Pinterest is peppered with quotes about “finding yourself,” and they’re almost all layered over images of winding paths through nature, or a foreign city, or a road map. Quiet solitary introspection. And if Pinterest is an insight into the hearts, thoughts, and kitchens of the world (which, obviously), then the world has one graphically beautiful message for 20-somethings: FIND YOURSELF.
It’s good advice, considering the 20-something years have incredible potential for self-growth and transformation. We’re stepping into adulthood, contemplating our ideologies and character, taking on responsibility and learning hard lessons. Our prefrontal cortexes are, famously, continuing to develop into a more mature, adult brain that can make more rational, adult decisions. But it’s not as though “finding yourself” is a switch flipping, or a neuron sparking — but rather a way of reconciling the person you want to be with the person you’ve always been.
It’s growing into you.
But does it have to be in the woods or halfway across the world?
I can’t say how or when I would have “found myself,” had I taken a more expected route through young adulthood — a route that weaved me across continents, in and out of relationships. I certainly never expected to start this transformative life stage as I did — pregnant at 21 years old with a freshly printed college degree, and absolutely no inkling of what next year, next month, would look like.
You see, I wasn’t the “type of girl” who gets pregnant at a young age; I had dreams to conquer. I was living in the epicenter of ambition — New York City — interning for magazine editors who literally slept at their desks at night. I prided myself on a flawless GPA and a solid 10-year plan — on the “You’re going places, kid” attitude that was thrown my way since elementary school.
How could I become the person I wanted to be — the person I expected to be — when my entire life plan was just snatched from my hands and scattered into the air like an exuberant toddler who wants his mom’s attention? Oh God, I was going to own a toddler. It was all too soon. How could I dedicate my days and nights to a new job with the demands of not only motherhood, but of pregnancy? I was going into entry-level job interviews hiding a bulge in my middle — secretly concerned about maternity leave and the embarrassment of being the knocked-up new girl.
And what about my relationship? Despite our love-struck, wine-fueled musings of future children in a future life, we didn’t expect this sudden smack of reality. Does a young relationship ever last? Ralph Waldo Emerson told me, “We must be our own before we can be another’s,” and I believed him.
I believed I needed to find myself before marriage or motherhood, not only because everyone told me that, but because it made sense. The nagging, society-conditioned voice in my head kept questioning whether I could ever truly grow into a well-adjusted, self-assured woman without those precious “finding yourself” years.
Six years, one marriage certificate, and a heaping pile of life lessons later, and I finally realize that there isn’t one blueprint for “finding yourself.” (Pinterest images, be damned.)
Yet being a young 20-something mom is certainly an underrated outlet.
What I didn’t understand back in my early 20s, holding a positive pregnancy test, is that we are not defined by our situations or stereotypes. That there is no path to self-discovery, and it’s all just a collection of our experiences and struggles — which is individual and nuanced.
I didn’t understand how transformative it is to see yourself through the lens of a new life — an introspective lens that magnifies our character. After having my son, I felt an urgency to grow up, to mature, because (unlike the typical 20-something) I had a little person looking to me as a life guide. I couldn’t predict the life-changing experience of sitting front row to our species’ growth and development, of loving something so fiercely, of sharing my body with another living being.
My perspective and priorities shifted into alignment, despite the noisy and ordinary setting.
And as far as my relationship, I didn’t understand how beautiful it can be to grow up alongside someone who watched my evolution and held my hand throughout the process. Who helped me find myself and be my own.
That being said, it’s not without its challenges. To claim otherwise would be disingenuous. Starting a family in your 20s comes with its unique challenges as a young mother and a young wife, but that’s the case with any life choice.
Here’s the thing: We can find ourselves in a multitude of ways, spanning decades and lifetimes. We can find ourselves through struggles and dark moments. Streaks of clarity and motivation to change can come from unexpected places in unexpected ways.
Including, apparently, an unexpected pregnancy and an unexpected life.
I didn’t know that it was possible to grow up through motherhood. But it is.
So to all of you younger parents: Ignore the (well-meaning) voices of criticism and warning. As long as you’re mindful and deliberate, it is possible to find yourself as much in a rocking chair as you would a hostel.
We just have different ways of getting to the same place.