Last night I had the opportunity to talk with one of my favorite people, and one of my adopted younger* sisters, between phone calls from my lawyer, which were, for once, welcome and good. I’ll come back to that tomorrow.
Despite the fact that she is one of the few people on the planet I truly enjoy spending time with, I only get to see her a few times a year. She’s busy, I’m busy, and we are a full plane ride away, which presents something of a challenge for a basically-broke college student on one end and a mother to four young children on the other. Still, we both make the effort when we can, and it is always worth it. In between visits, we catch up with the occasional phone call, but we primarily communicate by text.** Last night was one of those rare times when the stars aligned – the kids went to bed early, she had some time, my husband was brushing up on his foreign language skills, and the weather was nice, so I could sit outside to chat.
She called to check on me, but knows me well enough to know I don’t like to be checked on, so she called to tell me about a recent breakup and to catch up. Sometimes I talk with her, and I feel like I’ve somehow gone back in time to speak with a younger version of myself with longer legs and more common sense. She’s so hard on herself. Every time someone hurts her or disappoints her, she struggles between whether she should be mad at herself for opening up and allowing herself to be hurt or whether she should be mad at herself for feeling anything at all.
I just want to give her a big, bear-like hug and tell her to slow down. Breathe. You got this. You have overcome so many things and done so well. You are a good person, a smart and capable person, a beautiful person, and a lovable person. Trust in those things, and trust that great things are going to come your way. Just keep being you, taking care of yourself, and being kind, and working hard. Life will never be perfect, but I believe, your life is going to be very, very good.
I won’t, at least until the next time we see each other and share a bottle of wine, but I think she knows how I feel.
Because talking with her is so much like talking to myself when I was more than fifteen days away from becoming a real adult, it often makes me think back to when I was her age, probably in the way my sister-in-law described last week. I think about what it was like to be just out of college, starting a new adventure, moving to a new state, feeling like I was smart, and tough, and had the whole world figured out.*** I was sure I understood men, and women, and myself. I was sure I knew exactly what I wanted my life to look like. I was sure I had resolved all of my family issues resolved. Somehow I actually knew less than Jon Snow.
Whatever. Pretty is smarter than you think.
I have always accused, and will probably always accuse, my mother of being naive. I am, to some extent, justified in that criticism, although it is not always meant as one. Truthfully though, I can’t say I’m any better. I almost typed “much” better, but that’s not fair – I don’t think I’m any less naive than she is or was.
In my early twenties I thought I knew it all. How hard could it be? I knew a lot of people, much older than me, who managed to have successful careers, successful relationships, and raise children, and I knew I was definitely smarter than them, plus I was willing to work really hard. What could possibly go wrong? Well, basically everything. Or everything that needed to for me to realize I don’t know it all, and I will never know it all.
I got to thinking about why breakups seem to sting a bit more when we are young. I think there are a couple of ways to answer that. First, although there does seem to be some measurable difference, it’s important not to exaggerate it. Breakups hurt. Betrayals hurt. Second, I admit the difference likely varies by individual, and the measurable difference probably also varies similarly. For example, if a bad breakup scored a “7” on my pain meter at the age of twenty, but now only scores a “5,” it may very well be the case that the same sort of breakup might have been a “9” for you at twenty and is now a “7,” or maybe now it’s a “3.”
I can think of a few explanations. Maybe over time, we just get used to the sting. It’s like when everyone told me I would get over my fear of needles by the time I had a baby, which aside from being incredibly annoying was also not true, but now, after four babies, my fear has greatly decreased because I’ve been stabbed so many times. Or maybe, over time, our hearts harden. Life tosses us around in many different ways and we just become tougher, and built up something like a callous. Or maybe we just get stronger. Like my ability to lift a double stroller that weighs almost as much as I do above my chest to load it in the back of the car, it’s something I built up to with years of dragging car seats and babies everywhere, we learn to lift a little more emotional burden with practice.
I think, and I hope, the best explanation is slightly different. I think as we get older, a little bit at a time, with every stab of a needle, with every callous, with every car seat loaded and unloaded, we start to feel a little bit more confident. We realize, each time we make it through the other side of something we thought might destroy us, that we are stronger than we knew. Even if this confidence is shaky, and it comes and goes, it starts to sink in, a little bit at a time, and we grow stronger all around.
