Twenty-One: What I Want You to Know

Dear Zoe and Talia,

Bear with me here—this might be the longest birthday letter yet. As always, there’s a lot to say, much of which is probably repetition from the years before, but I’m pulling out the mom card here: I get to do this because I’ve earned the right.

(What does that really mean? I’ve always hated that phrase—I’ve earned it, sort of like I’ve done the time—and yet, I’m using it. Again, please bear with me.)

When I was planning on writing this post—THAT CELEBRATES YOUR TWENTY-FIRST BIRTHDAY!!—I stumbled across Fredrik Backman’s Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, which, according to the publisher “collects the personal dispatches from the front lines of one of the most daunting experiences any man can experience: fatherhood.”

I checked the book out of the library and promptly got lost in it. The dedication (to his mother, who taught him to love words) hit me hard (I’m sure you understand why), and the introduction (which serves as an apology for all that Backman did or will do as a parent) made me smile and nod (it completely resonated). But the book itself covers things in ways I wouldn’t necessarily think of.

Case in point? The first chapter, entitled, “What You Need to Know About Motion-Sensitive Lights,” is really a treatise on poop. Yes, poop. A topic of conversation in our house forever and always. Because one time (or maybe more), the motion-sensitive lights went out in the public restroom when Backman was changing a diaper, and that triggered a thought and then some (as evidenced by an entire chapter on it). His point in that section of the book is what I’m trying to get to: sometimes, there’s poop all over and it might be dark, but if you trust your instincts, you can still get out alive.

That’s motherhood, girls. Parenthood too, I guess. This whole time (and I said it before), I’ve been trusting my gut, making everything up as I went along, and hoping like hell I didn’t make mistakes. Why? Because you don’t know what you don’t know until you’re faced with it, and I’ve been faced with a ton of things I don’t know with you girls. It’s a little like trying to clean up poop you can’t see. You hold your breath, hope for the best, and tackle it head on.

But there’s hope for you because I’ve learned a lot.

And so I’ve made a list too, and in homage to Backman, I’m calling it “Things My Daughters Need to Know About the World.” It’s not exhaustive, but I hope it helps. (Please note that this list lacks parallelism. I did not have the energy to fix that this morning.)

  1. A phone, a charger, and an unmaxed credit card can go a very long way.
  2. Credit card debt is hard to get in front of, so don’t max that unmaxed card.
  3. A good chair makes all the difference.
  4. So does a good mattress.
  5. Many good people exist, so never be afraid to ask for help.
  6. Too much caffeine can cause the shakes; quit while you’re ahead.
  7. Dishwasher detergent is not the place to pinch pennies.
  8. Basic bleach doesn’t need to be brand name.
  9. Be positive about something until you’ve been given evidence to not be.
  10. A bag of sidewalk salt, a shovel, and an ice scraper can truly make your day.
  11. Furniture you don’t have to put together is nice, but it’s not necessary.
  12. A refrigerator with an ice maker is also nice but not necessary.
  13. A sense of peace exists in knowing you always have $500 in your checking account; if you can leave $1000 there, even better.
  14. The fine print often reveals a lot, so read it.
  15. The Nestle Toll House cookie recipe is really one of the best.
  16. Roasting vegetables makes them seem fancy but the process is so easy, and the vegetables are tasty.
  17. Keep Italian seasoning, garlic power, salt, and pepper (black and red) in your pantry; you can do almost anything with those.
  18. Always offer clean sheets and towels to your guests.
  19. When you have company coming over, wipe down your kitchen, bathrooms, and doorknobs (at the very least); be sure to check the outside of the toilet bowl (you’ll thank me later).
  20. Offer help when someone needs it.
  21. Offer help if you feel someone needs it.
  22. Aim for at least 10,000 steps a day; your heart and mind will thank you for it.
  23. Spaghetti sauce out of the jar is fine, but you can doctor it to make it better.
  24. Family can be both strange and wonderful at the same time.
  25. Many items come with manuals for a reason; at least open up the pages and glance at the details before jumping right in.
  26. It is a good idea to change your toothbrush every so often, especially after a cold.
  27. Toothbrushes can go in the dishwasher to sanitize them.
  28. Good bowel health is very important, so eat those roasted veggies (see #16).
  29. A different perspective can teach you a lot.
  30. Comfortable underwear is never underrated.
  31. Not everyone can communicate as effectively as we’d like; be patient with those still finding their feet.
  32. Poop can tell you a lot about your health, so pay attention to it.
  33. Nature often resets you; when in the midst of crisis, step outside and take a deep breath of air.
  34. YouTube really is your friend, especially when you need to change a tire or fix the sink.
  35. The IRS is not someone you want to piss off; do your taxes, always.
  36. Phones are wonderful (see #1), but do without yours from time to time; you’ll learn a lot about yourself.
  37. Cooking is easy if you’re willing to make mistakes.
  38. Anger can get in the way of making a rational decision, so step back and take a breath before you spout words you’re not sure of.
  39. Truly listening to someone can save a life.
  40. Plenty of experiences in life will have you taking a pause, and that’s okay.
  41. Fear can keep you from reaching your dreams; don’t let it.
  42. A good book and a hot beverage work wonders for the soul.
  43. Learning something new at any age is possible if you put the time into it.
  44. There will always be time for something you really want to do, so don’t convince yourself otherwise.
  45. Life is beautiful in so many ways, though sometimes its hard to see that beauty.
  46. Decent thread count sheets do make a difference.
  47. Focusing on one little positive each day can set you up for brilliance.
  48. Love can be wonderful, awful, scary, and exhilarating, but true love is worth the hassle.
  49. The world is a better place with you both in it.
  50. Hugs can’t always make everything better, but sometimes it’s worth it to try.
  51. Toaster ovens are more useful than most people realize.
  52. Dessert you don’t really like isn’t worth eating.
  53. Empathy is something you can develop over time.
  54. Saying thank you is an important part of life.
  55. Thinking before you act can save you.

Will this list be of use to you? I hope so, but I also hope you understand why I spent the time putting it together in the first place. That’s because I love you. Plain and simple, no frills needed. I love you. Both. For the people you are and the people you’re becoming. For Talia’s crooked smile that makes me thinks she’s hiding something and Zoe’s wide smile that says we caught her unawares. For your compassion and concern for the world around you and your love of animals, especially the cats! For everything and anything.

Last year, I wanted you to learn how to love yourself. This year, I still want that for you, but as you go into the world as true adults now (somehow, 21 seems to be more momentous to many than 18), I want you to continue to love yourself and continue to love others. Share who you are and don’t be afraid. Because at the end of the day, even if you find yourself in the dark with poop all over the place, you always have your gut instinct. And me. I’ll always try to steer you in the right direction.

Much love to you both on this momentous day.

Happy Birthday, Zoe and Talia.

Photo of birthday cake and lemonade by Elizabeth Zernetska at



Leave a Comment