Lately I've been working with college students to open local chapters for The Letter Project. As I've met with them over coffee and FaceTime, I've thought a lot about myself at 20. What would Whitney at 20 think of Whitney at 30? Would I be surprised at how different my life looked than I’d planned? Would I be proud of the way I was living? Would I wonder what had happened to old friends, flings and plans?
I picture a 20-year-old version of myself walking through our little rental, running her hands along the white shelves, picking up photos from our honeymoon. Who is this guy? She’d wonder as she took in Chris. And what happened to John*? My on-again, off-again boyfriend from high school and part of college that I had, somehow, convinced myself could be forever.
I can’t believe you wore a poofy dress! She’d say as she flipped through our wedding photos. I always knew Katie and Sara would be in your wedding, she’d say as she smiled at my high school friends. But who are these girls? She’d point to my Atlanta friends, who are so dear to me now, deeply familiar faces, but whose names I didn’t even know when I was 20.
She’d walk back to the bedrooms and count just two. No nursery, huh? She’d say, unaware that we don’t even own the place. Where do all of the babies sleep? She’d ask as she held up the blueprint for the life I’d mapped out at 18. She’d note a little incomplete mark next to the plan I’d made for having three babies and owning a house in a little town by 30.
She’d probably start to worry then. She’d wonder how a girl from Indiana married a guy from Alabama and wound up in Georgia. She’d stress about traffic and crime and my ovaries. Her throat would tighten and she’d start to make a plan. There isn’t enough time left! She’d worry. She’d be mapping babies and budgets and home ownership before she’d even made it into the kitchen.
But then, she’d watch Chris for a minute. She’d see the way he’s kind and gentle and unlike any other man I’d dated before him. She’d hear his southern drawl and warm laugh. She’d watch him tend to me, at 30, and her jaw would drop. Glad you got those bad boys out of your system, she’d say as she wondered how, just how, I’d snagged a guy like him. Because to be honest, I never really believed there was someone like Chris out there until he came into my life.
She’d keep watching and taking it all in, a little more open minded now. She’d be proud of the way my faith had become important to me again. At 20, it was something I’d fallen away from. Not intentionally - it wasn’t a time of questioning, learning and exploring - which, honestly would have been better. It was a time of drinking and partying. I’d pushed down my faith with numbing agents - partying, perfectionism, food restriction and exercise. It wasn’t a time of growth but, instead, a time of ignoring what mattered most to me all along. I think she’d smile at the way my faith had strengthened in the latter half of my 20s. You’re not so different than you were at 18, are ya? She’d say as she turned on some old high school Jesus Jams.
It’s an oversimplification, of course. She’d be unaware of the heartache I’d felt in my 20s - the singleness, the doubting, the waiting, the lack of control. She’d have no idea how much our family had grown - not just physically with babies and spouses (everywhere!), but also, emotionally. She wouldn’t see how hard we’d worked to be real and honest and vulnerable with each other, which are hard things to maintain when you’re spread out all over the country for a decade.
She wouldn’t understand how important friendships had become - how there is a narrowing that happens as you get older and the people still standing by your side at 30 mean something so much greater than a Saturday night at the bars in college. She’d be missing a decade of joy and growth and breaking free from fear and perfectionism.
She’d be missing so much of the good, the bad and the beautiful because she’d only see the little snapshots.
As I thought about all of this, I realized that Whitney at 20 would initially be disappointed with how much I didn’t achieve, for lack of a better word, by 30. Perhaps she might even be a little judgmental. But she’d be wrong to be disappointed, because, what she wouldn’t have known then, is that when we stop white knuckling the dreams we once made, we make room for something greater.
When we stop trying to create the life we think we should have - the ones our friends, sisters or mamas have - and, instead, make room for the lives we really have - the ones that were designed, ornately and carefully, for us - is when we really find freedom.
I’m trying to remember this today and every day.
When I feel myself begin to worry about turning 31 in September, with no babes in sight…
Or when I think through the fact that almost all of our friends own their homes and we rent…
When I feel like I’m in the thick of chaos with The Letter Project, unsure what to do next or what my longterm vision is…
In these moments, I remind myself that I am exactly where I need to be. This life is unfolding exactly as it should. There is something far greater than you could imagine planned for your life. The key is letting go just a little bit and making room for it to blossom.
*Name changed to protect everybody's privacy (: