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Farewell to My 20s

Apr 1, 2011

About 10 years ago, give or take a few months, I was sitting in a restaurant in downtown Atlanta with a group of twenty-somethings.  I was the youngest one there, still a teenager and feeling quite privileged to be hanging out with this older crowd I'd become acquainted with through my work with my university's newspaper.  Vincent, a senior with a mass of dark brown curls -- the kind of hair I'd scoff at now -- was describing his encounter with "a woman" -- a real woman, none of this in between business that Britney Spears sang of.  In the middle of his story he stopped suddenly and gave me an apologetic look.

"Sorry Mary El," I remember him saying, so genuinely it made me smile.  "You're great, but you're not a woman.  You know what I mean."

I took no offense to it.  I didn't feel like a woman, and for heaven's sake, I was only 19!  But another guy at the table, Jacob, had a different opinion.  I don't remember what we talked about that night, but I do remember him handing me his linen napkin as we walked out the door after dinner.  On it he had written: "You are a woman."  (This behavior is also something I would scoff at now.  Defaming property and then stealing it?!)  I held onto that napkin for a long time, and it's probably still in a corner of my closet at my parents' house in Georgia.  I used to muse over it, wondering what being a woman truly meant.  At some point I stopped wondering and started becoming, and on my last day as a twenty-something I want to share with you, dear readers, my journey through my 20s.

When I turned 20 I was a sophomore at Georgia State University, still trying to figure out my major (English, Spanish, or Journalism?), working for the newspaper and radio station, and falling in love with the city.  I had recently broken up with my boyfriend, Stefan, who was completely lame, but since I was young I didn't know I deserved any better.  To celebrate the break-up and my entrance into a new decade I chopped off all my hair and decided to go an entire year without dating, thus beginning my realization that being single is tons more fun than being in a relationship. My mother almost croaked when I came home.  "You are the maid of honor in your sister's wedding! What were you thinking?!"  Somehow my hair was not a showstopper, and my sister was happily married off to the man she now has three kids with.  (Thanks for taking the pressure off me, Sissy!)

Gimme a break, it's the best photo I could find on short notice. 
And plasticwear was cool back then.  Remember the Spice Girls?

Check out those lashes!  Who needs Latisse when you've got glow in the dark stick ons?

By 21 I'd decided on Journalism as a major with a minor in Creative Writing.  I scrapped English because I kept getting Bs on papers when professors didn't like my ideas.  Total hogwash.  Me?  Make a B on a paper?  I didn't need that.  So I stuck with Journalism where I never made a B on a paper again.  Hooray!  I decided I was destined to be a famous magazine writer and live in a city, any city, but it must be a city.  I also panicked that I was running out of time to do something rebellious, so I got my belly-button pierced.  No tribal tattoos on my lower back, though, thank goodness.  (In fact, I made it through all those years without one tattoo, and no more piercings.)  Later that year I met Tim, my first big heartbreak.  Stefan hurt, but more because I neeeeeeeeeeeded his attention and he refused to give it to me.  Tim actually got me, took me out on nice, vegetarian dates (it was okay because I was open to trying new things, like black bean burgers) and introduced me to his nice, vegetarian friends.  We broke up because he was graduating and moving to Florida for a job, and in hindsight it was really for the best because I heart chocolate covered bacon.  A few months after the break up I went to a party with Lara and followed her into the hostess's bedroom so Lara could use the bathroom.  There I saw on the nightstand a photo of Tim with the hostess. I burst into tears, Lara grabbed the hostess, and the hostess explained that she met him right before he was graduating and he invited her to Florida over spring break to visit him.  That's when I decided I would never love again.

Another year passed, and soon it would be time for me to graduate college.  I'd landed my dream internship at Atlanta Magazine, and at the end of the summer I was moving to California for Bible College, something I'd wanted to do since I was 19.  The big downside was my first nephew had been born, and I would miss seeing him grow up.  But I figured I'd go to school for two more years, move back to Atlanta and get a job with Atlanta Magazine, be married by 25, buy a little cottage in Virginia Highlands, and have my own kids -- four -- between 26 and 30-32ish.  I really had no idea that life doesn't quite work according to our plans. 

