared for; most of them completely caught me by surprise. I wish someone had told me some of these things when I was younger. Or, perhaps, someone did tell me, but I was too arrogant to listen. Either way, here’s what I would tell my 18-year-old self if I could. I sincerely hope she would listen.
#1. Some women would rather not have children, and they go on to live very happy and fulfilled lives.
I wouldn’t trade my kids for the world. But also, having them has made me realize that my instinct to be child-free by choice when I was younger was probably correct. Everyone told me I’d grow out of my desire to not have children. I’d get older, I’d accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish, and then I’d want kids. They said if I didn’t I would become a lonely old woman with many regrets. Peer pressure and religious dogma told me it was what I should do, so I did. What can I say? FOMO is real. I wish someone had put their hand on my shoulder and said, “you can choose not to have children and go on to live a life free of regrets. Many women do.” Every day, parenting my children is hard. I’m like a fish trying to breathe and swim on the sand — totally out of my element. I love being a mom, and I love my children. But also, the sad truth is that knowing what I know now, I would trust my instincts and not have kids. It’s not that my kids are the problem. It’s me. I wasn’t cut out for this.
#2. Your late 30s are a radically transformational time of your life.
I always feared my 30s. I didn’t want to leave my 20s behind, and feared that my 30s would be the beginning of the downhill battle of aging. I could not have been more wrong! My late 30s have been the most incredible, life-changing time of my life. I feel like I finally know myself. Truly and deeply, I finally know who my authentic, innermost self is. I know what I stand for, and I defend it unapologetically. I have a new perspective, the kind that leads me to make wiser and healthier choices. I am finally finding the right friends, the ones who uplift and inspire me. In every way, I finally am the person I’ve been becoming all these years. It’s exhilarating!
#3. Separation isn’t a death sentence to your marriage.
Like most people, I had a deathly fear of marriage separation. I certainly didn’t see it as a tool that could be used to help failing marriages. There is a stigma around marriage separation. Many people see it as simply the first step in the process of divorce. But since going through my separation and then reconciling my marriage, I’ve discovered an enormous community of couples like me and my husband. There are so many people who have separated and found their way back to each other, who are now thriving in their marriages! Sometimes, you simply can’t heal where you were broken. Getting away from each other, to allow time and space to do the hard work of healing, can be a blessing.
#4. USE SUNSCREEN FOR F@CK SAKE.
As a millennial, one thing I envy about Gen-Z is that they live in a time when everyone is talking about taking good care of your skin. I see 14-year-olds on TikTok with better skincare routines than I have at my big age! We didn’t care about these things when I was younger, and that fact is literally written all over my skin. I would tell my 18-year-old self about moisturizer too, but sunscreen is the big one.
#5. There is one heartbreak you’ll get over, and one you won’t.
Don’t we all have this story? Please tell me I’m not the only one. There was one heartbreak that I was sure I would never heal from, and surprisingly, I haven’t thought about that one in decades. I healed quickly and almost painlessly. But there is another one, one that left a core wound, that still at this age I am not over. I’m not still in love with that person; I don’t pine or long for them. I just still feel the tiniest twinge of pain when I think of them, even all these years later. I’d like my 18-year-old self to embrace that. I’d like her to see it as her strength — that she loves deeply enough, and connects sincerely enough, that even after years of healing and distance, she is still capable of feeling.
#6. Your life is so much more privileged than you realize.
Growing up, I think most of us are very absorbed in our own hardships. There’s nothing wrong with that; we are all living our own experience and have only our unique circumstances through which to understand the world. But I would like to show my 18-year-old self how to zoom out, how to understand not just that other people have it harder than her, but that there are systems in place that exist solely to ensure that those people continue to have it harder. As a teenager in the south, I feel like that part of my education was seriously glossed over.
#7. For the love of God, girl, eat what you want while you can!
WOW did my metabolism change when I reached my late 30s. I remember being 16 and sitting at Perkins with my girlfriends, each of us having ordered a bread bowl without the salad in it and an enormous bowl of ranch. Our entire meal was nothing more than a big carby bowl made of bread dipped in ranch dressing. If I tried that today, I would gain 20 points immediately. By the time I reached 18, I started trying to eat more sensibly. I was worried that my metabolism would start changing at that tender age, so I started restricting my food. I wish I hadn’t done that, for MANY reasons. But mostly, I just wish my 18-year-old self had allowed herself to eat more of what she loved. She still had so much time left before her metabolism took a nose dive.
#8. Some women never feel like they’ve “accomplished everything” they wanted to accomplish.
Coming full circle here and going back to something I mentioned in #1, I wish I could tell my 18-year-old self that it’s perfectly normal to spend an entire life reaching for something more. It was pitched to me like I would have some finite list of accomplishments I wanted to achieve and, once those were ticked off the list, I’d be done. I’d be ready to completely sacrifice myself and my life for my family. But in truth? All I’ve done is checked off the things that were on my list and added new ones to it. I’ll never be done wanting to achieve! I’ll never stop having goals! I wish I could get my 18-year-old self to know that when she considers all the choices she makes. It seems like an important thing for her to have in mind.
Even though I know I will never get to say these things to my 18-year-old self, I am still proud of who she became. I love her dearly. She is me; she is everything I used to be, and everything I am becoming. I do hope that I can impart some of these things to my children, and that when that time comes, they will be wise enough to listen.