Adulthood: Mourning the Past
Cross posted from We Got So Far To Go
I’ve been having a lot of ennui about being an adult lately. This is not uncommon. Twenty somethings excel at ennui and not wanting to be adult. But there appears to be more to this ennui than simply being overwhelmed or not really wanting to take responsibility.
Accepting adulthood doesn’t just mean taking on new responsibilities and learning how to do practical things. All of those are difficult and stressful, but what might be the most difficult part about growing up is the changing relationships and the loss of the world that existed when you were a child. When you begin to take responsibility for yourself, it shifts every relationship you have been in with an adult it shifts how the world looks, it shifts what consequences look like and how you handle them.
One of the most difficult of these for me is relationships. I’ve had an extremely close relationship with my mother since I was young. When I was a kid, this meant that she took care of me, she protected me, she made the world an easier place for me while teaching me about all the awesome stuff I could do in it. She was amazing at making things happen that I deeply wanted to happen (e.g. going to that really cool summer camp).
Now that I’m an adult, that person that my mother was no longer exists. In childhood, parents can become a bit godlike. Sometimes they’re kind, benevolent, awesome gods (like my parents), and sometimes they’re shitty gods, but they do hold all the power in the relationship. Sometimes this means they can come across as faultless. No matter how you view your parents when you’re a child, you’re not seeing them as real, complex human beings (because that’s not the relationship parents and children have).
As you grow up and the power dynamics in your relationship even out, you see your parents in more and more realistic ways, as human beings with faults and fears. The god that protected you as a child dies. This hurts. A lot. It’s a little bit terrifying too. The relationship you had with the adults in your life will change drastically, and that is also scary and painful. You’ve replaced your parents with these new, odd people who are very much like your parents but suddenly can’t fix things for you and screw things up sometimes and have a history and want to do things other than cook you dinner.
This may sound very selfish, but at its root its about losing someone you love. Of course I still love my parents, but they’re not the people that I saw as a kid. I’m never going to get back the feeling of Mama Bear Who Will Fix All My Problems And Make Everything Ok. That’s a good thing, but I miss her. Part of growing up is mourning. Oddly though, we never talk about the fact that it’s a good and healthy thing to stop and feel sad for the things that are gone. Generally the attitude is “well you knew you had to grow up, everyone has to do it, move on”. That’s unhealthy and callous. Setting aside some time to feel sad that things have changed makes perfect sense and makes it easier to go on and do the difficult work of paying your bills and organizing your own damn vacations and building a new relationship with these people who are your parents.
There are other things to mourn though, and other places to notice that as your perspective changes, you may have to learn to be in relation to new things. A big part of this is consequences. As a kid, consequences are often arbitrary and usually limited by the adults around you: in all likelihood nothing you do will have the consequence of you ending up homeless, getting fired, going hungry (there are circumstances in which these things happen, but for the most part you aren’t going to cause them). As an adult, these things are possible, and your actions could cause them: you can get fired, you can lose your apartment, you can not have enough money for food! AH! Your relationship to the world has expanded into a much bigger and much scarier territory.
While it’s quite likely that you won’t end up making any of these huge mistakes and you probably know that, the fact that they now exist is something that’s scary and new. The world has changed in an irrevocable way. This is another thing that you get to mourn. Every couple of months if you need to, you can sit down and have a good old worry fest about the fact that it’s now up to you to make sure you have a roof over your head and food in your tummy and no deadly molds growing on your bathtub. And once you’ve felt that worry you can stand back up and remind yourself that you’re capable and not going to make any deadly mistakes, then go about your day.
The natural emotions that are part of growing up aren’t a bad thing, but for some reason it’s become normal and acceptable to tell young people that they should just get over it and ignore those emotions because hey, it’s just being an adult and everyone has to do it. Newsflash: there’s lots of things that everyone has to do that are unpleasant and terrifying and that deserve some time to respect that. A great example of this is that everyone’s parents dies and it’s absolutely understood that you get time to grieve. Similarly, growing up is a time of flux and change and confusion. All of these come with natural emotions and it makes sense to feel those emotions.
Let’s stop with the shame and start accepting that a part of adulthood is mourning what you lost when you put childhood aside. Sometimes you do get to sigh deeply and miss having Mom tuck you into bed when you’re sick, or having long afternoons of playing outside in the dirt. You get to mourn the things you miss, and hopefully you can figure out how to reincorporate some of those things into your life in appropriate, adult ways.