From crawling, walking and babbling to the angst and rebellion of the tween and teen years, children go through a predictable set of developmental stages. But stages aren’t just a kid thing. They’re lifelong and guess what? You’re in one now.
In fact, every decade poses its own predictable set of “normative tasks,” says Diane Finley, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Maryland, and spokesperson for the American Psychological Association. That’s psychology speak for adult milestones.
But this isn’t your mother’s straightforward life track. In the past, you got married and had all your kids by your late 20s, spent your 30s raising them, then began seeing them off to college by the time you hit your 40s, which paved the way for the “empty nest.”
Now, it’s more of a zigzag. You may be spending your 20s and 30s laying the groundwork for your career and not getting married and starting a family until your mid-30s and 40s or even later. That timing can shift your personal course of development and the life issues you’re dealing with. So can divorce, the fact that we’re living longer, and these current economic times. Women in their 40s forties who thought they were going to retire at 55, for example, may not be able to now because their 401K has taken a hit. So they may spend more time working and less time in retirement.
Whatever your situation, are you on track to living your life to the fullest? Take charge of your fate with this decade-by-decade guide to maximizing your personal sense of fulfillment.
Your 20s: The “Who am I?” Years
What’s happening now: Your 20s are a time of self-exploration, confidence- and skill-building as you learn how to exist in the work force and get answers to the central question: Who am I? This decade is most forgiving because you’re young and expectations among employers (and your parents) are lower, especially if you’re supporting yourself and therefore paying your own tab.
If you get married in your 20s and have kids right away, you’ll have less leeway to explore different aspects of your personality because your life won’t be just about you anymore. “Having children will alter your course of development,” says Finley. (The average age of first-time mothers in the U.S. is 25, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC). But whatever your priorities, whether they’re centered around career or family, that’s what you’ll spend your 20s developing.
Have a plan. Formulate a basic plan about what you’d like to accomplish personally and professionally and where you’d like to be at the end of the decade. But stay flexible. “So many people bum themselves out when they don’t live according to the timetable they’ve got in their head,” says Beth Erickson, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist in Minnetonka, Minnesota (www.drbetherickson.com). If, for example, you can’t work full-time and still spend time with your kids while they’re little like you thought you would, don’t panic or blame yourself (“What’s wrong with me?”).
“There’s a difference between having a basic plan and trying to control the universe to meet that plan,” Erickson says. Keep trying to accomplish your goals or feel free to change them along the way, and shift your timing, if necessary.
Go ahead, move about the cabin. Likewise, while you’re living your plan, feel free to deviate from it. Unless you’re firmly in the stay-at-home-parent camp, your 20s are perfect for trying out various jobs, so give yourself permission to test your boundaries. Lots of doors are wide open. “There will never be a better time to experiment with different life experiences and discover facets of your personality,” Erickson says.
In your 20s it’s okay to, say, quit your small-town accounting position to start your own business. If it doesn’t work out, don’t feel bad. “Lots of things we think of as mistakes in our 20s really aren’t. They’re just experiences and choices that didn’t fit us,” Erickson says. Give yourself points for trying and for the invaluable lessons you’ll learn about yourself along the way.
Seek support. If you get married and have kids in your 20s, “get emotional support from other moms-to-be,” says Shellie Fidell, MSW, LCSW, a psychotherapist in private practice at Women’s Healthcare Partnership, in St. Louis. Connecting with other moms online is a great way to get parenting tips, dissolve the isolation of taking care of a newborn and feel part of a like-minded community. Also, get a babysitter at least once a month so you can forge an identity as a couple. No matter what your age, “don’t make your kids the center of your life,” says Erickson. “It’s not good for you, your marriage or your children.”
30s: Get Ready for Multitasking Madness
What’s happening now: In your 30s, you know more who you are because you’ve got a whole decade of life experience under your belt and hopefully, some career questions answered. You’re hunkering down in a profession and feeling more sure of yourself. And if you’re marriage-minded, you’re likely to settle down now if you haven’t already. According to the CDC, the majority of men and women in the U.S. are married for the first time by age 35.
