“My Saturn return is killing me!”
Many of my twenty-something clients book their first astrology reading with some (maybe less hyperbolic) version of this mournful cry. Invariably, it turns out they are not only not in their Saturn return, but are months or years away from its start date. I stopped being surprised by this a long time ago. The stress, anxiety and (often) attitude-created misery seem to be hallmark of the pre-Saturn return period. Throw in the progressed lunar return at age 27, and the late twenties can be really tough.
For those uninitiated to the cult of Saturn return paranoia, or new to astrological cycles, the Saturn return is the period when Saturn’s 29.5 year orbit carries the planet around to the exact degree where it was at your birth. Depending on the speed Saturn is moving and the timing of retrogrades, the first exact return can occur anywhere between ages 28 and 31.* Later returns occur around ages 59 and 88, and have their own, more mature themes. More on these in a second.
Saturn is the planet of maturity, responsibility, commitment and duty. Saturn is not, if you’ll excuse the arbitrary gendering, a wild and crazy guy. Saturn’s idea of a good time is treating himself to a sheet of Star Trek stamps in order to mail in an early tax return.
If Saturn is calling the shots in your birth chart (in the 1st or 10th house, lots of planets in Capricorn, conjunct the sun, etc.) you might spend, or have spent, your twenties sacrificing fun for your obligations or ambitions. Your friends might think you have it together and your parents might be endlessly proud, but all that overachievement takes its toll. Your inner world may be airless or so tense that any tiny mistake is an all-hands-on-deck catastrophe. Being a Saturn-y twentysomething can make you hard to be around – especially for yourself.
Then, the Saturn return will be a breaking point, when you question what you worked so very hard for.
Marriages can fall apart, careers can be abandoned as worn-out responsibilities fail to offer opportunities to mature. As difficult as it is to let go, the Saturn return marks a chance to define your life on your own terms. Resilience takes the place of fear, helping the Saturnian perfectionist understand that true authority comes not from earning straight A’s but from what you learn from those F’s.
Most people (the ‘normal’, non-Saturnians), spend their twenties either screwing around or waiting for the real grown-ups to tell them what to do.
In cultures and families where getting married and having kids at seventeen is the norm, the young parents’ life decisions are shaped by the expectations and authority of the older generations. In wealthier, more modernized settings, the twenties can be a time of experimentation. Jobs, relationships and identities are tried on and traded out, and there’s often a sense of searching for the right path, the right city, the calling that will make our lives take shape.
What all these versions of twenties-ness have in common, is that we are depending on external structures—rules, traditions, parental expectations (and sometimes financial support) or our rebellion against all of the above—to define what can and can’t be achieved, what paths will or won’t be followed.
As we move through our twenties and transiting Saturn closes the distance to our natal Saturn, we feel pressure. The scolding voices in our heads, and those of friends, family, teachers, doctors, cops and all other authority figures, are chattering about the benchmarks we should be reaching and are failing to reach.
Career ambitions – and frustrations – are common, anxieties about money and debt and, for many women, the ever-present question of “so where are those babies at?” The punk rock among us and the lifestyle pleasure-seekers can find our friends dispersing, or turning unrecognizable – becoming people who only want to talk about their jobs, kids or causes. There is no one left to play with, or at any rate, no one our own age. Or the friends are there, but when they show up, it is, in a hard to put your finger way, just not the same. The impromptu dance parties, the spur-of-the-moment makeouts, the random drugs, the late-night, long-distance, soul-baring chats – all of it can feel a little empty. And in a way, the social experience is empty. Our attention has turned inward, to a quiet and private place, and the outside world has become (for the moment) distraction. Noise. Our growing is happening elsewhere. At least for now, our friends can’t keep us company.
The Saturn return is the climax of the twenties’ pressure, but also its release.
Around the 30th birthday, Saturn plods in to hand over adulthood’s reins. The return, approximately 10-months long, is a period of self-questioning and getting real with what we want in life. And what is possible for us. All our choices up to this point come up for review. We accept what we cannot change. That’s not easy but Saturn has gifted us with patience. We can sit with our questions and wait until the decisions come clear.
