45 Things I’ve Learned on My Way to 40 (That I Wished I Knew Much Younger)

Image uploaded from iOS (15)My brain, and heart, and my vanity are a bit bruised with the realization that I’m stepping on 41. (This is how my father used to greet each year we celebrated a birthday. “You’re stepping on 14!” he’d announce with a huge smile, since birthdays mark the completion of the age you are turning.)

But I am.

At 40 I still consider myself young for several reasons. First, if I got hit by a bus tomorrow and people read my obit, they’d say, “Oh! She was so young!” Second, I feel like I have so much more to learn about life, love, and the universe. Third, I’m only beginning to grasp the things that are most important to me.

And yet. The lines on my brow are more pronounced. My skin isn’t what it used to be. And I have a sideways Z-shaped scowl crease in between my eyebrows from using my deep-in-concentration face far too often.

Lighten up, lady!

I have lived here on Earth, in this body, for four decades.

Along the way, the one thing I’ve most consistently been (besides a female human) is a learner. Most of what I have learned has shocked me, challenged me and made me more whole. And still I persist in humbling myself to the incredible untouched knowledge that surrounds me daily. I am starving with the desire to devour it all.

Yet, learning comes at its own pace, in its own time, when we are ready for it.

As a tribute to the experiences of learning I have had, about six months ago I decided to try to document them, mostly because I wish I’d known most of these a bit younger. Like all my daring intentions begin, this one also started as an experiment. I figured once I documented them, I’d peruse my little experimental list to determine if it was worth sharing. (This is how I trick my ego mind into letting me do stuff without judging me to death.)

I’m not fully certain these are worthy of sharing, but what the heck? I’m 40 now, so who the hell cares?

Full disclosure: these have come from my own experiences as a woman, as a mother, as a wife, as a business owner, and an employee, and numerous other shoes I’ve stumbled around in thus far. That is to say, these ideas/recommendations/musings are unique to my perspective and not at all comprehensive or definitive. So don’t take them that way. I know I don’t.

They are the things I’ve learned along the way that may or may not be helpful to you.

One other detail: since I’ve been compiling these along the way, when tonight came I realized I had 45 to share. Instead of pursuing perfection and editing them down to a more cohesive 40, I got lazy and sassy and ornery, so there are 45. Ergo, in no particular order:

1. Choose your friends very, very carefully. Pick people who know how to handle a fragile heart, rampant self-doubt and are dedicated to helping you find the best version of you.

2. Comparing yourself to other people is a form of self-judgment. It’s highly addictive and highly toxic.

3. At least once be the homeroom parent.

4. Take some photos of yourself pregnant (each time) until you have one you would like to keep. (I’m not talking pre-arranged cheesy photo shoots. Just you, just being. Pregnant.)

5. Don’t stop developing yourself — separate from your spouse, your kids, your family or anything else. You are your best investment.

6. Buy Magic Eraser, OxiClean, Febreze, baby wipes, Clorox Wipes and club soda. They can basically handle any house/clothes/child/spouse/pet/red wine/Sharpie emergency imaginable.

7. Hire a cleaning service and protect it fiercely. Let it be the last thing you cut when times get tough.

8. Times will get tough, whether it is money, family, children, sex, friends, career. When it does, you may get bitter. That’s OK for awhile. But when you are ready, the best antidote to bitterness is to accept the choices you made and then infuse gratitude for the experiences you had because of them.

9. You don’t have to buy a house. You think you do, and it’s nice, but you don’t.

10. The messy, un-manicured moments are the ones you want to capture.

11. There is no formula for your faith. You must eventually create it on your own terms. It might be in the form of a religion. Or not. Either way, your connection to God is what matters most.

12. Take the time and huge personal investment required to teach your children meticulously good manners. This is one of the most useful, productive investments you can make in your kids.

13. Expect that what you will learn in your marriage is that your spouse is flawed. Deeply. And probably not in the way you think. Also, so are you.

14. Understand the unique needs you have as a person. Then create boundaries to protect and minister to them.

15. It really does not matter that: your house is messy, your kids’ socks match, your child’s lunch represents a balanced meal, your Christmas tree goes up on Dec. 1. It just doesn’t.

16. As much as you are able (and even if you don’t especially like them) get to know your parents, and their stories. Writing them down is a bonus. Ask the tough questions and dig into some family mysteries. Once your parents are gone, they will take it all with them.

