Last year, I turned 40. (40! How did that happen? I don’t have a problem with the age itself (it doesn’t feel like particularly big deal these days – just me?) but where did those years go? I swear I was 27 about five years ago.) I’ve been meaning to write this for a while – the life lessons I’ve learned in 40 years, what I know now to be true (for me), and the opening of a new year seems as good a time as any.
Stop worrying about what other people think of you
Because you can’t control it. Don’t fret that you haven’t enough likes or agonise over your social media status. Don’t give it the time or the space. If they don’t like you – this is their issue, don’t make it yours.Just think of what you could do with the time you spent worrying instead. Call your mum. Take your kids out for cake. Donate to Children in Crisis. Send your best friend flowers. Volunteer.
Invest time in those who matter (a.k.a. stop being a ‘runner’)
You know that friend who never messages/calls unless s/he wants something? The one where you always, always have to make the running? Stop running. Read friends call and text and write just because they’re thinking of you. Drop everything to help (when I went into labour unexpectedly with my son, one of my very best friends allowed me to wake her up early with an SOS and drove (miles) to the hospital to collect my little girl and take her home whilst the grandparents came up. And she was heavily pregnant at the time.). Bring you flowers and wine and sympathy. Keep your secrets. Wipe your tears. Cook you dinner. Offer advice (but aren’t offended if you don’t take it.) Pay it forward (and back).
Odd truth: the ones who make you run are often excellent company. You know, life of the party, good time girls. raconteurs. But if the running’s all on your side, eventually, it wears you down. It makes you feel less. So last year, I stopped. Just like that.
Say please and thank you. Help lift that buggy down the stairs. Let people get on first (yes, I know no one else does). Talk to the guy who sells you your morning coffee (I actually miss the staff at the Pret under my old office.) My grandmother told me that civility costs nothing – she was right.
The great relationships in your life aren’t always romantic
I so wanted A Great Romance when I was younger. I pretended princesses for years. But now I see the folly of youth. My husband is the love of my life and every single day I am grateful that we found each other, and yet I could not possibly be where I am today without my amazing parents. My closest friends. The women I worked with who inspired me to write better, dream bigger, reach higher.
So support others. Especially other women at work (because there’s still some way for us to go, there…): mentor, never be too big to offer to make the tea, throw ideas around, give your time and experience and help where you can even if there’s nothing obvious in it for you, pull other women up – and they, in turn, will pull you up.
Sometimes, just sometimes, small miracles happen
Because it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the darkness of bad news. But I promise you that there is good out there – and sometimes the impossible is possible. The friend who had a longed-for baby after years of disappointment and pain. The one who found her happy-ever-after. The unlooked-for gesture of kindness from a stranger. Did you hear Dr David Nott on Desert Islands Discs (he appeared on the ‘best of’ round-up over Christmas)? A surgeon based in London, he takes unpaid leave to work in places most of us would actively avoid (Gaza, Syria, Afghanistan…). He told the story of being in the operating theatre, a seven-year-old girl on the table before him, all but disembowelled by her injuries. The staff were ordered to leave the hospital as it was about to be bombed. If I left – he explained, simply – she would die alone. He wanted to be there to hold her hand. He stayed (so did the Red Cross anaesthetist). They continued to operate. No bomb fell. They saved her life. I feel better about the world just thinking about it. People are capable of remarkable humanity.
This body right here, right now, is a great, great thing
Sure, it’s not as taut and firm as once it was. But it has done remarkable things. Survived. Faced down the worst and come out fighting. And it grew two children – that everyday marvel that never ceases to be a small miracle every time (see above). I can honestly say that scar on my abdomen never bothers me. I’m kinder to my body now: both how I treat it and how I think of it.
It’s okay to ask for help
If you don’t know how to do it, or what to say, or if you feel lost or alone or sad – help is always there, if you ask for it. (Also: be one of those who others feel they ask for help. And give it when they ask.) Also remember that it’s better to say you don’t know and you’ll come back to them on that (and then go away and come up with a good answer)
Don’t ever stop. Not even when you’re blindsided by newborn tiredness. Books are your friend, your escape, your solace. They will be there for you in the small hours, when sleep eludes you; they make a hideous Tube journey bearable; they even make friends for you. And there are so many books to read; authors to discover. (Sidenote: it’s fine not to finish a book if you really, truly cannot get on with it.)
Show up, be polite, do a good job, keep at it, head down, judge when to keep quiet and when to speak out. Hard work will get you there.
Kindness is underrated
If you’d asked me to write down what I wanted in a man when I was 16, I would probably have listed ‘smart, funny, quick, literary, handsome, kind’. And now? Now kind would be top of that list. (For the record, my husband is all of those bar literary. The man does not have enough time for books, because he gives all his spare time to us.) As Meghan Markle said of Harry, “I didn’t know much about him – I just asked, ‘Is he nice?’ Because if he wasn’t kind I didn’t really see there was any point”.
And for a bonus point – and just because it’s always worth reiterating: Nora Ephon was right (of course she was), above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim. Of all the life lessons, this is the one I want to shout from the rooftops when I see young girls.
P.S. I would love, love to know what lessons you’ve learned and would like to pass on. There is so much I have yet to learn or get a hold on (patience, mastering my temper a la Jo March, speak French like a native) – it buoys me up to know I have the capacity to change and grow and try to be better. So ideas and inspiration are most welcome.