And we drink more wine. Not shots. Not mixed drinks. Wine.
I have already asserted, without justification, that breakups sting more when we are young. I take that as a given. If my unsupported claim is correct, is the opposite true? That is, if breakups sting more when we’re young, are romantic relationships more pleasurable?
The same kind of explanations might apply to explain the difference. It’s like the first few cups of coffee you have in your early twenties because you need them after a late night. Those lattes just don’t have the same magic in your late twenties, even though you need it more. I don’t love that comparison, because it comes a little too close to making love or romantic relationships an addiction, which coffee absolutely is, and that’s a topic for another day, and likely another blog. Maybe, instead, it could be explained by the excitement of doing something new, or having something you thought about and dreamed about when you were young, thanks mostly to Hollywood and Nicholas Sparks. Or maybe, and this is my guess, young love feels different, and feels intense, because we don’t have that much else going on.****
I don’t mean to be flippant or dismissive. I read a lot about how terrible my generation is, and how terrible the next generation is, and I think it’s overblown. There are problems, to be sure, primarily, I think, with the male population, but I’ll also come back to that another day. Overall, some of these kids . . . err, “young adults,” are pretty impressive. I’m glad Facebook wasn’t around when I was in high school. It’s bad enough that my overdramatic AIM away messages quoting emo songs are still floating around somewhere out there, and I have prayed, more than once, that my one crazy skinny-dipping escapade isn’t floating around somewhere out there on YouTube.
For me, young love was not what it was cracked up to be, and I spent a lot of time blaming myself for choosing the wrong people. On reflection, I think it had little to do with choosing the wrong person (most of the time – there were a few just terrible, horrible choices), and a lot to do with not feeling stable and whole myself. I don’t mean I felt unstable in a crazy way, I mean I was still figuring out who I was, what I wanted, what I needed. I thought the best way to choose a romantic partner was by finding someone who made me feel something. Someone who made me feel beautiful, or someone who made me feel desirable, or someone who made me feel important (because I was saving him), or someone who made me feel excited, or safe, or whatever it was. The result was a sort of bouncing back and forth from one extreme from the other in a sadly predictable pattern. I would date a “bad” guy, then a “good” guy, then another “bad” guy, then back again. It took some time to realize that some of the bad weren’t so bad, and most of the good weren’t so good.*****
It took a little time to figure out that it doesn’t work that way. You are who you are, you feel what you feel. Eventually I found a best friend who supports my need to feel however I need to feel, who truly loves me unconditionally. I’m not sure I would have understood or trusted that even six or seven years ago, but I can’t imagine living without it now. I hope my daughters learn more quickly than I did, and I am optimistic they will, because in this at least, I set a good example, at least as far back as they can remember.
*I can’t say little, because I think she has me by eight or nine inches.
**Text conversations are not really my thing. If you care, pick up the phone. There are two large exceptions and to this, and two that are more narrow. The blanket exceptions involve dealing with someone born after 1990 or a mother with small screaming children. Texting is always appropriate in these situations, and in the latter case is sometimes ideal. Narrow exceptions also exist if you communicate with the other person daily or almost daily, but only have one quick thing to say, or if you are passing along knowledge that is more helpful to have in some written form, like a link to an article or a youtube video.
***Thankfully, she is more humble than I was, so hopefully that makes things a little easier for her.
****I know, if you’re twenty-three and reading this, you’re rolling your eyes, thinking, “Right, I’m sure she knows what it’s like to be busy. I’m taking, like seventeen credits this semester.” Yeah, well, been there, done that, and let me tell you, life gets a lot more complicated as the years go by. Everyone you know gets older, their relationships get more complex, things happen to them, things happen to you, you take on more responsibility, maybe you even have a few kids, and pretty soon you’ll think back to when you were sooooooo busy studying for finals and laugh, but also wish you could go back and slap yourself.
*****In fact, it took a conversation with my husband. We were joking about some of our past dating experiences, and ended up talking about the good and the bad. I told him about the pattern I was so proud of discovering, and told him I actually had dated a few really good guys. One of the examples was a guy I was friends with up until I was pregnant with my oldest daughter and wasn’t allowed to have male friends anymore (courtesy of one of those bad choices), but when I started talking about him, I remembered that I later found out that he slept with my best friend while we were still dating.