17. Write lunchbox love notes to your kids as much as you can remember. These small gestures of kindness make a big impact.

18. Whenever you don’t know what to say as a parent: tell your son or daughter you love them no matter what they do or who they are.

19. In a business meeting, hone the art of knowing when to stop talking.

20. If you are the only woman in the room in a business meeting, you must consider this an advantage.

21. Beware the ones who tell you that you can’t. You’ll notice they’re the same ones who haven’t ever.

22. Never apologize for your gifts. Never.

23. Examine your relationship with conflict like a researcher might. Unlocking the pattern of it is likely to lead to greater happiness in life.

24. Hold your spouse accountable for his/her own happiness.

25. Great rules of thumb for kid birthday parties: never on a Sunday, no more than 2 hours and coordinate the number of invites to the age the child is turning.

26. Teach your children: you are not always going to be invited and we can’t always invite everyone.

27. Take time for yourself alone.

28. It’s a huge pain in the neck to pump the tires and keep them inflated, but take family bike rides.

29. Your lady parts will stretch significantly during childbirth. But don’t despair, with a little work, they will bounce back.

30. The best sex you have will be after you are a mother.

31. Keep a mental list of ridiculous things that make you laugh so hard you cry. Refer to them when times get tough or mundane and let go.

32. If you cannot find your ideal work situation, make a careful plan to create it. Test your plan. Then test it again, then test it some more. If it’s profitable, make the leap.

33. When you lead a team, learn something deep about each person involved. Appreciate that in them.

34. Naps are magic golden balm elixir, not signs of weakness. Even 15 minutes lying down with your eyes closed can completely shift your perspective.

35. Develop and regularly revisit shared inside jokes with your spouse, your best friend, your kids. Use these cues to evoke laughter — particularly in the times of life when you are facing the direst situations.

36. Consider the friendships you develop in early adulthood — particularly those formed when your kids are very young — as your family and treat them as such. These are the people who are walking at the same pace you are.

37. Fall in love as many times as you possibly can — with your spouse, with friends, with your kids, with your work, with mentors. Open up to it. Let love be a thing of beauty and a source of energy.

38. Figure out the type of clothing that works for your body type and then invest in pieces that make you feel confident. But play with your clothes. Experiment with trends. Your appearance is a way to find joy in who you are throughout your life.

39. Take videos or make recordings of your children when they are young. I recommend interviewing them about their age, friends, favorite activities as they grow.

40. Stash plastic shopping bags in the door wells of your car. They come in extremely handy with barfy children and over-served friends.

41. Death doesn’t end your relationship with someone you love.

42. Others may expect you to set aside your own needs. But don’t you dare agree.

43. Always clear aside urgent or pressing matters for a friend, employee or colleague who is in pain. There’s nothing more important in that moment than showing love and care.

44. What you are obsessing about in your [fill in the blank: options include child, spouse, best friend, business partner, parent, brother, sister, kid’s teacher] is really about you. Upshot: if it’s about you, you can fix it. Usually by thinking differently.

45. Learning how to breathe is half of getting through life’s most difficult moments.

There. Looking forward to the next 40 years, but mostly, just looking forward to bed.


What Our Friends See in Us

Mr. Bailey told me recently he admires me for my resilience. By “told me,” I mean one day when I was feeling particularly low I prodded him to tell me what he liked best about me. Anyway, that’s when he said the thing about me being resilient.

Modern Mary considers the future, reflects on the compliments of the past. Amazing painting, “The Future” by Felicia Olin. http://www.feliciaolin.com

It delighted me, as I was feeling not so resilient at the moment. So maybe it was a Jedi-mind trick that he executed quite well.

In any case, it wasn’t the first time I had heard that particular trait called out.

My teenage years consisted of much intense falling in love. In my mind, though, I was not boy crazy. In fact, I despised my classmates who were always talking about some boy or lusting after some dude who they were too shy to speak to or who would not give them the time of day.

Instead, (shameful admission forthcoming…) I chose to be that outgoing, annoying girl who perennially had a loser or scumbag boyfriend who she kept breaking up with and getting back together. Ad infinitum.

Sometime in this morass of teenage girl angst, I found myself bottomed out in the aftermath of yet another lame-o boyfriend break up. I was whining to my best friend, when she said nearly the same thing.

“Mary, you’re nothing if not resilient,” was what she said. (Yes, we did speak like that then.

I may be modern, but I still have a thing for Walt Whitman.

We were major literature lovers who just as often quoted Whitman as we did The Cure.)

