I’m old enough to know that most people don’t give a damn that it’s your birthday. But, seeing as you’re here, I’ll tell you that I just turned 35. *releases single party popper into the ether*
This is the first time in a while that my age has felt significant. I see it written next to other people’s names and think ‘Woah, they must be a REAL grown up.’ And then I see it next to mine – a woman who still can’t let her feet out from under the duvet at night in case a scarecrow bites them – and I realise that’s not necessarily the case.
But that’s fine, I like getting older and being reminded that the idea we’ll have it all sorted out by a particular age is a joke. One thing that is guaranteed though is that the more years you live, you more you learn.
And that’s why for the last six years, the birthday gift I’ve given myself is time to type out the lessons I want to note at this particular point in time. It’s great to have it to look back on. (This was last year’s series of hot takes).
So here’s this year’s big five.
1. Accept your decisions – good and bad – because without them you wouldn’t be where you are
By 35 you’ll have racked up a good few decisions that you look back on and think “What on earth was going through my head when I did that?“ I’ve certainly got a strong number, and while it’s super fun to wake in the night and dwell on my own idiocy, I’ve come to realise that they all form a crucial part of our stories.
If I hadn’t taken that terrible job, or experienced that heartbreak, or had that regrettable hair cut for so many years, life wouldn’t look the way it does now. And I wouldn’t have the knowledge and experience I need to keep making better choices.
I think the same rules that apply to your CV apply to life in general – if you can explain what everything you’ve done has taught you, it doesn’t matter if you made a few ill-advised moves along the way.
2. Those moments when you feel like you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing often mark the start of something exciting
Just when we thought we knew what we were doing as parents of a toddler, we decided to start potty training.
We kicked off and within minutes I went straight back to feeling like I did when I first became a mum – totally unprepared, out of my depth, and terrified things would never get easier.
But of course they have. I realised as the week went on that I wasn’t just afraid of the messy reality of teaching a little one how to go to the loo, but also of what teaching her this meant. Independence. The more she learns, the less she’ll need me, and that’s a scary prospect for a parent to face. But it’s also essential and, when I remove my hormones from the situation, incredibly exciting.
All of the best decisions I’ve made in my life – going to university, making new friends, starting a relationship with my husband, having our daughter, pursuing the career I want – frightened the life out of me.
But it’s often that fear that proves this is something you really want to do. Because if it was out of the question, you wouldn’t entertain it. But if you’ve gone so far as to let yourself imagine the possibilities, it might just mean you should go for it.
When we go on holiday (remember holidays?) my husband and I have a rule that if we’re umming and ahing about whether to go on a day trip/do an activity, we always do it, because then we can’t regret not trying. And applying that to daily life has helped me a lot. I don’t want to regret not doing things, however scary they may seem.
The ‘I have no idea what I’m doing’ feeling doesn’t become any less daunting just because you’re a grown up. But you do at least have enough experience to know that you’ll figure it out before long.
3. The pursuit of perfection will destroy you, so let it go
I want my daughter to grow up knowing that everybody makes mistakes. What matters is that we pick ourselves up, understand what went wrong and what we learnt, move on and do better next time.
It’s a perfectly simple concept for even a two year old to understand, and yet, at 35, I still struggle to remember it.
I’ve been particularly hard on myself recently when I’ve made a mistake or a bad decision. Whether it’s something I’ve done whilst driving, something I’ve said, or a parenting choice that’s backfired, I’ve been giving myself a really hard time about it.
I wonder if the current environment has something to do with it. Life feels more fragile, precious and scary than ever right now, so any false move feels significant while our stress levels are heightened.
I’ve always struggled to forgive myself when my interactions with people haven’t gone exactly as I’d like. Despite numerous attempts to stop caring what other people think, the truth is that the older I get, the more I care. I get so few chances (particularly at the moment) to see or speak to the people I love, it feels like it really matters that it goes perfectly when I do.
But of course we can’t control how things go. The only things we can control – in any situation – are our words and our actions. And there’s a world of other factors that also play a part, so we can only ever do our best.
When it comes to parenting, trying to do a perfect job will not only destroy you, it’ll destroy you before 7.30am. There’s no way anybody doing such an emotional, unpredictable, and exhausting job could get every single element right all the time.
Despite my best efforts I make wrong calls numerous times a day. I also make the right call a fair amount too, but if you think they’re the moments my brain likes to put into a montage to show me when I’m lying awake at 3am then you’ve very much misunderstood the tone of this blog.
But the longer I’m a mum the clearer it becomes that perfection isn’t the goal here. Happiness, safety and good health is. There’s nothing like living through a global pandemic to make you realise that’s more than enough to ask for.
4. Whether you like a feeling or not, at least accept that you’re feeling it
Allow me to share my incredible time saving method.
Instead of beating ourselves up for feeling nervous ahead of a social event, stressed out by a heavy workload, or still scared of the dark at the age of 35, how about we just… accept it’s how we feel. All of a sudden our problems are cut in half as we no longer have self loathing to deal with too. We can focus instead on exploring why we feel this way, and what could help us feel better.
I spend so much time trying to mentally push away feelings that I don’t think I should have. I lose hours feeling ashamed of my fear, frustration, or upset and guess what? It just makes matters worse.
We can’t help the way we feel. The way we respond to each situation is entirely personal. So our time is better spent listening to what that feeling’s trying to tell us, rather than hoping that if we berate it enough for existing it’ll just disappear.
5. I do my best work as a human being when I slow down and think about what I’m doing (don’t we all?)
It’s when I trick myself into believing that everything has to be done in a rush that I make decisions I’ll later regret.
And it’s when I react NOW rather than waiting a few seconds to think, empathise, breathe and then speak that I’ll end up saying something I’ll wish I hadn’t.
Since the world plunged into lockdown, there have been few reasons to rush at all. And though I wish I’d learnt it in different circumstances, the lessons this has taught me about the importance of slowing down are invaluable.
I’m a better mum when I take a moment to consider the world from my daughter’s point of view before responding to her 55th request for a snack before 10am. And I’m a better wife when I stop and think about whether I’m really angry because my husband has forgotten to change a toilet roll, or because I’m tired from living through a global crisis and need to go to bed.
We’re all better people when we try and see the world from other people’s perspectives and consider how our actions could affect others. Right now we’re being shown in the bleakest way possible just how crucial it is that we do.
As I head into my 36th year, I want to keep all of this in mind. To be more empathetic. To make good, thoughtful decisions. And to be kind to myself when I inevitably slip up and learn more lessons along the way.
I’ll look forward to telling you all about them when my birthday comes around again next year. Thanks for reading.