You’re wearing star-patterned black and white pants and three dresses—a purple one, a red one and a striped one—and you’ve informed me that you look amazing. I ask you, “If you were a dinosaur, what would you be?” You answer, “A Pteranodon, a pink one, with lots of sparkles, who likes to do art projects and cook with its mommy. And loves its baby sister.” You are so comfortable discussing yourself and loving yourself. Of course, like all moms of 3-year-olds, I want you to learn everything that you need to be an adult, but also never change.
However, many things that seem so normal for a 3-year-old—a sense that happiness is deserved, a lack of self-consciousness, an ability to lock into the moment—seem aspirational for a 30-year-old woman. I wish you could go right from 3 to 30 without losing any of it. But some of it will slip away in the junior high locker room, or when you get your first performance review at a job, or when some boy turns you down in college. To counteract that, here is a letter of advice to 30-year-old you from the mom who adores you and your 3-year-old self who already has much of this effortlessly mastered.
1. Take the armrest.
Right now, whenever you enter a room, you focus on whatever gadget, toy, spoon, or cool-looking gum wrapper the place has to offer and seize it for yourself. But women often learn to fold themselves up, to leave the cool things for someone else, to cede the armrest to the men sitting next to them. Unfold. Take the armrest for at least part of the plane trip. You have just as much right to it as the man sitting next to you. Let him tuck his arm into his lap for a little bit.
Implicit in this advice is something else—travel. Get out there. Learn a new language and use it to meet people whom you could never get to know if you only spoke English. Go walk in the rain somewhere 5,000 miles away so that some mornings when you’re drudging to work on the same old familiar block in a drizzle, it will cause you to think about a summer evening on an unknown path, and not just the fact that your shoes are getting wet.
2. Take time to appreciate yourself.
You made a Thanksgiving tree recently, and you insisted on including that you were thankful for “myself.” Yes, you should be. You are great.
3. Be comfortable.
That doesn’t mean don’t work hard. (Do work hard; that way you’ll feel like you earned the comforts.) What it means is, when given the king bed, stretch out on it. Try not to stay up late if you don’t have to. Buy warm soft socks and don’t tolerate a bra that pinches you. If you don’t like pantyhose and heals, don’t wear them. Put up your feet. Get the best pillow. Most importantly, try to be as comfortable with yourself as you are now, flouncing across the hall in synagogue, yelling “Skip, skip, skip, skip!” with arms and legs fully extended.
4. Only eat things that are either good for your body or good for your soul (or both).
If you find yourself eating something that’s not healthy for you and you don’t like how it tastes, just stop eating it. When you eat pizza, don’t try to soak the oil up with a paper towel. Don’t cut a third out of a cupcake and leave the rest to dry up in your work common area. Eat the whole thing and relish it. And then later, eat a salad and relish it just as much. Don’t have “guilty pleasures”—just have lots of pleasures that are healthy.
5. Be kind, but know that ‘mean’ people often do win, and cheaters sometimes prosper.
People like to talk about karma catching up with people (other people, not themselves), but don’t wait around to witness it, because you’ll just waste your time. Not only does it often seem like “mean” people don’t get their comeuppance, sometimes it seems like they get everything they want. Oh well. It won’t stop you from getting what you want, too. But if you get what you want without being kind, ultimately it won’t mean that much to you. Don’t only be kind to people strategically. If you’re too busy to be decently kind to everyone you encounter, then it’s time to revisit your schedule. You’ll remember the times when you could have been kind but chose not to, and it will pain you.
6. Appreciate your body the way that you would appreciate the beauty of a tree.
Don’t focus on the cellulite, or the particular shape of your butt, or split ends. Look at your beautiful, capable hands; the miracle of your chest effortlessly moving up and down with breath; the way your skin can heal in a matter of weeks; the fact that you have taste buds; the convenience of not reminding your heart to beat.
7. Sometimes all you really need is one good friend.
There may be times when someone you really want to be friends with doesn’t seem to want to be friends with you. If that happens, think of the people around you who offer their friendship easily, who enjoy you and support you. Those are the people whom you’ll still be relying on in 20 years. Maybe you’ll even marry one of them. I did.
8. Make confidence your default.
Whether you are belting out a song about your monkey backpack (“Monkeysack, monkeysack, I love you.” I am not kidding—that was the song) or sticking a dumpling in a glass of orange juice, you are so sure that that is what you are supposed to be doing. Don’t let anyone shake that from you. Some 12-year-old won’t want to be partners with you in music class. It will be hard, but don’t let her make you feel any less sure of yourself than you are right now.
9. Get messy.
Not like mismatched hair accessories messy. Really truly messy, like you do now. Both hands in the sour cream messy.
10. Latch onto positive feedback.
Yes, you should take constructive criticism seriously and try to improve. But don’t focus so single-mindedly on negative feedback that you look back in a year and find that you can’t even remember positive things that were said to you.
