Looking backward: What we’d tell our 20-year-old selves

Dear 20-year-old Karen,

Wow. You’ve really got yourself into a bit of a jam, haven’t you?

I’m not going to tell you how to get out of it, because I know you’re too damn stubborn to listen to advice from your elders, plus you need to figure out for yourself that you can get through this, but I can offer you some words of encouragement. Honey, you’re going to need them over the next four or five years.

First, yes, you’re right, the guy you just married is a dork. We won’t get into why you agreed to this whole ridiculous thing in the first place, because I know you already feel pretty crappy about that, but I just want to reassure you that when he says you’re stupid, ugly, and possibly crazy, he’s talking out his ass. You’re none of those things. He’s telling you this because he feels small and worthless inside, and he needs you to feel the same way, so he can feel bigger and more powerful. It’ll be hard, but try not to listen to him. alt="IMAGE-emotional-abuse"

Second, you won’t live in Dartmouth forever. Yes, it’s a bit of a rat-hole, and you live in a particularly rough part of it, and I know that when you’re 20 everything feels like it’ll last for the rest of your life, but it won’t. Okay, that’s kind of vague. Let me be a bit more specific: you might have to move to an even less attractive town first, but eventually you’ll find your way out, your life will turn around, and you’ll find yourself among people who love and value you. It’s going to take a while, but it’ll happen.

Third, you remember that guy Mitchell you dated back in Ottawa, before you told Ferret Face you’d marry him? Keep answering his letters, okay? I can’t tell you why, but it’s important. He’s a good friend who really cares about what happens to you. And over the next few years you’re going to need all the good friends you can get.

And fourth, you’re stronger than you think you are. You’re a survivor, and just because you made this one (admittedly pretty humongous) mistake doesn’t mean your life is over. You can turn this around. You will turn this around. It’ll take time, and you’ll have to make some hard choices, but it’ll happen. And when you get here, I’ll be waiting for you.


Your 55-year-old self

p.s. Your hair is long, thick, and straight as a broomstick. You need to accept this. Do not under any circumstances get it permed. I don’t care what your hairdresser says. Friends don’t let friends get perms. Got it? Oh, never mind. You’re going to do it anyway, aren’t you?


Dear Awesome 20-year-old Wendy,

I’m writing from the future.  Freaky, eh?  Let’s face it, you never thought you’d reach 30, let along 50, but here I am, writing to you, from beyond…the…um, future.

You didn’t have an easy childhood. Your teenage years were a blend of dreadful and fulfilling. In short, you lived a life not so different from many of your generation. By the time you turned 20, you were discovering the fun and enjoyment of being an adult and to be honest, there’s no advice I’d like to pass your way because I think you were doing just fine on your own.

Except this one thing:

Go to university. You had really good grades in high school. You enjoy learning and your goal through much of your youth was to be the Best Teacher’s Pet Ever. Do not turn your back on school, fool! You can blame your decision to go straight into the workforce from Grade 12 on your parents, but let’s face it, they didn’t hold a gun to your head and say, “No school for you, missy!” It might have felt that way, but it was always up to you and you just didn’t know it.

In the years that follow, you will meet many women who are better educated than you—they will have old school ties and be able to join clubs you’ll never be a part of—think how much that’ll annoy you, when you realise you’re no less intelligent than they, you just don’t have a degree to back up your claims. So get your ass into school! Whoosh, whoosh, go!

Of course, this might delay your wedding and the birth of your first child, but only by a year or two. Your life will still be waiting for you to enjoy, once you graduate.  Consider me your biggest supporter, I only have your best interests at heart, so don’t delay – go to school today!

think how much better this photo would be if taken when you were 20.

Whatever you do, though, don’t become a poet—your ability to rhyme really sucks.


Your 50-year-old self




  1. Two great lessons here – both that I just told my daughter yesterday. You ARE stronger than you think. And go to school, go to school, go to school. A good education can NEVER hurt you. Loved this!

  2. Love the part about the perm! I, too succumbed to the need for curls, despite my stick-straight hair. And I agree about going to school – I wish I had done more to continue my education after college.

    • What is with young people and perms? Honestly, I looked like a weirdly frizzed Harpo Marx.
      And yes, education–I do believe people can learn so much just from living and keeping their minds open, but higher education is a gift, and if we can do it, we really should.

  3. Which goes to show we are never happy with what we’ve got. My curly hair was the bane of my existence. Karen and Wendy, loved reading this!

    • Helene, I know so many people who iron their hair–crazy-pants. But yes, it seems like we’re just never content. On the other hand, maybe that inability to just accept what life hands us is part of what motivated us to get out of those stupid early relationships and demand more from our lives?

  4. I grew up with long straight hair and now for some reason it’s coming in corkscrew curly. Very odd!

  5. These are terrific!

    Karen, I well remember my perms. I remember the time the hairdresser burned my hair off to a stubble. I remember I went back and did it again. Gack! It also seems like many of us have starter husbands that we have to grow through. I don’t know why so many young women have to go through that, but it seems they do.

    Wendy, I also wish college had been more of an option for me after high school. It just wasn’t. I did finally go, and there were some good parts about delaying that, but I can see how not having that degree limited some of my choices in life. I also lived under the false assumption that a degree meant you were smarter. Imagine my dismay when I finally did go to college and discovered that the people in college are not necessarily smarter than the people who aren’t. I found that disappointing actually.

