Yesterday I texted my 21-year-old daughter. She’s spending the summer at college doing an internship she worked hard to secure. “I’m so excited for you!” I exclaimed, as one can only manage to exclaim via text.
“Why?” she wanted to know.
Why indeed. I tried to explain it to her. She’s getting ready for what should be a very exciting time of her life. At 21, she’s a college senior, graduating in less than a year. She’s busy making plans for her future. Next week, she’ll take the GREs; she’s trying to narrow down the grad schools to which she’ll apply, thinking about cities she might want to live in and jobs she might want to do.
It does all sound very exciting and glamorous from here, in my 47-year-old, semi-empty-nesting life in the suburbs. But I don’t know if it feels that way to her. To her, I could imagine it might all seem a little overwhelming, or maybe a lot overwhelming. I don’t think we can really appreciate the immensity of our 20s until we are in our 40s. When I was in my 20s, life didn’t seem that exciting or adventurous. I graduated college, and then I went to work just a few weeks later. I was lucky that I found something in my field, but I hated that job, and within a year, I left it. Within the same year, I met and married my husband.
In my 20s, I had two babies. We bought a house and a minivan. I went from being full-time employed to a full-time at-home mother. My 20s were a big time of change, indeed. But I didn’t recognize it then. I want my daughter to recognize it. I want her to understand that she is standing on a precipice, a precipice that she’s created, that can send her up or down or in any number of directions. She can travel, she can go to work, she can go to graduate school. She can choose any city in the country, or the world, that she’d like to live in.
But she’s also going to face some stressors. She won’t be financially supported by her parents anymore. She won’t be in the relative freedom and safety net of college. She’ll be vying for jobs among hundreds of qualified candidates, and sometimes she won’t get the one she wants. She’ll be working very long work weeks competing against her peers. She’ll experience workplace politics. She may get fired or laid off when she least expects it.
She’ll discover that it isn’t fun to pay off student loans and that she might have to drive her old car for a few more years than she’d planned to. She might fall in love and break up and fall in love and break up—maybe several times before she finds the right guy in the right place at the right time. And then she’ll juggle in-laws and two families full of obligations.
Or maybe the right guy won’t come along, and her friends will start pairing off, mating for life, as she sits on the sidelines being the bridesmaid, never the bride. Maybe she’ll save enough to buy her first home and then realize that a mortgage is the least of her new expenses: She’ll need to replace a furnace or a water heater or a roof at the least opportune time.
But I still want her to look at all that’s wonderful that’s about to happen for her, the new grad school and city and job. The falling in love, possibly for life. The prospect of her own home and family. The best friends she will realize, in her 20s, will stick with her forever. The thrill that comes with making her own decisions, of being an adult. The facing of challenges head-on and getting through them. And the little things: Sunday brunch at her favorite spot. A good movie. A weekend away. The boss who said she did a great job on that project that leads to a promotion and a raise.
I look back and wonder why I didn’t know then that my 20s could be that powerful; that every choice I made would connect to another to another and to another, and that 26 years later, the choices of my 20s—the man I married, the first house we bought, the children we made, the work options I picked—are still reverberating. Embrace your 20s, I want to tell my daughter. Don’t be afraid. Be aware. And have a whole lot of fun.