My Mum's Best Advice / by Steph Stepan

My mum is not a big giver of advice. She prefers to let me run amuck (thanks, Mum), but when she does weigh in I know it will always come back to this: Just be yourself.

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Growing up, my sister and I heard this over and over again. I would roll my eyes. Good one, Mum. It sounds nice, but what does it mean?

Now I wish mum had added in a postscript. Something like: P.S. It might sound silly but remember these words every day. Tattoo it onto yourself if need be, because it’s actually a lot harder than it seems.

It’s hard because there are pockets of yourself that don’t ever change, but are hard to hold onto when you transition from kid to adult life. 11-year-old me was actually not too dissimilar from 31-year-old me. She noticed every dog in the neighbourhood, liked to draw flowers and thought that somewhere in the world fairies must exist.

31-year-old me is a bit embarrassed about this. I think surely I should be a bit cooler than this. I want to be cooler than this.

But deep down, I’m a bit sad that it’s no longer socially acceptable to get your face painted and watch Babar. Checking your bank account and eating club sandwiches instead of fairy bread is, frankly, pretty boring.

Often I’m not aware of how sheepish I am until I’m out in the world in front of other adults. Earlier this year I shared a morning schedule with a guy in Amsterdam. He would turn up at 8am at my local cafe and pull out his Japanese text books. I would turn up, spread out my pencils and start drawing flowers and dogs. My instinct was to hide this. It felt so very silly. But the thing that gives me joy about it is this very fact: it is silly.

Mum also failed to mention that there are multiple versions of yourself that exist concurrently. They’ll pop out as needed and sometimes they’re not what you’d hoped to be. Professional me is pretty assertive these days (finally). Want me to write something? Sure. But what do you want? Why? Hold up now. Have you thought about it this way? I’m still surprised by her because 23-year-old me used to sit in meetings and have no idea what to say.

Then there’s scared shitless solo travel me. I wander around thinking, can you tell I have no idea where I’m meant to be?

I am envious of anyone who walks with purpose—although chances are they would prefer to be meandering me.

And I crave a community of people so badly that I get jealous when cab drivers honk in greeting to one another on the street. I want some peeps too. But most of the time I have no people on the ground. Shit.

The person I’d prefer not to be is me too, but she’s not my best self. She comes out in airport queues when I get questioned by security or when I’m so tired that my manners disappear.

Random airport drug test? I glare so hard that my sister has been known to move through airport security without me for fear of being associated. It’s like I’m five and have been accused of something I clearly did not do. And don’t get me started with customs officers who ask “So, why are you here?”.  It takes all my might not to lean forward and say, “Why are any of us here?”.

It’s also possible to try on a version of yourself before taking it on for keeps. Right now, I’m trying on Euro me. She wears head scarves, rides scooters and is considering getting a tattoo. She also sounds like a bit of a cliché

But I don’t know her so well yet, so things are a bit up in the air. The other day I walked into a little boutique in Portugal and made a beeline for a pink and blue head scarf. The lady in the shop showed me how to tie it around my head and I thought, huh, there’s Euro me! I’ll take it. I then sent a pic to a friend. Can I pull this off? Do I look ridiculous? I needed reassurance. It feels like me, but she’s new, so tell me what you see.

And try as I might, perhaps it's not all down to me. I’ll morph into a version of myself depending on the place I’m in. In a little beach town I can wander around in cheap cotton dresses and not feel self-conscious about the fact that I haven’t cut or coloured my hair in three months. When I turn up in a city it feels all wrong and I immediately want to polish up a bit. I’ll put away my cotton dresses and pull on my boots and jeans. I’ll feel like myself, until I go elsewhere and then I morph again. 

Anyway, Mum, I’m trying to follow your advice. I am. But being yourself is way harder than I ever thought it would be. I want the world to like me, even though I am not always likeable. And I keep flitting between this girl who draws flowers, a bossy pants writer and a pain in the ass in airport queues.

Still, you’re right. That saying about everyone else being taken is true, so this will just have to do.