Tweak your plan. Doors are closing, but there’s still time to revise your career goals, like finally deciding to go to graduate school. “It’s okay to pick up any loose threads from your 20s and weave them into the larger tapestry of your life,” Erickson says. You may be older than most everyone else who is a beginner in your profession by the time you’re through though, but that’s more of a psychological hurdle than anything else, she says. If you still can’t commit to something, though, explore why. Your 30s are typically a settling down period personally and professionally.
Get ready for multi-tasking madness (or not). If you’re starting your family now, you have the added benefit of doing it after you’ve had the chance to develop yourself professionally. Your main challenge will be determining how to juggle it all in a way that feels right for you, whether you decide to work outside the home full-time, work virtually, or not juggle and become a stay-at-home mom. “If you need help figuring it all out, find a mommy mentor, someone who is your vision of an ideal mom, who you think has got it together in the ways you’d like to be together as a mom,” says Sarah Welch, the mom of two and the author of Pretty Neat: Get Organized and Let Go of Perfection.
What’s great about your 30s and motherhood is that since you’ve had time for yourself and accomplished some professional goals, you may be more psychologically ready for the responsibilities and sacrifices of parenthood. You’re also likely to know other new moms, so finding a support system shouldn’t be a problem. Your marriage is probably on solid footing since you’re older and more confident in yourself and in your relationship, points out Margaret Howard, Ph.D., a psychologist at Women and Infants’ Hospital in Providence.
40s: Primed for Achievement
What’s happening now: By your 40s, whether your children are toddlers, off to college or somewhere in between, you’ve got lots of life experience under your belt and hopefully a solid set of marketable skills. You’re also at your creative and productive peak, says Dorothy Singer, Ph.D., senior research scientist emeritus in the department of psychology at Yale University. So if there’s anything you’ve always wanted to do or overcome, whether it’s to switch careers, go back to school, or start your own business, now’s the time to pounce. “It’s your second wind, an opportunity to grow again,” says Singer.
Your creative and productive fervor is fueled by the fact that your parents, though they’re getting older, don’t necessarily need care yet. Still, it’s a reminder that you’re not going to live forever either, which can spur you on the urge to make a drastic shift by, say, moving from business to teaching or social work, or to volunteering in the community so you can make a more meaningful mark on the world.
Tune your attitude. Don’t let negative thinking such as “I’m too old for this” undermine your resolve to try new things. When you’re getting out of your comfort zone, you will be uncomfortable. Just get used to it and press on. What’s great about now is that if you make a mistake, it won’t feel devastating like it might have in your 20s. “We learn that we can overcome things as we get older and that we can make the best decisions for us, even if others disapprove,” Finley says.
Make friends of all ages. Having at least five friends you can confide in is as important to your health as eating right and exercising. “Good interpersonal relationships act as a buffer against stress,” says Micah Sadigh, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Cedar Crest College, in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “These friends should be people you can talk to without being judged, evaluated or criticized; somebody who will listen to you and provide support,” says Sadigh. Think of who you would call right now if you were in a crisis and needed help. “A lot of people have this huge list on their cell phone, but can name only one person,” says Sadigh. “Or, they say, ‘I would just talk to my dog. And that’s the truth because that’s the only ‘person’ who wouldn’t judge them.”
If you can’t come up with a list, make an effort to make new friends by taking a class, joining a professional group, or culling your life for acquaintances with good-friend potential. It’s ideal to have friends who are both older and younger than you. “Both can give you perspectives on the world you can learn from,” Singer says. If you’re just starting out as a mom and you don’t have many friends with small children, make friends with younger moms. “Motherhood is the great unifier,” Dr. Howard says. “When you’re with your baby in the park, age issues sort of melt away because babies are the focus.”
Continue to cast a wide net. If your life is centered around your kids or your work, expand it in other directions by developing a hobby or volunteering. “Your identity should never be wrapped up in one thing,” says Finley. Kids eventually grow up and, as we’ve seen from the economic downturn, jobs can evaporate. “Like your investment portfolio, make sure your life is diversified so that if one thing changes, and it eventually will, you won’t feel devastated,” she says.
No matter what your age or stage, consider yourself to be a continual work in progress. “It’s all about being courageous enough to face yourself and figure yourself out,” Erickson says.