Our culture’s need to align age with lifestyle is admittedly overdone (going out makes you 20 no more than staying in makes you 30), but there is something comforting about deciding, as a group, to blame hard, intangible stuff on something as explicit and unavoidable as an age. Plus, the human propensity for self-loathing, self-exploration and self-acceptance does have a way of ebbing and flowing alongside certain decades.
That said, my current age doesn’t have a satisfying ring to it, nor an identifiable stereotype attached. Being 28 feels like sitting at the incongruous intersection of younger people thinking I’m old and older people thinking I’m young. I’m either “basically 25” or “basically 30” depending on the severity of my current meltdown and/or hangover.
Showtime’s newest show, SMILF, captures this paradox perfectly. Frankie Shaw, the creator, director and star, plays a 28-year-old woman who is adorable, kind of a mess, and also a new mother to the cutest kid you’ve ever seen (who’s played by two twin girls you’re going to want to follow on Instagram ASAP). In celebration of SMILF’s forthcoming premiere on November 5th, and to do the honorable (selfish) work of painting a more colorful picture of life at 28, I asked six women to recall their 28-year-old selves. What was fun, what sucked and what would they tell that person now?
Leandra, Man Repeller founder, 28
“I’m ten months through the 28th year of my life, and my biggest problem has been persistent over the course of the past three years: Running a company is really, really challenging, especially for someone who self-identifies as a creative, as I do. Forcing myself into a role that often feels not completely ‘right’ has led me to link my reproductive issues to the circumstances of my professional life.
But for as challenging as building and running a company has been, and for as heartbreaking as the process of achieving pregnancy has been, the ephemeral, shining moments where things feel like they are falling into place or finally make sense have made all the coal-mining, so to speak, feel like it’s been worth it. They say that no one loves to write, only to have written; I think this is true for facing personal and professional adversity, too. If you can come up for air and officially graduate from the adversity, you rarely regret it and, as a matter of fact, it becomes one of your biggest joys.
I wish I had been able to apply my retrospective thinking to the process while I was in it. I wish I enjoyed the process for exactly what it was: a process. The other thing is that no state of existence is permanent. This is so hard to remember when you’re suffering because you feel like you’re frozen inside the 59th second of a plank. If I could give one piece of advice to my 28-year-old self, I’d say, ‘Remember how you thought you would never move on or love again after your boyfriend broke up with you when you were 17? Remember how dumb you felt as a result when you got engaged at 22? Why are you letting history repeat itself, Leandra? Same thinking mechanism, different topic. For as much control as you think you have, you don’t actually maintain that much. This isn’t a bad thing; SURRENDER.'”
Andrea Arterbery, freelance journalist, 36
“My biggest joy at the age of 28 was most definitely my career. I lived in New York and worked all the time. One of my top goals as a working journalist was to have my work published in The New York Times and I’d done that, several times over. I was so proud of myself for reaching this pinnacle because I’d worked so hard to get there! But, my biggest joy was also my biggest problem. I was so busy working and networking that I never really made time for myself nor did I dedicate myself to anything other than work.
As a result, I was pretty burnt out on everything by the time I reached 30. I knew I needed to slow down, but how? When? Well, I found my answer in the form of a (totally unprepared for, what-is-happening) pregnancy. By the following year, I was a single mom living in Manhattan and trying to make life work like it used to because I’m stubborn. But I soon realized my former Manhattan life was no longer meant to be, so I cut my losses, packed up my baby and moved back home to Texas. It was an adjustment, but now I wouldn’t have it any other way. My five-year-old son is happy and healthy. Life is just so much easier now and I can honestly say that I’m happy. For the first time in life, I feel grounded and I’m super secure in my role as his mother.
I wish that I’d known to slow down and to take more time for myself because, in just a few more years, I’d be a single mom. Honestly, in hindsight, I probably would have taken more naps, too!”
Ammara Yaqub, Creative Director, 37
“I had my first child when I was 28. I also had my dream job. I was a buyer at Louis Vuitton and loved every minute of it. At that time, I (mistakenly) thought that I had it all. But while I had given birth to this beautiful little girl, I was having a hard time understanding and embracing motherhood. I had put on a lot of weight during my pregnancy and was struggling to lose it. I went back to work to find someone had been hired to fulfill most of my responsibilities, which left me feeling redundant and almost guilty about having a child in the first place.
I tried to keep up the façade of managing it all through what I now realize was a very traumatic time. I was probably struggling with postpartum depression, but I had no idea what that was and didn’t know to ask anyone for help. I wish I had reached out for support. It would have made a huge difference.
