Extended Adolescence: An Adult Child Stares Down 30... And Blinks
"Now when I was a young boy, at the age of five
My mother said I was, gonna be the greatest man alive
But now I'm a man, way past 21" - Muddy Waters ("Mannish Boy")
Whatever happened to turning 21 and feeling like - no, knowing that - you were an adult? When I was 21, I was struggling to make even an occasional appearance at afternoon classes, showing up late to deliver pizzas in the evening, and spending unhealthy portions of my free time playing disc golf. What's more, is that basically everyone my age that I knew was living out a similar existence. We were all just lazing around waiting for someone to rush us on a street corner and shake us into being mature humans.
This didn't happen, at least not to me, so not much has changed. I just kept right on avoiding responsibility for years. Now, five years after graduating from college, the last vestige of irresponsible security for our nation's aging youth, there's still this disorienting feeling that, even though I'm 29, I'm not really any closer to being an adult. And with my thirtieth birthday just eight months away, that's an extremely uncomfortable feeling.
The day after I had finally managed to graduate college, I woke up in the early afternoon surrounded by the familiar walls of my childhood bedroom. I rubbed my crusted, bloodshot eyes, stretched my limbs to their furthest point, wandered down the hallway into the bathroom, and violently vomited into the toilet. Afterwards, I lazily gargled some well water before stumbling down the half-spiral stairs of my parent's home, deeply inhaling the mouthwatering scent of thick bacon, sausage gravy and biscuits, and raspberry crepes - the potency of which blissfully increased with every slippered step I took in the direction of the kitchen.
I was heavily hungover, the previous night's cheap beer and even cheaper shots spewing forth like dragon's breath from every exposed pore. Near her electric stove stood my brilliant, compassionate, fearless mother holding a spatula in one hand and the handle of a griddle in the other, softly humming some since forgotten song by ELO or Jay Giles Band or Supertramp or some other vastly underrated rock band from the late '70s. If ever there was a welcomed sight for puffy eyes, I knew then (as I know now) that this was it.
By no means an enabler, but rather an over-indulgent woman stuck with a bratty, arrogant, confused child, my mother and I had our struggles during my teenage years (as most mothers and sons do during that hormonal free-for-all), but she had always been painfully honest with me about my mistakes and extremely supportive of my triumphs. She told it like it was - straight up, no chaser, if you will - but in no way did that preclude her from loving her youngest son unequivocally. Still, despite her best efforts, I was a slow learner and often found it difficult to get out of my own way.
But now I was 24-years old, comically underemployed with limited prospects, single with similarly limited prospects, heavily in debt, and prone to late morning Advil and Gatorade. In other words, I was in the same boat as millions of other young men my age, and together, we were unknowingly paddling a sinking sieve against a vicious current.
I sat down at the same dining table as I'd done thousands of times before and, with hands visibly shaking, ate the breakfast-turned-lunch that my mother had prepared for me. I'd graduated college, but I didn't know the first thing about life, only that I was hungry, that I didn't feel good, and that I felt safe in my mother's home eating my mother's food. Feeling a sudden sense of trepidation at what I considered to be my recent induction into the adult world, I asked my mother when it was that she knew that she was an adult. Her response was both surprising and terrifying.
"To tell you the truth, Kyle," she said, "I don't feel any different than I did when I was a little girl. I'm more experienced, more educated, and I have more responsibilities, but there was never a day that I woke up and thought 'This is it. I'm a grown up now.' Life isn't something you graduate from; it's something that you work at every single day. By the time I was your age, I had three children, worked full-time in addition to going to school, and I was on the brink of divorce. I didn't have the time or the luxury to consider my own maturation. There are still days when I feel scared, or lonely, or confused, but being an adult means confronting those things that you're uncomfortable with whether you want to or not. It means not surrendering to your fears and insecurities. Ever since I started doing that, things have gone remarkably well for me. Every single decision we make in life has some sort of effect. Recognizing that fact is what separates an adult from a child."
Since that hungover brunch, there have been a series of shitty jobs, one shitty girlfriend, one amazing girlfriend, another degree, and a few more hangovers. I share my life with an amazing woman, I mow my own lawn, and I pay my bills on time. So why do I still feel like a child? I'm not at all the same person that I was. Maybe I'm a little better here (as evidenced by my declining car insurance), a little worse there (as evidenced by my declining jump shot), but I'm definitely different. In no way am I suggesting that this difference has brought me any closer to adulthood, emotionally or mentally - far from it! I'm a pretty confident individual, but internally, there's nothing screaming grownup.
An abridged list of things that I either don't know how to do properly or have never done in the first place:
- Replace a flat tire
- Process my feelings
- Sew a button on a jacket
- Keep score in a game of darts
- Change my own oil
- Ask for a raise
- Tie a double Windsor knot
- Carve a turkey
I'm not saying that having experience with, or mastery over, these things necessarily makes someone an adult, but they're things that I always figured someone would teach me how to do. Short of that, I assumed that, as I aged, many of these life skills would magically drift into my brain space through ethereal osmosis. They didn't.
But it's not just a lack of basic skills that leaves me feeling like a child, it's a sense that I don't know as much about life as previous generations of my family did. Maybe it's just a case of misplaced nostalgia, but it seems that past generations were just so much more confident, so much less apprehensive about the world. They recognized their talents, worked on their shortcomings, and didn't worry about the rest. There seemed to be a comfort level there that my generation is lacking.They got married young, had their kids out of the house by 50, and retired early. Yet, for many in my generation, marriage seems a ways off, and the thought of raising children is laughable. Retirement? A fairytale. Everything just seems so... delayed.
According to a recent study in Australia, this makes sense. A survey conducted there determined that young people think of 30 as the new 21 and that attitudes about developmental maturity are drastically shifting. The expectations have been altered, which means there's still hope! Maybe I'm not delayed at all! Maybe I'm right on schedule!