    • I recently (as in, maybe five years ago?) started referring to my “starter husband”–that relegates him to his proper place in the chronology of my life, I think. It’s really reassuring to know that so many of us went through those kinds of early relationships, and grew out of them stronger and better.

      And isn’t it startling when you realize that the people who attend college/university can be just as doltish, thick-headed, unimaginative, and dull as those who don’t? Education doesn’t guarantee anything, but for anyone lucky enough to get it, I still think it’s something to be treasured.

  6. Luckily, I got all my perms before I was 20.
    Wow, I really have a lot in common with the two of you. Young, foolish first marriage. late to finish college.

    • Anne, what I’m loving about this is how we share so many of the same experiences! And yet I’d be willing to bet we thought we were the only ones in our situation at the time. Also, I believe perms were a mass delusion. Possibly caused by aliens.

  7. To myself I’d implore me to not give up and settle for a BA when I could have studied more, skied less, worried about boys less, and gone to med school or seriously study drama, one or the other.

    • Yes–though I’m beginning to wonder whether obsessively worrying about boys is some kind of rite of passage we all have to go through at that age? We all seem to have done it, that’s for sure!

  8. It really is a shame we have to wait so long to figure this life out, isn’t it?

  9. Karen–great post. Dang it– if there is ONE thing I should have told my younger self– it would be to NOT get a perm. And Wendy… I found college on down the road so much better than the first attempt. I loved reading both letters!!

    Cheers, Jenn

  10. Congrats on navigating what sounds like a rough life. Isn’t it amazing that we are so strong and resilient! (www.awomanspage.com)

  11. Love these! If only we could turn back the clock (or maybe not). I agree with the perm – why, oh, why? I also shouldn’t have pierced the top of my right earlobe – mostly made up of hard cartilage. Ouch! Don’t get me started on the losers I dated. I deserved so much better than to be treated like a 20-something doormat. I did love my white Honda CRX – though the gas tank didn’t work – I could turn a corner like Mario Andretti.

  12. OMG the perm! That brings back painful memories!! Must be a rite of passage. And the rhyming poems? Overrated! Your writing is fantastic the way it is. Thanks, you two!

  13. I did smile at the perm remark… Uh-huh. Like so many, another who succumbed.

    And yes to that strength we find in ourselves. We still have it, in spades!

  14. So touching, Karen. Such a theme I’m seeing in the letters that we young gals truly did not realize how strong and resilient we were and how knowing that would have made such a difference. Happy you got out away from Ferret Face!

    Wendy: I share a similar regret about not going to college when I should have. Much, much harder as a mother, but maybe more appreciated. Good job!

    Lovely post, ladies!

    • Thanks, Lisa! I am finding it both amazing and uplifting to know that we weren’t the only ones living in darkness back then–I just wish we had known how many others were just as confused as we were. We might not have believed it, but on some level it would have been a comfort.

  15. Karen” …”but I just want to reassure you that when he says you’re stupid, ugly, and possibly crazy, he’s talking out his ass.” Oh girl, that’s perfect. You learned so much from that ass,
    Wendy: …”when you realise you’re no less intelligent than they, you just don’t have a degree to back up your claims. So get your ass into school! Whoosh, whoosh, go!”” Whoosh, whoosh!

  16. I didn’t listen to good advice either. I think it’s something we just had to live through to learn. Youth! I too finished school after I had kids. Not a path I would recommend to anyone, yet I’m proud that I accomplished it, even though so many said it couldn’t be done. We’re a strong group of women!

    • We really are a strong group, aren’t we?

      I finished my undergrad degree when my oldest was about four; finished my MSW when he was about six. It’s not the easiest way to do it, but I do think I probably got more out of my education because of my age. I remember looking around at the 18-year-olds in my undergrad classes and wondering what they knew about life! (I had reached the ripe old age of 27 by then, but I had a divorce, a remarriage, and a baby under my belt! Still knew pretty much nothing, but more than when I was 20.)


  17. Loved it, girls! Reading all of these, it’s such a common theme with all of us that we begin with some variation on, “I know you won’t take this advice. You’re too stubborn” etc. I guess there’s a perfect order to having those crazy experiences. They definitely made us who we are. Thanks for sharing!

  18. I love your humor and reading both of your stories gives such a textured view of your now-lives. Funny how hair is something many of us remember obsessing over – I had forgotten the perils of the perm which I succumbed to, too. Wonderful, as always!

  19. Thanks for some fun letters! I think what this exercise has shown is everything worked out the way it was meant too. None of us were able to skip these lessons, even if we’d been able to hear the wiser voices from the future.

  20. Your advice re the perm reminds me of the times I lay my head on an ironing board to apply the trusty Sunbeam steam iron to my hear!

  21. The Itty Bitty Boomer

    November 24, 2012 at 10:20 am

    What a great series of blogs! Love it! I would tell my 20-year old married self to LISTEN to those intuitions … especially when it starts to hurt too much and you realize it won’t change, CHANGE IT! Realize you don’t have to, nor do you have the power to, fix everybody and everything. Don’t worry so much about hurting other peoples feelings at the expense of your own. You are so much strongere than you realize. Love yourself more – it’s ok!

  22. great piece. if only…but it’s all a learning experience no matter how old we are once we learn it!

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