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The first thing I ever knew about astrology was my own sun sign. The second thing I ever knew about astrology was transmitted to me as a piece of pop-culture knowledge in the year 2000, when I was 12 and the band No Doubt released the album Return of Saturn. I learned, from magazines and girls at school more sophisticated than I was, that Saturn return was a part of astrology, too. I didn’t entirely understand what it meant, only that Gwen Stefani had just experienced hers and it made her sad and confused about what she wanted from life. Was her rock-and-roll life still right for her, or did she want to settle down and have a baby? At age 12, it seemed terrifying that somewhere out in the sky, Saturn could change your whole life.
Like Mercury retrograde, Saturn return is one of the astrological events that looms largest in our cultural imagination. Most people understand, in basic terms, that it’s a period of change and difficult growth that hits in your late 20s. Last December, Saturn moved from Sagittarius into Capricorn, where it will stay until 2020. This means that if you were born when Saturn was last in Capricorn (from about February of 1988 to February of 1991), you’ve just entered your Saturn return. But what is it, really? And what will it do to you?
Just like Mercury isn’t the only planet that goes retrograde — to appear sometimes to move backward — Saturn isn’t the only planet that makes a return. It’s just the most notorious one. A “return” happens when any planet completes its entire circuit through the sky and returns to the same place it was at the time of your birth. All the planets do this, and so do the moon and the sun. Unlike retrogrades, which hit us all at the same time, if not in the same way, planetary returns are specific to your birth chart.
Returns mark the closing of one cycle and the start of another, but they aren’t all grand or momentous cycles. Some are smaller, more frequent and familiar. For example, Mercury — the innermost planet, closest to the sun — typically stays in each sign for one month or less, and only takes about one year to travel through all 12 signs. This means you’ll experience many Mercury returns over the course of your life, none of them necessarily a signal of any broad life change.
Saturn’s travels through the sky take longer, about 29 years to move through all 12 signs, meaning you can expect to experience a Saturn return once every 29 years or so. These returns mark beginnings and ends of major movements of your life, and most people experience up to three. The first one, around age 29, is typically understood to mark the move from youth into full adulthood. The second, in your late 50s, signals a move into middle age. The third, in your mid- to late-80s, marks the move into the wisdom of old age.
The effects of the return itself can typically be felt the entire time Saturn is in the same sign it was when you were born, usually a period of about two and a half years that will fall sometime between ages 27 and 30. During this period, you’ll be faced with challenges, and questions about the life you’re living and the life you want.
Saturn returns feel particularly demanding because of the nature of Saturn itself. It’s the planet of structure and duty, of limits and mortality. Even in normal times, its energy can feel rigorous and exacting. It isn’t malicious or bad, but it isn’t always easily borne, either.
During a return, Saturn’s energy can pull at you in an even more intense way than usual. It might ask you to know yourself in ways you haven’t so far. It might ask you to set limits for yourself. It might ask you to accept a new heaviness, a new maturity, a new sense of responsibility.
Saturn’s themes tend to sound unpleasant, or at least less fun than most of the other planets. While Venus, for example, famously rules love and money, and lucky Jupiter is the planet of goodwill and abundance, Saturn is sometimes talked about as though it’s the planetary incarnation of the police or the repressive state or a domineering dad. It’s easy to view Saturn as the planet of the status quo, and Saturn’s first return as the time to mark your entry into conventional adulthood by getting married or buying a house.
But this isn’t the only way to think about it. Part of the Saturn’s real gift is a rest from the constant drive in our world for endless positivity and constant wild exploration. Saturn’s energy can help you to grapple with feelings of doubt or exhaustion. When Saturn returns, it’s a time for making a commitment to the way you want to live and to the work you want to do, conventional or ambitious or strange.
Are there structures or boundaries you’re willing to accept, in this next part of your life? This is what your Saturn return can offer you: new clarity, new perspective, and a new steely strength as you move into a new cycle of life.