Excerpted from WHAT WOULD VIRGINIA WOOLF DO?: And Other Questions I Ask Myself As I Attempt to Age Without Apology. Copyright © 2018 by Nina Collins. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.
At this age, we all have regrets; how could we not? Some wish they’d never started smoking, or hadn’t married that alcoholic, or had spent more time with their dying grandmother.
For me, I wish I’d been a better stepmother in my first marriage. I was super young—23—and had come from a family full of steps and halves and divorce and anger, and I frankly wasn’t ready to start my own family much less take on someone else’s. So while I can now have some compassion for my own younger self—and I do, which is important—I can also admit out loud that I deeply regret the lack of love I gave a little boy who was also a victim of circumstance.
Making peace with what we regret is part of taking stock and moving ahead with clarity.
At 40, 50, or 60, does it help to look back on the mistakes we made, the things we wish we’d handled differently?
Yes. Making peace with what we regret is part of taking stock and moving ahead with clarity. We can’t fix all the screw ups, but we can try to understand them, forgive ourselves, and do things differently going forward. Renowned psychologist Erik Erikson’s eighth stage of psycho-social development is what he termed “ego integrity vs. despair.” The idea is that, toward the end of our lives, achieving a sense of integrity means fully accepting oneself and coming to terms with the life one has led. Accepting responsibility and coming to a sense of satisfaction with the self is essential, and failure to do so will result in a feeling of despair.
This is also an opportunity to applaud what we’ve done well.
Advice to Help Others Avoid Regrets
Someone posted in my Facebook Group, What Would Virginia Woolf Do?, asking for business advice to give her college-age daughter as she sets out into the world. The advice, all of it wise, was striking to me in the most common themes: save, have your own money, focus on your own choices. But I was also struck by how some women branched off from the financial/business question and took a more holistic approach, because that’s how women are, right? The personal lives in all aspects of our lives.
Here’s what we said we would share with our daughters (and sons):
KATRIN: Don’t rush through life. Don’t always be looking ahead and planning everything. Also, learn that you are responsible for your own happiness.
ILENE: Max out on 401(k)/IRA; invest in index funds with low load, do not touch them no matter how bumpy the market. The magic of compounding is spectacular.
Get out of a bad relationship as soon as possible. GET OUT. Time wasted there is waste.
KATY: Have a passion no one can take away from you—and be able to support yourself. If they are the same—all the better. Find a community built not only on friends but on something that is your own and will sustain you. Have a prenup—always.
DANA: Take care of yourself. You get ONE spine, one body of skin, one set of feet … don’t take them for granted or let bad habits ruin them. Heels, makeup, standing for hours at a time … they all take their toll.
DEIDRE: STAY OUT OF DEBT—even if it means missing out on some fun. You’ll be older before you know it, and you can’t count on making enough to pay off your debt and live a comfortable lifestyle, and nothing is worse than having debt hanging over you for years. It can keep you in relationships/jobs/living situations you want to get out of, and it’s a massive weight that will affect every aspect of your life.
JENNY: If I could go back in time, I’d tell 22-year-old me to worry less, experiment more, and not be afraid to follow my gut. (I do all of those things now, but it took me forever to realize I could!)
RUTHANNE: When choosing jobs always ask: 1. are there people (and at least one person I will be working closely with) here I can learn from; 2. will this job open more doors than it closes for future opportunities. No to either question means don’t take the job.
GWEN: Find a course of study you love to lead to a career you love. Always keep a separate bank account and credit card (not store credit cards, but Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express) in your own name. Travel whenever you can. Always stand up for what you believe. And finally, get a hobby, something you want to do just because it makes you happy.
STAY OUT OF DEBT—even if it means missing out on some fun.
STEPHANIE: Build your network and cultivate it. I’ve never gotten a job/opportunity from a want ad or a web posting.
ERIN: Buy a piece of real estate. I know a fair number of people who all made different choices as far as career, family, etc. The ones who made real estate purchases early are still doing fine, whether they are crazy artists, moms, wives, or career women. Those other things matter, it’s just that real estate matters more, on a totally different league level.
KATY: 1. Get out of a bad relationship as soon as possible. GET OUT. Time wasted there is waste. 2. You are beautiful. Ask who is worthy of you, not who you can find. 3. What people DO tells you much more about them than words ever will. Look at their history of friendships, jobs, families.
The Existential Questions
Here are my two cents added to all this great advice: building your own business and being able to control your own schedule are the way to go in terms of lifestyle, parenting, and feeling powerful. Also, buy a piece of real estate as early as you can.
This can be the ideal time to forge ahead with integrity and a more transparent understanding of what is most important to you as a person.
It’s intense confronting aging, children growing up and moving on, and thinking about your financial future all at the same time—not to mention massive and soul-shaking existential questions like “Have I contributed something positive to life on this earth?” But if you look back with clear eyes, I know that you will see more than regret and paths not taken and realize how many skills you have accumulated along the way and how smart you are compared to your 20- or 30-something self.
Our choices may be limited, but unfettered from the distractions and expectations that go along with being a younger woman, this can be the ideal time to forge ahead with integrity and a more transparent understanding of what is most important to you as a person. In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, “So please ask yourself: What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it.”