Years ago when I taught child birth education classes one of the last things I urged my young moms and dads to do was to be present in the process. I told them I knew there were days that being pregnant frankly sucked – and that there were days the only positive or joyful thing about what was happening to their bodies, hormones, emotions, relationships was that in the end they would have a baby. A daughter. A son. A child of their own. I asked them to soak up all 40 weeks of being pregnant because in reality – this was the only time our babies are growing toward us. From the moment they are born the search for independence – at first looking to find the basic knowledge of moving their own fingers and toes at will, to learn to suckle and feed, to learn to sleep and soothe themselves – begins.
Inevitably, my mommas would cry. Sometimes the dads, too. So excited they were to bring this baby into the world and here I was casting a light of bittersweet nostalgia on the child who had not yet been born! But the truth is, from the moment we take our first breath, independence is what we seek. It’s no different for our children and will be the same for our children’s children. It’s what we want. It’s what the end game is. It’s exciting and terrifying and yep, it’s also a little bit sad. It’s lovely to be needed.
And in the blink of an eye — they turn 18. Eighteen. The age of independence, of adulthood. For some, eighteen is the line they cross that finalizes their adulthood. For most, at least most of the adults I know, it was somewhere in the middle of a slow dawning … with the added legal responsibilities of an adult.
My boys had The Most Fantastic Kindergarten Teacher There Ever Was. Mrs. Hansbarger. She is a champion of children, of play, of music, of creativity, of wonder, of kindness and of education. She was as impactful to me as a mother as she was to my boys (and my husband – she was his K teacher, too!) in her classroom. When Cooper was in preschool she gave a small talk in her kindergarten room to preview the next year – to let the kiddos and parents know what “kindergarten preparedness” looked like. To show us what Big Boy School would feel like – for my son and for me.
My biggest take away? “This is not a race.”
Of course it’s not, I thought. But … the truth was … it felt like a race. I felt like he had to know all his numbers and letters and colors and how to tie his shoes and never speak out of turn and follow all directions and raise his hand and if he didn’t then he wasn’t ready. We weren’t ready. And I would have failed at getting him ready.
If Mrs. Hansbarger told me once, she’s told me a thousand times … “When a child turns one it doesn’t mean they stand up and walk. Some may walk earlier. Some may walk later. Why we assume bench marks in a classroom based on age is just beyond me. It’s crazy!” (Obviously there are issues that can be identified when certain milestones are not met and I am not debating that and neither was she. In fact, she was perhaps the biggest champion of finding those challenges and addressing them as early as possible.) When she looked at a child she saw the child as a whole, as a developing, fluid, growing, changing human being. She inspired me to allow my boys to lead the charge – to follow their interests and to encourage play, wonder, experience, excitement and a love of learning and life. Or at least try to.
And then came eighteen.
Eighteen. When they are supposed to be adults. The problem? Being an “adult” is as ambiguous as “kindergarten preparedness”. And although at midnight of their eighteenth year they are granted certain legal adult privileges and responsibilities – it no more makes them developmentally ready to handle those as the first day of school makes them ready to read. Turning eighteen does not prepare them to be an adult anymore than watching all nine season of The Office prepares them to work in … an office. The pressure to have my son’s be a completed, finished product at eighteen feels real to me, and I know it does to them, too.
Becoming. It’s one of my favorite words. Becoming … gives rise to images of a butterfly in its chrysalis or a field of corn in July. It means “I’m getting there”. If I’m honest, I am still becoming … a better wife, a better momma, a better sister and daughter and aunt and friend. I’m still becoming a better version of who I really am, who I am meant to be and of a person who will serve the world and the greater good in a way that serves my passion and a need of those around me.
Becoming an adult is perhaps the hardest transition in life. I mean, who enjoyed puberty? Who enjoyed the listless limbo that comes with the question, “what will I do the rest of my life?” I was talking with one of my favorite young adults yesterday and when I said, “You don’t have to choose what you want to be at 50 today. You just have to choose where to start.” She smiled and said, “I never thought of it that way.” Because we spend so much time focusing on being sure our kids are adults we forget that they are … becoming. They are becoming adults … ish. 😉
If you parent young adults you have heard, “I am an adult.” as a rebuttal to a rule, consequence, demand, suggestion, restriction, or line you have drawn in the sand. If you haven’t heard it — you weren’t listening close enough. They said it. Under their breath or when your back was turned or texted it in a group chat to which it was responded with solidarity from other 18-year old adults.
My response to this statement ever. single. time. is this, “Being eighteen does not actually make you an adult …”
Getting up on your own for work/school/responsibilities makes you an adult.
Having responsibilities makes you an adult.
Paying your own cell phone, insurance, rent, gas, food, car, utilities, wifi and oh yeah … netflix makes you an adult.
Doing your own laundry, cleaning up your room, doing your own grocery shopping and making your own doctor’s appointments (and remembering to go to them) makes you an adult.
Going to bed on a Tuesday night before 1 am because you have to work tomorrow makes you an adult.
Having your own apartment, house, condo, tent makes you an adult.
Do you know what else makes you an adult?
Taking the time to think about someone else’s point of view before insisting yours is right.
Allowing for a difference in opinion.
Setting goals and finding ways to achieve them … and finding the grit and resilience to reach them.
Tenacity to get up when you don’t reach those goals.
Setting boundaries for your self, your friends, your partner and honoring them.
Thinking about other people’s feelings before your own.
Understanding that life is not fair.
Doing shit you don’t want to do because, well you have to do shit you don’t want to do when you are an adult.
Playing as hard as you work.
Working as hard as you play.
Doing the right thing, even when the right thing is the hard thing.
Doing hard things.
Asking for help when you don’t know the answer.
Knowing how to not just admit you were wrong, but knowing how to be wrong.
Knowing how to say you’re sorry.
Knowing that you don’t actually know everything.
The list could go on forever … and I suppose each person’s “list” of what makes an adult would be a bit different. In actuality, there are days that I can’t even check everything off my “adulting” list. Because I am becoming. And so are my boys.
My path through late adolescents and early adulthood included college at two different universities with three different enrollment dates and five different majors. I dropped out of college, ran away with the circus and skated for Disney on Ice. I worked seven different jobs and most days was flying by the seat of my pants. I was becoming.
My boys are becoming too. And as long as they are making (mostly) forward progress, as long as they are learning from their mistakes and working to be better humans and maybe if they put their own dishes in the dishwasher it will be okay. Be present in the process. The brilliant part about a slow dawning, of becoming an adult not over night but over time, is that the victories are small and daily. Pride can be visited in small doses: the first day of their first job, the first time they drive away on their own, their first dorm/apartment/house, when they do the right thing even when its hard. The beauty is in the process and the journey, the struggle – not in the time table.
Becoming. Never stop.