Sometimes this can be a pessimistic period (Saturn only drinks from half-empty glasses). Even if you’re not indecisive by nature, a heavy Saturn transit like the return can produce teeth-gritting ambivalence and a questioning of all past decisions. But by the end of the 10-month Saturn return transit, we can accept the consequences of our choices and define for ourselves what should come next. The harvest of the Saturn return work is a willingness (as much as our personalities will allow) to buckle down and get ‘er done.
It’s not so much that the pressure is off. It’s that we understand that being a grown-up is mostly a matter of crossing items off a list. Tedious, maybe, but manageable. And therefore, for most of us, a relief.
The later Saturn returns also mark stages of development.
The second Saturn return, like the first, is a time to get realistic and make some tough decisions. Typically, people go through divorces, retirements, career changes, realize their kids have grown up, deal with age-related health issues or find they have to figure out money for their old age.
Even so, the second Saturn return tends to feel like a relief, a time of necessary endings. The end of the scrambling of adulthood, and welcome entry into elder status, which often just looks like a more secure and stable sense of self.
The third Saturn return, if you live to see it, is time to look back on life, appreciate what you’ve accomplished and reckon with the places you missed the mark or came up short of your own standards.
You can have a seriously screwed up Saturn return. It’s also possible to hate Saturn’s fun-suck-y visits, no matter how old you get.
(Depending on where the other planets are in relation to your natal chart, your Saturn return could coincide with another, messier transit, like one from Uranus, Neptune, or the planet of death and transformation, Pluto. In that case, Saturn will have to share the spotlight with a more powerful transit’s fireworks show.)
Deeply compassionate and interdependent types may have trouble reckoning with the self-sufficiency and solitude Saturn requires. The Saturn return, unfortunately, is not a time when others are likely to hold you up or give back the support you’ve given. One thing that helps, if you’re process-oriented, more spiritual than material, and would rather see life as a river than a series of hurdles, is to focus on what you are learning. For watery and Neptonian people (the opposite of the Saturnian perfectionist), a great gift of the Saturn return is a chance to re-see our childhood from your parents (and parental figures’) perspective. Coming into adulthood ourselves can mean greater empathy for the limitations of our adults. It turns out being grown doesn’t mean we have it together.
Other Saturn-ruled problems, like going to prison or getting sick, may have been barely or not at all within our power to prevent. In these situations, the Saturn return can be a bitter pill, seeming to take away our youth in one blow. How we mature under such difficult conditions may be more than anything a matter of attitude and outlook. Saturn is all about personal agency. That’s tough when it seems like life hasn’t given us a choice. But in every situation in which we find ourselves, we do have choices. Maybe not the ones we want, but they are there.
Ultimately, the Saturn return is about accepting the limitations life has given you and choosing how you want to behave within them.
Claiming that limited agency, that realistic amount of choice, is what adulthood, for better or worse, is all about.
In letting go of our illusions and more extreme fantasies, we gain the comfort of having our feet on solid ground. Things may not be as magical as we had hoped but neither are they as overwhelming as we feared. Saturn says, we can handle this and, amazingly, we do. We move forward into our thirties with clearer vision and greater patience, ready to meet life where it’s at.
*Some astrologers measure a transit’s beginning as the moment the transiting planet enters a sign. Using this method, someone who is 27 might consider themselves to be experiencing their Saturn return. I do not use this method because I find it too general (a Pluto transit by this kind of calculation could last for 30 years! Yikes!) and not especially accurate (if you were born with Saturn at zero degrees Aquarius, you can bet you’ll start feeling those heavy, serious Saturn return vibes while the planet is still in late Capricorn). That’s just me. Before a 27-year-old decides he MUST be in his Saturn return, though, I strongly encourage him to learn about the progressed lunar return, a similar, but way more emo, cycle that occurs at 27, 54, etc.
Images by Caleb Wood, Lodewijk Hertog, Emre Gencer and Marko Kovic via Unsplash.