I just got back from a four-day vacation with my young son who vomits in moving vehicles. During our trip the two of us travelled on planes, boats, streetcars, cabs, buses, carousels, vans, and trains. We stayed with friends who have two small children and a big dog, all of whom are awesome, but kids will be kids, and dogs will be dogs and there is only so much wine to go around. In order to go on the trip, I had to bring work with me, which I struggled to do late at night after everyone else was asleep. To catch our 6 a.m. flight home, I roused my five-year-old out of bed at 4:30 in the morning. Three hours after we landed, I found myself at the Board of Education to register my son for kindergarten -- an ordeal involving five separate proofs of residency and a very long line. Once that was done, I realized I had to pull an all-nighter to finish a project before I turned around the following morning to go to a conference. I'm writing this post on the train heading to that conference, eating a dinner of mushy bunny fruit snacks that I forgot to take out of my purse. This post is two days late. My work is still not done. I am texting with my husband who is going on a far more glamorous trip for his job tomorrow. All total, we'll be apart for twelve days. Our schedules are a mess, and I'm longing for my own bed.
Ten or 20 years ago this week would have sent me reeling, but remarkably, I'm not freaking out. I'm tired, and would rather be home, but I'm doing OK. I'm not proud that I lost a night's sleep, that I forgot to eat dinner, or that I'm away from my family. I have promised myself to be better about scheduling in the future. That being said, my stress level is actually pretty low and I think that has everything to do with age.
In addition to hot flashes, 40 brought me perspective. Situations that would have seemed impossibly difficult in my 20s and 30s aren't overwhelming. It's not that a lot of travel or a heavy workload aren't draining, but I finally understand that although life is tough, the rough spots are temporary. I know that chaotic weeks are often followed by calm, a nap can help fix the effects of a sleepless night, and my husband will come home. I've learned that tasks have to get done, so you just have to buckle down and do them -- the sooner, the better. Once you accumulate enough life experience, the ups and downs seem less like a roller coaster and more like rolling hills.
That being said, I've also come to realize that that stress is highly personal. Everyone has different triggers and tolerances. For instance, my husband can survive, and even thrive, on very little sleep. He can go weeks with less than 5 hours of sleep a night. I start to fray at the edges if I don't get my full eight hours. Neither my body nor my mind can handle it. I also don't do well with conflict, home renovations and I hate to drive. I can, however, handle errands, travel, noisy children in confined spaces, and a messy house. Understanding what stresses me out helps me avoid those situations or ask for help. This is why my husband always has to fight with the credit card company and do the bulk of the driving when we go on road trips. I, on the other hand, have attended close to 40 children's birthday parties. He thinks he's getting the better end of the deal, which is one of the reasons I married him.
Which leads me to one of the most important lessons I've learned in my "old" age. The best way to avoid stress is to surround yourself with loving and supportive people. Nothing else even comes close. There is a lot out there to struggle through. Jobs, aging, financial downturns, war and politics will always be around and will always be stressful. Stress comes with the good things, too -- a big vacation, a promotion, the birth of a child, a marriage, a long-awaited move to a new home. While seemingly positive, these challenges and changes bring their own tension and discomfort. We can't avoid stress anymore than we can stop breathing.
We can, however, make sure that the people who go on our journey with us make our lives easier, not more difficult. Life is short, and hard, and messy and there is no reason to keep people in our orbit who make it harder or messier or who ruin what little time we have here. I wish I had known that earlier. If I had, I would have walked away from the judgmental, the disloyal, the unsupportive, the inconsistent, the narcissistic, and the liars. I would have stopped the self-inflicted stress of allowing people in my life who were not interested in enriching it. I would have settled for nothing less than relationships built on mutual support, authenticity, vulnerability and loyalty because I would have understood that the people interested in that type of connection will stick with you through any ordeal. Those people will be the ones who catch you when you fall and buffer you from whatever life throws your way. Those people are the people you take your five-year old across the country to visit and who you get up at 4:30 in the morning to come home to. When it comes to reducing stress, they are better than Valium, therapy, exercise, meditation, yoga, or a stiff drink and you can get them without a prescription, spending money or breaking a sweat. And that, my 40-year-old self thinks, is pretty amazing.