During my internship I met Justin.  Tim paled in comparison to Justin.  He was not what one might consider my "type" at all -- short, pudgy, balding, with the most beautiful face I'd ever seen.  I wasn't just smitten, I was in love.  I have not been in love since and sometimes I wonder if that was the only shot I'll ever get.  But honestly, it was wonderful to love someone, and, having passed through the pain of breaking up with the person I was in love with, I can now say I wouldn't trade that experience.  In the midst of it I wanted to die of course, and when I found out years later (at 28) that he was marrying a friend of mine, I collapsed to the floor and rolled around screaming for who knows how long.  (Oh yes, I can be quite the drama queen.)  I've gotten all that out of my system, though, because now when I think of his wife, I don't want to rip out her hair.  I think that means I've made peace with it, right? 

Well anyway, Justin and I spent one amazing summer together that ended with him telling me he loved me and us crying in each other's arms the night before I drove my little Honda Civic to California, because I was sticking to my plan no matter what.  But then, the day I arrived, a tragic event happened to someone close to me.  And that was the moment that I had an enormous growth spurt, when my 20s ceased being full of wonder, dreams, and adventures, when life became real and we stopped being invincible. 

The year that followed is kind of a blur.  A lot of tears, a lot of anger, a lot of pain.  I didn't have the energy to try to make friends at school, and I spent a lot of my first semester crying alone in my room or in bathroom stalls.  Somehow I forged through, made it through a year and a half.  When I went back for my final semester, almost 25, I was at a better place, excited to graduate and happy to be where I was.  But I had this cough, leftover from a cold from winter break, that wouldn't go away.  I went to see the school nurse and she was quite concerned.  She ordered several tests and told me to stay in bed until further notice.  I stayed in bed for six weeks.  By then I'd begun sneaking into classes, and when I got caught I'd be reprimanded and sent back home.  Eventually the dean had a talk with me and suggested I go back to Atlanta for some R&R.  The timing was actually good because my second nephew was about to be born, two days after my 25th birthday.  Soon after that I had another talk with the dean, and he recommended I stay home and not graduate.  My doctors had found out I had hypothyroidism, which is easily treated but can wreak havoc on your body if not treated.  I'd been pushing through the warning signs for the past two years, and my body was essentially kaput.  My doctors said it would take five years to completely heal.

I spent the next year becoming addicted to the Young & the Restless and catching up on all the Beverly Hills, 90210 episodes I was never allowed to watch as a kid.  Eventually I felt well enough to work, but no one was hiring a magazine writer with no experience outside of college.  So I became a nanny.  Hey, it put gas in my car and allowed me to buy new clothes, which I needed because my birthing hips suddenly filled out.  After my 26th birthday I had it set in my mind that I had to get a little dog, and then I found Noli, short for Magnolia, named after the gorgeous blooming tree in my parents' neighborhood.  Not long after that I met a guy at my cousin's wedding who offered me a job up in Washington, DC.  A month later I had moved up here and met Margaret.

That first year was tough.  It was my first real job, and I had no idea was DC was like.  The company I was working for had low-balled me on my salary like you wouldn't believe. (It's really just too embarrassing to admit, so I'll let you guess.  Then subtract $10K and you might be in the ballpark.)  Not only that, but I still had my plan stuck in my head, except there was no guy to marry and therefore no babies.  So I developed what I referred to as the "glowing uterus" -- every time I heard a baby make a sound my uterus ached.  I imagined it was sending out a distress signal to the world, something like, "SOS! I'm being held hostage in a barren woman with no prospects in sight!"  Thanks a lot, Uterus, it's not like those giant hips are any help to solving the barren woman problem.  So I gave a shot.  It was through that experience that I shut down the baby factory and once again realized being single is tons more fun that being in a relationship.

In my 27th year I started this blog...and you pretty much know the rest.  I made some great, lifelong friends, found myself a career I love in public affairs, eventually moved into the District, giving me the city life I'd always dreamed of, and I never chopped my hair again, especially not over a guy.  No no, a guy will never have that kind of influence over my hair decisions, ever.  Oh, and my third nephew was born.  We're not sure my brother-in-law is capable of producing anything but rowdy boys.

So, on my last day as a twenty-something, I remember that linen napkin fondly.  Today there's no question in my mind: I am a woman.  It's not what I thought it would be, but it's sort of everything I wanted it to be.  I mean, there's no way I could manage living the city life with four kids on a magazine writer's salary, but that's not the sort of thing you think about when you're 20.  At 30 the dreams may have faded, but realizations of what life is all about have replaced them.  I enter into this new decade with eyes wide open, skin well toughened, and a heart filled with love of the amazing people in my life.  There will be grief along with joy, but if there's one thing my 20s taught me it's that when a broken heart heals, it's stronger than it was before, making the grief less grievous and the joy more joyful. 