11. Love your sister.
She adores you. I sometimes feel bad that we’ve interrupted your one-woman show with a baby, but she will hopefully be here with you long after your father and I are gone. She’ll be the only person who will really understand how annoying but comforting it is that I laugh at all of your father’s jokes. The other day you told her: “We’ll always be friends. When you get older and no one wants to play with you, I’ll be your backup.” May you guys always be each other’s backup. I bet she’ll often be your first choice, too.
12. Be irreverent.
The other day you asked me to tell you a story. I said, “What do you want? Can you think of any ideas?” You said, “No, I can only think of vegetables.” Whatever that thought pattern is—keep it.
13. There’s no prize for being the most stressed-out. Don’t enter the contest.
People like to compare who is the saddest or the most deprived or the poorest (like, college student, only drinking on Fridays poor, not true poverty). Just let yourself be as happy as you can, and don’t feel bad about it. Somebody might not like that you’re happy, or they might not like you because you are happy. But they still might not like you even if you’re unhappy, so don’t worry about it. Choose to be happy every chance you get. And if you choose to be happy and can’t be, let’s talk about it.
14. Be empathetic, and champion empathy as something that should be valued.
I sat with you and two of your friends as the three of you ate a snack in the early morning. A little boy came into the room, started screaming “lunch,” and ran toward you. His parents dragged him out, as he kept trying to throw his body toward you and crying for “Lunch! Lunch!” You three girls spent 15 minutes talking about what he wanted and what was wrong. You hypothesized that he was sleepy and needed a nap. You guys were so concerned about how he was feeling and trying to figure out what he wanted (though none of you offered to share your snack with him). I hope that in 20 years, your desire to understand what other people are feeling and ability to emphasize will be equally rewarded as that boy’s ability to advocate for himself.
15. Forgive your mistakes as quickly as you can.
You’ve made up a song about this: “When you make a mistake, you just clean it up.” You sing a variation of this song whenever you make a mistake, and then you move on. I’ve written down all your variations, and I’ll give them to you when you’re 13 and didn’t get the grade you wanted in English class.
16. If you feel wronged by someone, don’t wait for that person to notice or care.
They probably won’t, or if they do, you’ll just feel bad that they caught you glaring at them. Instead, wait for the people who randomly help and search for opportunities to be the random helper to someone else. The other day, seven people helped us in one day.
17. Know that you deserve to be loved as much as I love you now, which is fully, completely and always.
Not everybody will love you that much. But if you give yourself to someone—that’s how much they should love you.
18. Pick a partner based on how they make you feel, not on how interesting they seem.
The cute guy who can speak five languages and has a conspiracy theory to explain why HIV is not a real illness makes an interesting acquaintance, not a good life partner. Look for someone who lightens people’s loads, by laughter or helping, and someone who will take the time to deal gently with you whenever he or she can.
19. Go ahead and cast yourself as the protagonist.
Otherwise, you could end up being the critic or the victim. Just don’t make other people the bad guys. Look for the common problems that we are all struggling with, and root for yourself against them.
20. Keep insisting on female leads.
You make me read all of your favorite storybook characters as females—Piglet, Roo, Harold, even the Grinch. You get frustrated if I slip and refer to them as “he”s. Right now you won’t stand for all the main characters in your life to be men. Don’t allow it later. You are as capable, as interesting, as quirky, and as valuable as any man you’ll encounter.
21. Talk to yourself as you would talk to your 3-year-old daughter.
The other day you said that you weren’t good at making blanket forts. I said that you were, and you said that you needed help. I said that needing help doesn’t make you not good at something. Then I left the room and teared up as I said it to myself in the hallway. I realized that I was right, and I needed that advice more than you did.
22. If any part of life can be enjoyed, enjoy it.
At 5:55 p.m., we bore down the street toward the mechanic, which was set to close at 6. You were zipping along on a scooter that was a little too advanced for you. You fell a few times and got back up quickly each time. You didn’t give yourself enough time to stop before street crossings, which was driving me crazy, and I was screaming at you each time we reached one. I put your sister down for a minute, and she gestured to tell me she had pooped. You looked at us and kept going. I heard you yell—“This is the best day of my life!”
You told me that you like it when you go poop because it gives you a little alone time with me or your dad, because one of us still has to wipe you. You know what? Go for it. Why not enjoy the time when you get your poopy butt wiped? It’s better than hating it. (This last bit will hopefully only apply as a metaphor when you’re 30.)
23. Advocate for yourself.
We spend so much time trying to teach you to be polite, to follow the rules, to wait in line. But secretly, I’m happy when you try to put yourself first. I don’t want you to feel like you always have to defer, to wait for someone else to go, to apologize for your existence.
You recently told me, “I want to ride on a rainbow unicorn. You can follow behind me on a horse.” Get that rainbow unicorn. And go ahead and ride out ahead. I can’t wait to follow.