It’s late afternoon on Thanksgiving Monday. I’m lying on a chaise longue on my mother’s back deck, a ratty old knitted blanket across my lap and a book that I am not reading in my hands. I am pretending to be a 19th-century invalid, recuperating from a non-specific ailment at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. I am breathing deeply, imagining that I am taking something called the fresh air cure. The sun is warm, its light buttery and yellow. I can hear my son laughing in the distance as my husband chases him around my mother’s small garden, and I pretend that he is a small Swiss child who lives in a nearby thatched cottage. I tell myself that he is amused by the antics of the goats he is herding. This is, I assume, what small, 19th-century Swiss mountain children do: live in picturesque cottages and laugh heartily as they herd their goats.
I am thirty one years old and I am still playing pretend.
Is this what grownups are supposed to do?
Ten years or so into my purported adulthood and I’m still not really sure how to be a grownup, or what that even means. As a kid, I thought that being an adult meant that you did whatever you wanted, although for some reason all of my grownup fantasies were oddly baking-specific. For instance, I imagined myself making cookies whenever I pleased, and thought about how I would be allowed to use the electric mixer without any help. I would, I told myself, be able to wear party dresses every day of my life. And while all of these facts are empirically true and have been true for over a decade, the ability to do these things is neither as satisfying as I thought they would be, nor do they make me feel especially like a grownup.
What does adulthood mean? What is it supposed to look like? As a kid, there seemed to be recognizable difference between adults and not-adults, but now that demarcation is becoming less and less clear. There also seem to be more stages on the way to adulthood than I’d first realized – I used to think that you were either a child or an adult, but now it turns out that, rather than being a binary, it’s more like an evolutionary process, from infant to toddler to preschooler to that nebulous age between when grade school starts and puberty begins to teenager to university student to young adult to – what? Just plain adult, I guess.
Except that I’m not really sure if I feel like an adult.
Mostly I just still feel like myself.
It probably doesn’t help that I don’t look so very different from my teenage self; sure, there are a few lines here and wrinkles there, but the basic structure is exactly the same. I dress the same way that I did as a teenager, too, or rather I dress the way that my teenage self would have had the funds been available. I don’t wear what I think of as grownup clothing: crisp white shirts, tailored suits, prim polyester dresses in black or grey or navy. I like the same things as I did when I was a teenager, more or less – reading, writing, watching painfully earnest indie movies, dressing up, acting out, telling bad jokes, sitting on people’s living room floors while drinking and playing board games. I still read Little Women when I’m feeling down and want literature that’s akin to comfort food. I still get that same funny ache at the end of Empire Records when everyone is dancing on the roof, just like I did when I was sixteen. I still put waaaay too much sugar in my coffee. When we drive past a cemetery or over a bridge, I still hold my breath.
I’m still me, and I can’t help having this weird sense of disappointment over not being the prettier, smarter, more capable creature that I thought growing up would turn me into.
Maybe part of the problem is that I’m no longer certain of what being an adult looks like. I used to think that there was a sort of set formula: you finished high school, went to university, started a career, fell in love, got married, bought a house, had kids, then watched your own kids repeat the same steps. But then I watched as this blueprint, which seemed to be the How-To guide accepted and promoted by family, teachers, guidance counsellors, and just about every movie or book that I’d ever seen or read, failed my parents and many of their peers. They hated their jobs. They hated each other. My father stopped being a lawyer, left my mother, and moved to the city where he lived in a bachelor apartment and worked as a bike courier. My mother was exhausted and miserable, trying to raise three kids by herself on a secretary’s salary – by the end of the day, once everyone was fed and bathed, once the homework was done and the dishes were clean and half a dozen petty arguments had been mediated, it was all she could do to sit in front of the television and fall asleep to the sound of the laugh track of some corny late-90s sitcom.
That wasn’t what I wanted for my life.
I didn’t know how else to move ahead, though, so I tried my hardest to follow that old How-To guide. As the end of high school approached, the adults in my life encouraged me to apply to universities. Or rather, there wasn’t even much encouragement – it was just assumed that this was what I would do, and any divergence from that plan seemed impossible. There didn’t seem to be any alternatives that my parents or guidance counsellors felt were acceptable. College, it was intimated, was for the not-so-bright, and with my critical thinking skills I belonged in an undergrad program somewhere. Getting a job was out of the question, unless I wanted to be stuck working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life. Even taking a year off to figure my shit out was frowned upon – I was too flighty, they said, and would almost certainly never go back to school if I left. So my mother scraped together the hundred or so dollars needed for the application process, and I filled out the forms, and it felt like we were doing the right thing.
