Fall in a college town. The air is energized and swirling. The streets are packed with cars, bikes and pedestrians all trying to get where they need to go and coexist. Target and Publix are bursting at the seams. And I am smiling. I ask myself, “Why am I smiling when the calm of summer in a college town is being replaced with chaos, noise and (worst of all) traffic?” But then I see a young man buying cereal, Doritos, and a bar of soap at the grocery store with an air of self-assurance that only comes from the freedom of making decisions without anyone looking over his shoulder. I watch a father load a rug and table lamp into the back of his SUV with his excited 18-year-old daughter eager to set up her new home. I hear friendships forming and connections being made when I am walking on campus as students talk about their old lives and new lives intertwined in their conversations. That’s why I am smiling. I remember those days, and I hold them tightly in my memory.
Along with my nostalgia comes a question I have been asking myself quite often these days.
When did I grow up?
It’s tough to say. As a little girl, the epitome of being a grown-up was being able to buy candy whenever you want. At different points in my life, I have said to myself, “Huh. So this is what grown-up feels like.” But then, undoubtedly, I would soon after experience something else that would cause me to feel childlike and unprepared for real adulthood.
When I was in high school, I pretended to be grown-up. I wanted to be independent and free, making my own choices and not answering to anyone. Then I would lock my keys in my car while it is still running in the parking lot of my part-time job and have to call my parents. I wanted so badly to be mature and older than my station in life, yet my mom still woke me up for school every morning and packed me a lunch with a note until I graduated. I made dumb decisions that, at the time, seemed totally appropriate, but now seem completely insane. I thought I was so big. I felt invincible. I believed I really was grown-up.
Then I went away to college. All of my big, bad “I can take care of myself” attitude went out the window as soon as my family drove off and left me alone at my dorm. I was scared, and I had changed my mind. I didn’t want to be grown-up anymore. I clung to the few people I knew from home and counted down the days until I could go back for a visit. Over time, I regained some confidence and began enjoying my freedom. I explored my new surroundings, filled my mini fridge with a combination of healthy and not-so-healthy foods, learned how to get up every day without my mom’s rendition of “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory”, and even got my belly button pierced because I could. I remember sitting in the chair at BodyTech thinking, “Well, I guess I really am an adult.”
At some point, the grown-up moments started occurring more frequently, and the moments of faking it happened less and less. But I still have those moments where I feel overwhelmed and unready. Moments when I want someone else to make the decisions or relieve the pressure or tell me everything will be okay. Does that mean I am not really grown-up? Or does recognizing my limitations and seeking help actually make me more grown-up? Maybe permission is what it really comes down to. As children, we want to know that we are allowed to grow up, and as adults, we want to be reminded that we don’t have to always feel or even act grown-up.
As I observe the young students embarking on this new adventure of independence and adulthood, I feel like Wendy telling Peter Pan that she can’t go back with him to Neverland anymore because she is all grown up. But I realize that it’s not about going back. It’s about continuing to experience change and uncertainty and new levels of being grown-up with courage and excitement. It’s accepting that, as grown-up as I may feel, I still want permission to be scared and to need help and support. I want to remember that being a grown-up doesn’t mean I am alone. But being grown-up does mean that I can splurge on a candy bar at the grocery store just because I can.
What were the symbolic moments in your life that felt very grown-up?