ME AT 44

Don’t be anxious about the arc of your future: What I wish I’d known at 30

Keep calm and carry on.
Keep calm and carry on.
Image: Reuters/China Daily
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I just turned 44. It’s an age that would have scared the pants off my 25- or 30-year-old self. And it’s one that many of my much-younger colleagues can’t imagine: an architecture of relentless responsibility, a less animated and diverse life, seemingly endless appointments for my kids.

But it’s not scary. Scary, now, is the the call that someone you love has cancer, the email confirming you’ll be moving far away from family and friends, the deep sadness of a family undone by grief. But the accumulation of many messy, wonderful years? That’s comforting, not frightening.

I spent my twenties and thirties in perpetual motion. I was finding love, working until 8pm, running marathons, dancing on the bar at a now-defunct Cold War spy hangout in the 50th street subway station. Amid the mania, I had remarkably little faith that I would find the things I needed. But I did.

It wasn’t always pretty, and it still isn’t. Everyone I know is busy and tired. Not tired from the 5am bender, with the hot-iron hangover. Tired of the endless calibration of managing everything: How many minutes can you eke out in the office before the great sprint home? How many arguments over when to book the flights home for Christmas before you just accept that your husband will never share your need to endlessly plan? How many nights can you go out in a row before the kids rebel, in whatever subtle and fascinating way they find to let you know they need you? (answer: not many).

These (very) first-world frustrations are tempered by deep contentment. I figured out what I needed, and I made it happen.

Everything is harder now. It seems I endlessly track things: my parents, my kids (no, I don’t know where every sock and library book is), everyone’s calendars. Just getting out the door sometimes requires a level of mindfulness and self-control I simply do not possess. But I can take it. Life doesn’t overwhelm the way it used to.

I only wish I hadn’t been so anxious to see where the arc of my future would lead; that I would have had more confidence that I could bend it toward the life I wanted.

Here’s what I would tell my 30-year-old self:

  • My dad told me not to worry too much about love. “You know how to love, so you will find love.” You will find love. But it will take time.
  • Your career will be a million things, but never exactly what you want when you want it. It will be big and bright and shiny and then it won’t be. Maybe it will be again, or maybe it will be modest—and still meaningful. You will work out which set of sacrifices make sense to you, and those will change over time.
  • Saying yes is more fun than saying no (you can always say no later)…
  • Except to the mortgage you cannot afford. Do not say yes to that. You will watch people make epically bad financial decisions, buying a house they cannot afford or committing to a BMW X5 lifestyle that doesn’t add up. Buy the smaller house, and the peace of mind that comes with that.
  • People change, but only so much. If he cheated then, he’ll probably cheat now. Kids have an effect: even remarkably self-centered people do soften when they see the world through their sons’ and daughters’ eyes, driving slower down residential streets, helping the screeching toddler beset by fury over a fruit rollup that doesn’t roll up just the right way. They learn to listen, because they don’t want to miss too much. (This is not to say kids can save a failing relationship. They can’t.)
  • People will die. This abstraction—at least to the lucky among us who don’t face tragedy in early life—becomes eerily omnipresent. Cancer especially sucks, and the numbers don’t lie: We will get it, or people we love will get it. And for all the bullshit battle language of beating it, some won’t. Daughters will lose their fathers; mothers will lose their sons. And after it happens, even the lamest commercials with a sappy song will undo you.
  • You will keep the friendships worth keeping, no matter how many miles away you move or how infrequently you speak. You will also find new ones, at each stage of your life. It will get substantially harder, though. Soon enough, the simple act of “grabbing a beer” will require an exercise in Venn diagrams, pitting your schedule against your spouse’s schedule, against sports schedules, against school calendars, and work commitments. But put the work into the relationships you value.
  • Makeup can do wonders. I discovered this way too late in life.