The comment, back then, stopped me in my tracks. I had not considered my passionate falls into love and writhing agony I felt after each break up as being resilient. To me, it felt confusing and weak.

Modern Mary considers the idea of “resiliency”. Another amazing painting by Felicia Olin, http://www.feliciaolin.com

As life turns out, resilience has turned out to be a pretty good trait to possess. At my (ahem) tender age, I’ve dealt with a good helping of suffering, betrayal, isolation, depression, grief, change and challenge; humbling humiliation and heart-stopping, hope-busting loss. This last go around had me walking underneath Eeyore’s black rain cloud for the better part of two years. It made the teenage years look like an episode of The Facts of Life. I never thought I would emerge with a place for hope to rest in my soul again.

As it turns out, resiliency as a defining characteristic/flaw is not easily dashed.

But I’ve realized another part of resiliency’s tenacity lies in the precious people you have around you to point it out to you. In that regard, I’ve been ridiculously blessed by a host of amazing friends/sisters/life guides (and, of course, Mr. Bailey, who must deal with all of my crazy crap my wonderful friends are spared).

Thank you for being a reason to find resilience again, for quietly, patiently marking the path back. Thank you for gathering up the broken pieces I had discarded, for believing when I didn’t, for crying with me, for whispered prayers, generous pours, and, mostly, for forgiving me my general lunacy.

Birdhouse in Your Soul by Felicia Olin

I hold so much gratitude to you for helping me repair this birdhouse in my soul.

The Precious

I’m not sure about the original George, but my Mr. Bailey is more of a spender than a saver.

My Mr. Bailey dreams about buying, too, just like George did.

I, on the other hand, am a saver.

I have come to learn neither is better than the other. Especially after more than once egregiously fretting over how to spend a generous gift certificate for so darn long it expired, and rejoicing over money well spent (think: a comfortable home purchased for a reasonable price before the real estate boom – and bust). Thankfully, both Bailey impulses have balanced the other now we’re past the first decade of our union.

Recently a funny thing happened.

Mr. Bailey often shops for the Bailey Building & Loan at Costco. His favorite part of this setup is he racks up business purchases throughout the year, and receives a modest “reward” check at the end of the year.

This year, he spent so much at Costco, he was pleasantly shocked when he received a rewards check in the three-digit range. He immediately was overburdened by the weight of The Check in his pocket. I, on the other hand, was cozily reassured by the impulse to shove it under my pillow for all eternity.

“Great!” I said, anticipating the bursting of his bubble, “Let’s save it for a while!”

Modern Mary considers how long she could save The Check.

He sighed and hung up quickly.

Several days later, he called me back.

“Soooo,” he intoned, drawing out his question in a sugary voice. “I’m at Costco. You know we got that check?”

“Uh-huh,” I answered suspiciously.

“Well, there’s this sound system here.”

I felt something deep in my gut twist. For though I know Mr. Bailey is a spender, I adore him so fervently I find it difficult to deny him the small pleasures in life. He works so hard at the Bailey Building & Loan, at being a dad and being a husband. Pushing past my discomfort, I found my voice.

“Really? I mean, we need to be smart about this. Maybe we should just hang on to The Check a little while longer. Be practical. We may have some rainy days coming and it would be nice to have it in our back pocket.”

Recognizing the wisdom in my buzz kill practically, he dejectedly agreed.

Once salvaged from the clutches of a guilt-inducing quick spend, The Check began to take on a mythical importance in our lives over the next few months.

Every visit to Costco brought new temptations, which Mr. Bailey and I both had to resist.

Modern Mary had to pull Mr. Bailey away from a flat screen TV and a sound system.

“Should The Check yield a new vacuum?” I wondered aloud one day.

“No,” was Mr. Bailey’s abrupt response.

Another: “What about if we get a new flat screen TV to replace the one in the bedroom?” he offered.

“Absolutely not,” I rebutted.

Finally, from me: “How about a new rug for the kitchen?”

Down in flames.

For months, we hemmed, we hawed, and we dreamed about what The Check would yield. Yet, in uncharacteristic-of-us twist, we didn’t spend it.

The Check became our Gollum-like Precious.

We set up rules to protect it.

Mr. Bailey couldn’t spend it without me (frustrating) and he couldn’t lose it (next to impossible). I couldn’t allocate it for something as banal as age-defying face cream and groceries; Mr. Bailey could not blow it on a weighted fitness vest and matching weights set.

