I took my older two kids to the pool not that long ago. After a bit of swimming we took a break and sat in the grass with our friends. Watching our children absorb themselves in the business of eating hotdogs (without dripping TOO much ketchup onto the towels they sat on) my friend said, “When did WE become the adults? Didn’t our parents have it so much more together than we did? How are WE in charge?”
A baffling question, really.
Now, WE kiss the boo-boos. Now we keep a watchful eye on our little swimmers. We cover our babies with sunscreen and make sure they eat their vegetables. We buy them clothes that fit, read them books at night, kiss their foreheads and tuck them into bed. And when our children lay their heads down, they fall asleep with the firm belief that the world of the adult (downstairs where they hear muffled voices, running water and clinking dishes) is entirely separate from their own existence–they believe that at the bottom of the stairs lies a secret club with a password, and that someday, when they are old enough, they will be able to join.
How do I know this? I know because I remember. My room, in the dark, with my baby blanket clutched safely in my arms, was the kingdom of the child. It was the world where fairytales were real, and the place where I listened with keen ears for reindeer hooves. It was the spot where I set up every single My Little Pony in the house in a tidy line and kept them there for weeks, truly believing they could hear me when I spoke to them.
As my mother kissed me goodnight and left my room, she walked across the threshold back into the world of the grownup, casting her shadow behind her. As I heard my parents’ voices in the kitchen and gazed at the slant of light coming through the door that was always left ajar, I did so with the belief that my world was the kid world and their world was the adult world and that we were not the same.
But one day led to the next. I graduated high school. And then college. Then I was working, then I was in school. Then I got married.
And then, rather suddenly to me, my children were born.
One day I was pregnant and expecting my first baby and the next day she was born. And there was no doorway. No secret password. No initiation. No magic cap and tassel.
I looked at this squawking, pink, helpless thing and thought, OK. I could use that password right about now. See, I was headed toward grownupdom but I must have missed the exit.
And the days continued on. One day my daughter was in diapers, and the next she wasn’t. One day she was a preschooler and the next a kindergartner. One day I had one kid, and then two. And then one day I had three kids.
And the days continued on.
And now we pay the mortgage and put food on the table. We keep the house clean(ish) and take out the trash. We pay the bills and fill out the important forms. We rock babies to sleep, check on feverish children in the middle of the night, pressing our cool hands to their hot foreheads. We hold hands crossing the street, buy ice cream on hot days, we play at the park and then mindfully and carefully strap our children into their seats each time we get in the car.
The load our parents carried for us, we now carry for our children. That, in our estimation, should make us grown up. And yet every single one of us secretly wonders when it happened, how it happened. What line did we cross that determined that we are now adults?
For most of us, our insides are the same. The things that moved us then move us now. The events that happened then (that we remember) have shaped the people we have become.
I can still see the slant of light across my pink bedroom carpet, the silhouette of my mother leaving after she kissed me goodnight. I can feel my baby blanket against my cheek and look out my window and see the birch tree that lived in our yard. I can hear the clink of dishes and the swoosh of the running faucet. I can make out the conversation of my parents at the end of the day. I can picture the route I took at night to the bathroom, or to my parents room when I was scared. I can see it as clear as day.
And the longer I live, the more I realize that I am absolutely no different than the child who sleeps at the top of our stairs.
And I realize now that I became the adult when I stopped looking for the line to cross. I became the adult when I realized there was no way to mark the journey or map the course–that there is no secret code or password. I became the adult by remembering the child in myself and seeing the adult in my child. We become grownups when we acknowledge what has always been there, what has always been true: we are all the same. There is no magic code of conduct, no finish line, no graduation. We are just on the continuum of life. Perhaps the day I realized there’s no such thing as a grownup is the day I grew up.