And I don’t mean to make it sound like I didn’t want to go to university – I did, I swear I did. I just want to make it clear that it also felt like that was the only way that I had of moving forward with my life. And I was desperate for some way, any way, of moving forward.
The problem with university was that while everyone agreed that I belonged there, no one seemed certain how I was supposed to pay for it. The provincial loan system was Byzantine, the forms and online application difficult to navigate, and the resulting funding amount impossible to understand. For example, the government could refuse to give you a loan if your parents earned a certain amount per year, even if said parents were not helping you pay for your education. Lines of credit from the bank weren’t much better – I mean, they were fine, I guess, if you had someone to co-sign. I didn’t.
When I asked the grownups around me how I could possibly afford this education that was supposed to be so critical to my life, they gave these strange sort of blank stares and suggested that I get a summer job.
Because when they’d gone to post-secondary school, a summer job had been enough to pay a year’s tuition and then some. That was obviously no longer the case.
The good old How-To guide hadn’t anticipated changes like this.
I managed to finish two years of university on a combination of government student loans, kind student affairs workers and a healthy state of denial. By the end of that second year, though, my finances were so badly fucked up that there was no question of finishing my degree. Two steps in to my path to adulthood, and I was already failing the model. Or rather, the model was failing me.
I’ve spent the last ten years trying to figure out if and how I can make the old blueprints work for me. It’s true that I can check off a few things on the list – I did manage to fall in love once or twice, I am married, I do have a kid. On the flip side, I haven’t finished school, I’m not sure that I would call my hodge-podge of jobs a “career,” and I can’t imagine a time when I will ever be able to own a house. Even the things that I’ve managed to check off seem, upon closer examination, to grow a bit murkier. My marriage doesn’t necessarily always look like what I thought a marriage should be. I don’t spend as much time with my son as I could. I often worry that I’m a bad partner or a bad mother. I am slowly learning that marriage and motherhood aren’t so much accomplishments as they are a lifelong work in progress. I’m also learning that being a wife and mother aren’t necessarily fool-proof indicators of adulthood; it’s not as if some magic switch is flipped when you say “I do,” or in the moment that your child is first placed in your arms.
So where does that leave me?
It’s both freeing and terrifying to realize that the old formula for adulthood doesn’t apply to my life is both dizzyingly freeing and incredibly terrifying. On the one hand, in theory, my life gets to be whatever I want it to be. On the other hand, I have no fucking clue what I’m doing, and the potential for failure seems high. It’s like wandering in the forest without a map, or even a guide to the flora and fauna – this glade seems like a nice place to build my home, but what if it floods every year during the spring thaw? These berries look tasty, but what if they’re poisonous? Of course there’s always the possibility of a happy ending, but it seems to be equally probable that I will die alone, frozen to death, maybe, or else eaten by wolves.
Lately I’ve been looking hard at my friends’ lives, trying to pick and choose the things that I want to emulate. What’s funny is that it’s not the friends who have the most material successes, the ones with the best jobs or the nicest houses that I’m drawn to, but rather the ones who have certain traits and behaviours that I covet. I admire, for instance, my friend who makes difficult choices, who goes ahead and does things even when he’s afraid or thinks that something is impossible. I admire another friend who’s an expert at saying no. I want to be more like the friend who seems to have that extra split second to figure out if their emotional reaction to any given situation is warranted and appropriate. I want to be like the friend who seems effortlessly organized, who holds family meetings every week to figure out who will be where doing what when during the next seven days. I want to be the person who fights for their beliefs without being disrespectful or unnecessarily cruel to the people who don’t agree with me. I want to be measured, calm, and collected.
And I want to do all of this and still be able to get a little weepy over Empire Records.
What I’m realizing is that, while creating a guide to my own personal grownup life, the best place to start is with myself. I need to work harder to build the type of person that I’m happy with before extending my energy outward. I need put a dot in the middle of the map marked you are here and then radiate all other lines outward from that spot. When I write this all out, it sounds unbelievably selfish, but I also can’t think of any other way to make a guide that suits the kind of life I want to live; because before I make that guide, I have to figure out my own shit, which means answering all of the big questions like what the fuck do I want, and why am I even here, and where do I go next?
Maybe that’s the best way to be a grownup.