Last week we returned to Costco, The Precious in hand.

We had negotiated a settlement. The Check would buy a new set of state-of-the-art pots and pans, which we sorely needed after 10 years of learning how to cook as a family with our original, chipped, handles missing, peeling pots and pans.

It was the perfect blend of practical and splurge and came after we had delayed our gratification admirably.

We approached Costco check out, The Precious and pots and pans in hand.

The clerk looked at The Check, scanned it, and put her eulogy for The Precious like this:

“Wow!” she said, “Somebody loves shopping at Costco!”

Once we got home, we flirted with the idea of buyer’s regret, then Mr. Bailey and I boxed up the old cooking set and replaced it with the shiny, heavy, new skillets and pots and saucepans, soon to be steaming with nourishment for our family, sure to be present at life’s best moments of togetherness and connection.

And we were happy.

Post-Precious bliss in the Bailey house.

It’s a Messy (Wonderful) Life

When I first started writing this blog, I was telling a friend about a little frustration I was experiencing with Mr. Bailey. She gasped and smiled, astonished and relieved.

“But I thought it was a ‘Wonderful Life’ for you!”

The truth will set you free, even if the truth is a emotional mess. Art by Max Fujishama

“Are you kidding me?” I told her, laughing along. Right then, I silently vowed to make sure this blog wasn’t just some cherry-coated version of my messy life.

It’s been really messy lately.

I lost my mom to cancer 12 weeks ago yesterday.

Her death was the culmination of two years of head-spinning living. (She was never dying, until the very end, when she was.) Chemo and vacations, radiation and celebrations, laughing and crying, wig shopping, nail biting, port accessing and tests that went our way and, then, didn’t.

There were highlights – a family trip that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, a closeness with my dad and my siblings, an appreciation for what the day would bring and, ultimately, a good excuse for me to get off the crazy breakneck pace treadmill of modern life and focus on what really mattered.

Maybe by that list you can tell I am an optimist, a half-full kind of girl.

But the truth is, since my mom died, it’s hard to be half-full.

When you walk around missing an essential part of yourself, of your spirit and guide, your own personal unconditional, it’s difficult to feel fully committed to optimism.

“Write,” Mr. Bailey would tell me. “Write,” my best friends would softly suggest. “Write,” my therapist would encourage.

I made all kinds of excuses.

Modern Mary contemplates what and where to write from here.

“I can’t get into Modern Mary’s headspace right now,” I would say.

“It’s too fresh,” I would rationalize.

“No one wants to hear about my grief,” I would moan. And some days that really feels achingly true.

Today I realized with all my excuses and all my faux writer’s blocks, I was breaking that vow to be honest with my readers about my messy life.

I think my readers can handle the muddle because life is messy, just like my Mom used to tell me.

Sometimes it’s so messy it can take your breath away and make you doubt what you know to be true.

But the mess is beautiful and difficult, and ultimately what makes us fellow travelers on this journey of life.

And all we can do sometimes is just to share it.

Mary’s Moment

Since our initial love affair with It’s A Wonderful Life, and before I started this blog, I mentioned our affection for the film to a few people.

Folks seem to either love it, haven’t really sat and watched it, or they think it is a sappy, saccharine Christmas movie.

I used to think that, too, before life had blown me and my Mr. Bailey away with some very tough shots.

(Fast forward to 3:45 to see Mary make her move.)

But over the years, the emotion expressed in the film just hits a chord with me. And that feeling of identification with art – that soul vibrating resonance that brings one to tears, to laughter, to feel validated – is just about the best thing about any form of art, be it film, sculpture, painting, poetry, song or performance.

Some critics of IAWL think the characters are too archetypical, too clichéd. I would listen to that argument. After all, George is a big-hearted hero and Mary the faithful wife. Mr. Potter is nasty, mean and worthy opponent.

But there’s more to their characters that reverberates below the surface.

That really broke through to me this last Christmas.

After an evening of welcoming family members who had come from far afield to our home for dinner, people were getting kids in pajamas for the ride home and nursing overly full bellies.

IAWL was on television and we were watching and chatting, the way you do when company comes. Outside, it was raining, the coldest day in weeks. It was dark, so we thought it was later than it really was.

The movie was wrapping up. Clarence had taken his leave of George and George was running through the Bedford Falls streets, toward the twinkling lights of his home and Mary.