If I could tell my 28-year-old self anything, I would tell her that having it all is an illusion. Life is a balancing act and striking that balance (which for me means something different every day) is a constant struggle. Many people consider having children to be their biggest accomplishment, but even though I love my kids more than life itself, I never felt that way. I would tell my 28-year-old self that it’s okay to have her own goals, and to make her happiness a priority without feeling selfish, guilty or apologetic. I would tell her to not waste her time worrying about how others perceive her, to not let the opinions of ancillary/irrelevant people hold her back.
I would most importantly give her the down and dirty about giving birth. I had no idea what I was getting into, and I was surprised by how much of a toll it took on my body and mind. The physical recovery took months (after what felt like a never-ending pregnancy). I struggled with breast feeding to the point that I would sit in my room and cry, and I had a tough time relating to a newborn. I would tell myself that this too shall pass.”
Nicole Chapoteau, fashion director, late 30s
“When I turned 28, I was months away from getting married, finding a place for me and my future husband to live, and realizing I was officially becoming a real adult. Like, WHOA! We never lived together, we were old school (although we were high school sweethearts), and the thought of not living with my friends for the first time since I left for college gave me major anxiety and FOMO. But I was so excited to stop having sleepovers with my boyfriend.
If I could tell myself anything, I’d say, ‘Be more adventurous. Don’t take everything that seriously. You are still in your twenties, so it’s okay to fuck up. There is time to get back on the horse.’ I wish I realized that, aside from paying bills, being an adult is actually fun.”
Liz Markus, artist, 49
“28 was the year I started grad school in Philadelphia. For the first time, I had my own studio. It was filled with light and was on a beautiful campus with trees everywhere. I had the time and space to make art and that’s all I was supposed to do. Unfortunately I was distracted by a breakup. I may have ben 28, but emotionally I was probably more around 15. I was absolutely devastated. I wish I had cared less about the boy and more about this amazing creative opportunity I was having.
If I could tell my 28-year-old self anything, I wouldn’t tell her what was in store for her for the next decade or two. It took that long to get through tons of emotional growth and too many day jobs. But now I’m back to that wonderful place of having an amazing studio where I use all of my time free to make art. I’d tell her to take herself more seriously as an artist, the way the boys naturally do. And to put her work out into the world sooner and with more intention than I did. I’d tell her that it was okay to show the developing work, that the world would be kind.”
Sheila McElroy, historic preservationist, 59
“At 28 I was getting my Masters of Science in Historic Preservation at the University of Pennsylvania, and I was married and living in New York. I felt grounded and centered in my work/study that I excelled at and loved. I enjoyed my projects, was challenged by my peers and I got to run around Philadelphia looking at cool buildings and neighborhoods. This was always my element: exploring, discovering and sharing what I uncovered. I had found my purpose.
My biggest problem was that at this time, I became very ill and didn’t realize it. I was exhausted within hours of waking and fainted often; I couldn’t eat much yet was feeling bloated and awkward. I truly suffered through my first year at grad school because I didn’t tell anyone. One day, I passed out in Grand Central because my heart rate was so low, and was raced to the hospital. The doctors eventually diagnosed me with hypothyroidism and through treatment I regained my health. I wish I hadn’t been so hard on myself. I was ill — not weak, not ineffectual, not a wimp. No one expected or wanted me to hide how I was feeling. It was totally self-induced.
I wish I’d known that joy and happiness are not the same. Joy stays with you even through the really shitty times because it’s true and steady. After 30 years I still have the vision to see the potential in a building or neighborhood. It’s a kind of faith. Happiness is what you feel in a moment. It’s ephemeral. Knowing the difference would have made the bumpy ride a little bit easier. I think I would have been less harsh and judgmental of my own work. I wish I could tell myself to lighten up and do the best you can and let it go.”
Susan Morris, first grade teacher, 42
“Ah, 28, what an age! After growing up the youngest of five daughters, I finally felt like I was a full-fledged grown-up. I finally fit in. This was a great joy to me. At 28, I had also fallen in love with the man who I would marry and build my future family with. Looking back, 28 was a very joyful time. That being said, I was always in a massive rush to get on to the next thing. I was in a race with myself and everyone I knew, even if they didn’t know it. I was in a rush to get engaged, married, own a home, the list goes on. This problem was exhausting.
I wish I had realized what an amazing time that was in my life. I wish I had known that with age and time my family would change. I wish I had slowed down. I wish I would have allowed myself to enjoy each step just a little bit more.
If I could go back and impart some wisdom to my 28-year-old self, I think I would say, ‘Slow down, live in the moment, and don’t sweat the small stuff.’ Since I can’t go back, I guess I will just tell myself that now, as some advice always rings true.”