Note: Don't think because I'm turning 30 that I'll stop loving Britney Spears.  That'll never change, even when I'm 40. 

For Megan


  1. I refuse to give up Britney, I still love her, I still love my shoes and to be honest I still love my trashy tv, but lately I have noticed a more mature outlook on the world. So what if my heart is broken? It will heal and I will be better for it. So what if I put on a kg or two, I work hard and I'll get it off, I am me, this is my only shot at life, and if I hadn't made the mistakes I've made then I wouldn't be who I am or where I am and I wouldn't change that for the world :)
    Fantastic post xx

  2. I've only seen the past couple of years, but you have certainly changed since I've known you. Your a kind, giving woman and I'm honored to be your friend. Happy Birthday!

  3. Aah, so delightful going down memory road with you! I remember you came over right after you cut your hair and I screamed, you still had ten times more hair than me, even at your shortest. Well here's to the next ten years, btw I'll see if I can dig up a better picture for you (hair fashion show ring a bell?).

  4. Great post! Get ready because your 30s are going to AMAZING! Happy Birthday!

  5. I love this post - so honest and so hopeful! Happy Birthday!!

  6. Ahhh, I am crying, and I don't even know you IRL! I love this so much. It's such a beautiful exploration of womanhood and growing up and what it means to be the heralded "20-something". It's beautiful, and so are you - even in the plastic-dress style of the '90s. :) Thank you for sharing this and have the happiest of birthdays!

  7. Cupcakes,

    This is my favorite post you have ever written. As I was reading it I was like, "and this is why I LOVE this girl. ahem, woman." love it, love it, love it. Happy Birthday my sweet friend. Cannot wait to celebrate with you!


    A single girl

  8. Happy Birthday my wonderful sissy! I love you "more than Fridays!" Enjoy your weekend!... I can't wait to hear about it!

  9. I came back to read this again, because I love this line: "There will be grief along with joy, but if there's one thing my 20s taught me it's that when a broken heart heals, it's stronger than it was before, making the grief less grievous and the joy more joyful."

    I needed to be reminded of that - so glad you posted this.

  10. You make thirty look damn good WOMAN! Love this post and can't wait to rock out with ya!

  11. Happy Birthday, girl! Loved this post. I left Atlanta as a 20-something fresh college graduate with wide eyes for Chicago. I returned for a visit some years later with a husband and two little girls having crossed into that mysterious territory. I will never forget Suzanne H. greeting me with, "Oh look, Glenna, she's a woman" as only Suzanne from Anderson SC could say it. It's one of my priceless memories! I'm still not sure what defines being a "woman." But I think I'm learning! Loving you still and wishing you well - JP in Spokane

  12. great post! You are the woman. Here's to the thirties - welcome to the other side.

  13. I think turning 30 is cool. Or for me rather, was cool. It was sort of like a light build went on. I just felt different. Better. Stronger, etc. (And I was dealing with a hell of a lot of bullshit at that time).

    Happy Birthday. May your 30th year reignite the dreams that have faded and bring with them a new sense of purpose.

    And by the way, nice sticks, wow.

  14. wow, this post gave me some slight motivation.
    congrats on leaving your 20s behind!

  15. As someone who is going to be saddened to bid her 30s goodbye very, very soon, I can tell you that the entire decade is spectacular. Midway through, you will look back and not only not recognize the twenty-five year old you once were, but will roll your eyes at the notion that she considered herself a grown-up. You are going to know and love yourself more than you can imagine. It really is the best. THE BEST. Happy Birthday, Kiddo!

  16. What a great post! Loved the Britney reference, your stories from age 20 and your reflection as your 30th birthday approaches. I'm one of those women who embraced turning 30. I've had far more fun and know myself so much better now than I did in my 20s. So much does get better with age. Happy Birthday!!! xoxo

  17. Dang, you write well. I never knew.
    Congrats, we'll see your name as Author one of these days, if that's what you choose.
    Keep going!

  18. Mary El,

    I don't always follow your blog. Mainly because you and I have heart to heart's in person...and also because I just forget to read it. But, you're very talented and this post was very great to read. You're a tough WOMAN, Mary El. Glad to have you in my inner circle of family, and especially glad to have you in DC with me. Hope we can make your 31st birthday great :)

    - Will