After greeting the bank examiner cheerily, George runs up the stairs to kiss his children, all the while yelling for Mary. As Mary comes through the door, having been out looking for him they embrace passionately and George covers her with kisses. She is brimming with excitement, relief and anticipation.

The Bailey home is decorated to the nines, the tree is topped and trimmed and everything screams Christmas. Mary is lovely, snow flakes clinging to her shiny hair, pearls in place, coat with two silver buttons cinched at the waist.

I imagine it smells great in that house, like the best of home — roasting turkey and sweet onions, a warm spice cake and plain old love.

Wanting to set up a cozy, festive scene, Mary hustles George and the children over to the front of the Christmas tree, in front of their dining room table, which is covered with any amount of household stuff, wrapping paper, bows, cups.

She sets George up and then, in a movement of sheer excitement and focus, leans over and pushes every last thing off of the table.

“Did you see that?” I said, grabbing the remote. “Mary just shoved everything off the table, just wiped it all off!”

I hit the button to replay the moment, pointing it out to my sister-in-law. There it was, again, perfectly clear in black and white.

And that’s when I loved Mary Bailey even more, and recognized her as much more than the perfect mother and iconic housewife Donna Reed later played on The Donna Reed Show. Remember, it was 1946 and wives were being asked to be perfect in every housekeeping, child rearing, self-sacrificing way.

But in that motion, I believed Mary knew she was imperfect and flawed. She was fully aware that the little things – like the table settings, meant nothing. What mattered to her, and you see it throughout the scene, is George; is holding him up in his moment of brokenness and becoming completely immersed in the joy of being able to fix it for him.

And all that matters to him, is her. He cannot stop kissing her or gazing at her or saying her name.

Saccharine? Perhaps, but also full of the kind of love you just want to wrap yourself in forever.

An evening in the Bailey home

Mr. Bailey sighs, content. Focused, yet relaxed.

He extends his long, strong index finger slightly out in front of him and uses just the tip of it to press tenderly. His eyes light up, a soft smile plays at his full lips, his eyebrows push up in anticipation and excitement.

Then he slowly strokes his finger down the smoothness with a precise pressure.

Late in the evening, at the end of a long day of rushing around with work, civic duties, running errands, here in the darkness of the day passing, it’s time.

It’s time for some intimate contact with his new iPhone.

“Hhhmmmnnn,” he sighs.

It's love! It's his iPhone.

It's love! It's his iPhone.

He doesn’t even know he’s made that blissful sound. But I, Mrs. Bailey, do. I see him there, his head cocked at that certain, I’m-looking-down-at-my-phone-leave-me-alone angle, his eyes illuminated blue by his personal screen.

“I love this show, don’t you?” I ask.

Silence, more stroking, and pushing the screen apart to zoom.

“He’s so good in this role!” I note about one of our favorite actors.

I am dust in the wind and the iPhone completes him.

To be fair, we’re watching television together, so I am not 100 percent focused on him either. But this TV watching, it’s kind of our thing. It’s our unwind, chit-chat, catch-up and laugh moment that comes as a reward at the end of our beehive days. Sure, we get absorbed in shows, but we’re absorbed together. And we talk about them later. It’s fun.

But not anymore.

I take a moment to attempt to balance the jealousy and irritation I feel with the following:

  • how hard he works
  • what a good heart he has
  • what a good father he is.

(Nope, still on iPhone.)

I know he’s dying to see the next episode of Parenthood just as much as I am and he’s about to turn it off or put it down.


He’s really not a techno geek, so I am sure, any moment now he’ll put it down.


Rationalizations: failed.

I must face it.

The other woman is his iPhone and he is out of his mind for her. Just accept it and move on.

I suppose the good folks at Verizon held out as long as they could, (thank you for that) but right now that provides only a little consolation. How long will this love affair last? How hot will it get? Will I even be here when he returns from his pleasurable side trip, device packed with apps he only uses for the two hours at the end of the day we spend together and, even then, “just to test them out?”

Really? You have to watch that YouTube clip now? It’s imperative you show me that odd maternity photo some girl you knew in high school has posted to her Facebook? Now is a good time to download that application that scans logos to tell you exactly where you are? (Pssst, babe, we’re at home!)

Relax, I tell myself. Yoga breaths. You are a well-spoken, 21st century, tactful Mary Bailey, respectful, understanding, and a kind partner. Handle it the best way you know how.

“Can you PLEASE put DOWN that $^&*@ PHONE?!!!”

Ahem, thank you.