I am an adult. I have kids, a job. I pay bills and do laundry and sign permission forms. If the hot water heater is broken, I have to call the plumber, buy a new one. If there are mice in the house (and ugh, there are indeed mice in my house) I have to figure out where they are coming from and kill the bastards. If a kid breaks her finger, I am the one that has to take her to the hospital for X-rays.
But there are also advantages: I can sit for hours in a restaurant finishing bottles of wine with my friends. I can choose to buy that crap rotisserie chicken at the grocery store instead of actually making dinner. I can spend my hard-earned money on whatever I please (ok. That’s not exactly true. I can spend it on whatever I please if there is anything left after food and bills and kids’ expenses. But still. It’s my money).
In short, I make my own decisions. Am responsible for my own actions. I have kept two other people alive for 17 years now. I am an adult.
But in my head, I still feel like a teenager. I look at all those indisputable facts that I have just written down and feel, well, bewildered. Who thought it was a good idea to allow me to have kids? How can anyone think I am responsible enough for all this crap? How did people get fooled into thinking that I know what I am doing? That I know who I am?
Mostly, I feel like an imposter in the world of adulthood.
It is not growing up that is the myth so much as the idea that it happens and then stops; that there is a point in your life where you stop growing up, stop maturing, where you can actually say, “Ok. I am here now. I have arrived. I am now a Grown Up.”
There are certain times in our life where we seem to do more growing than others. The coming of age ceremony for teenagers, is a nice example. The idea that they are shedding the old skin of childhood and beginning to grow a new skin of adulthood is a meaningful rite of passage. Another shedding of an old self for a new one happens when you have children.
I remember when my kids were very young, I went through one of these moments. At the time, it felt like depression. I was at home with two small people who needed me more than anybody has ever needed me. I did not see many adults. I did not have time for the things that have always brought me solace- reading, writing, thinking about the world. I had to accept that it was not all about me anymore, that my wishes were secondary to these small people who I loved with all my heart but demanded so much of my body and soul.
The shedding of the person I was before children was hard and painful. It required me to acknowledge that my actions mattered, that they now affected other people, not only myself. The growing of the new skin of motherhood is complicated and nuanced and did not come easy. I balked at their incessant needs. By the end of the day, I could not stand having anyone else touch me. Mostly I wanted to retreat into my old skin where I was alone and what I did had no repercussions.
That’s the thing about skin shedding- once shed, you can’t crawl back in. So I learned what it was to matter. I learned how to accept that it was not all about my needs. I learned that I was the one running the ship and if it foundered, it was my fault. Constant vigilance was needed. A steady hand on the tiller. Instead of getting angry about it, instead of feeling sorry for myself and letting myself feel overwhelmed (which there was a lot of, trust me), I accepted it. I changed what I could, tore off my old skin and embraced the new one.
But that is only one shedding in a lifetime of sheddings. And sometimes old skin lingers underneath the new, causing huge metaphysical lumps in our psyche. These lumps get bigger and bigger until we can’t ignore them anymore. The only thing for it is to slice through all the layers, find the lump and laser it away with our attention.
Yes. I was responsible for these two people. But underneath the old skin my old default pattern of thinking, the old feeling of not being worthy began lumping up underneath my new skin. The old pattern of thinking made me value everyone’s needs higher than my own until they were so buried, I couldn’t even tell you what they are anymore.
Growing up is an ebb and flow. We accumulate behaviours and patterns necessary for the moment; in short, we do what we have to do to get through. Then all of a sudden, the reasons behind those patterns are gone. Our children no longer need us in the same way. We ourselves have grown and do not need to cling to the familiar survival guide we’ve written for ourselves. We are left with a set of tools that were painstakingly collected but now useless.
Then comes the painful process of turning ourselves out of our own skin. We are simultaneously caterpillar and butterfly, a constant tension between clinging solid and heavy to a branch and sloughing off the cocoon and flying away.
While writing this, I had two very different quotes in mind. The first, because I come from good Catholic stock, is from Corinthians 13. I was originally thinking of the, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” But when I looked it up found that the whole paragraph was may more relevant than I could have imagined:
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
(taken from New International Version)
“For we know in part and we prophecy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.” From my middle-aged vantage point of a failed marriage, two almost grown kids, and the loss of another father, I look back at my young self and can’t help but grieve for her.
I tried my best to encapsulate what it was to be a grown up- I took responsibility. I got things done. I cared for those around me. I approached my life as a series of shoulds. But I forgot – no – I am pretty sure I never knew – that growing up is not only about duty and responsibility, but about knowing yourself. I was too busy running around trying to make other people happy, to make sure my family had what they needed to give myself a second glance. This is in part my personality (I want to fix things when they are broken even if they can’t, shouldn’t or it isn’t up to me to fix) , but it is in part a societal, gender thing, where women are taught that they are the emotional centers of their family, and if someone is unhappy, it must mean that we obviously fucked up.
I knew in part. Now I know a little more. I know that the business of making other people happy will make you bankrupt; it can’t be done. I know that my frenzy of activity was not efficient or productive but a way of running away from the voice inside my head that told me if I stopped, someone might see me and they will probably not like what they see, the voice that only got louder the more I ignored it.
This brings me to my second quote, this one from Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun, in her book aptly entitled, When Thing Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times:
“That’s the beginning of growing up. As long as we don’t want to be honest and kind with ourselves, then we are always going to be infants. When we begin just to try to accept ourselves, the ancient burden of self-importance lightens up considerably. Finally there’s room for genuine inquisitive-ness, and we find we have an appetite for what’s out there.”
I no longer want to go about this business of living seeing “only [my] reflection as in a mirror.” I want to see “face to face”, I want to “know fully, even as I am fully known.”
Time to confront the voices with honesty and kindness. To dig away at the cocoon made of old patterns and behaviours, accept them for the self-preservation technique they were and then let go of the branch and fly away. In short, it is time to practice some growing up.