A letter to my 40 year old self from my 40 year old self
Sometime within the past decade, I started to believe that there was more to life than a 9-5, being married, raising kids, and getting old. About the time I turned 30, the panic really set in. I had been married for 7 years, had 2 kids, a 9-5, and was definitely getting older. Was this ‘it’? Is this how you arrive? I had done all of the things you’re ‘supposed’ to do to be happy and I wasn’t (happy). Looking back I realize how little I actually knew at that point in my life; how little life I had experienced and how incredibly blessed I was for who I had married, how healthy our children were, and how much that 9-5 provided.
Still, there was a part of me that wanted to see more of myself in my life. Sometimes I felt like I was failing at my marriage and drowning in motherhood. I wanted to see myself as more than ‘just’ anything that was obvious. If you asked me who I was I would say ‘Mom’ first, then ‘military spouse,’ and then I would draw a blank. At some point in those early 30’s years, I started to hate to introduce myself because it felt awkward and shallow. I wanted to be more than a collection of labels and roles, but I didn’t know how to keep them and this other version of myself I wanted to be. The more labels I attached to myself the more lost I felt. Even as I write this, I can hear the old whispers of restless insignificance creeping in, reminding me that I’m still the same as I was: a collection of roles that come with rules and responsibilities.
At some point, all of those feelings brought on an onslaught of guilt and shame. By thirty I was married with two beautiful children. I had friends who were in long-term relationships with people who wouldn’t take the next step and still other friends who struggled with infertility. By my mid-thirties, a lot of my friends were getting divorced while still others struggled to find direction and success in their career fields. And there I was with all my ducks in a row, living the dream. Who was I to complain? Who was I to want more?
[Me to me: Why do you feel guilty about seeing potential in yourself?]
I thought about the ones I loved most in my life; did I expect them to stay the same? Who was the steady, reliable, steadfast support behind my husband’s progression in his career? Who always said, “Hell yes, let’s do it” when we talked about moving to pursue an avenue in his career that would provide stability, a greater financial gain, and the challenge he wanted? Who looked at their children and spoke life, encouragement, and belief to their achievements and abilities? Who demanded their best and allowed them to fail so they could learn to grow?
[Also Me to me: “That who is you.” That ‘who’ is someone who loves big enough to believe in them until they believed in themselves.]
It took me another decade to realize that my husband had the same eyes for me as I did for him: he saw my potential and proved time and again that he was willing to do whatever it took to provide opportunities for me to walk in my own potential and fill the spaces I saved for ‘our’ success with a little of my own personal glory. What would my marriage gain from a second partner with a relentless spirit of dreams and ambition?
In that same decade I watched my children grow to excruciating lengths and depths, leaving childhood behind for the wrenching years of teenage angst, confusion, beauty, and independence. What was I showing them? To settle in and stay on the sidelines? To let the world tell them when they had checked enough boxes, accomplished enough, given enough to ‘look’ successful? To compare their lives to those of their peers, neighbors, and friends and say “OK, good enough?” If I took my potential and ambition in stride, what could they learn from a mother who continued to evolve, dream, work, and become?
Maybe the point of this rambling collection of reminiscent thoughts is that we all spend way too much time in and of the world. Looking outside of ourselves, living in a belief system that tells us that life is a formula; a list of boxes to check all while looking to the crowd for nods of approval. Living this way is exactly how you lose yourself in the crowd. It’s how we look back and see an endless trail of identity crises, guilt, and shame. It’s being completely unaware of potential that is a gift, not a tool of comparison. No one was created to live in a box of easily defined parameters. There is simply too much diversity in the world that proves we were all uniquely, beautifully, and wonderfully made to grow from the time we’re born until the day we die – to leave no potential on the table at the end of any day.
The trick is that you’ll never see that kind of potential when you look for yourself in the world. You’ll see plenty of spaces you can fit in and tables that you can pull up a chair to, but those spaces and tables won’t last long. You’ll go looking for another… and another. Until you’re lost in a thousand versions of yourself written by someone else.
To create your own space, build your own table, and write your own story… the answer is you. Simple, complicated, and completely against the grain. You are your own answer. Those pulls and dreams come from a place of the greatest knowing and the deepest doubt. You have to believe in yourself before anyone else does. You have to look in the mirror and allow yourself to see more. You have to give yourself permission every day to be different. You have to challenge yourself to outgrow the spaces and the tables. You have to see your failures along the way as part of the plan. You don’t have to know what comes next to know that you have to take a new step.
If you have people in your life that love you – a spouse, children – that you live for – they are waiting. Don’t give them permission with your words. Do it with your actions. Be brave with those deep secret longings and live them out loud.
My husband didn’t marry a “we.” He married me. I want him to see the same limitless potential and ambition he saw the first time he looked at me. I don’t ever want to outgrow that fearless, clueless 10th grader who really did believe she would do it all. I want him to look over at an 80 year old badass who never outgrew her capacity for believing in herself, who failed often enough to figure it out, who loved deeply enough to keep working towards her greatest potential.
I don’t want my children to look back at their mother and see a long road of self-sacrifice and martyrdom. I want them to see that I made space for who I was and who I was becoming. I want them to do the same and know they’re not selfish and ungrateful… they’re just chasing the potential they were born with and meant to grow in… for all of their lives, not just a season, or a decade, or any other space of time. Just like their Mama.
This isn’t “how to live your life well.”
This is how you build legacy.