I am now thirty-five, stacking up decades as casually as I stacked up weeks, as a child…. I have finished being truly young. There will be a holding period, a decade or so of stasis, and then the next thing that will happen is I will start to be old. That is what is happening next.
—Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman
A Doll’s House
I will probably always remember the day that I drove home from daycare with an eight-weeks-home baby, to a husband in a suit who’d just come home his first day at his new firm job. We were all tired and tense, but this new life of ours felt like playacting. I was playing the role of wife who gets the baby, he was playing the role of stressed out dad, but we all knew that only yesterday we’d all been our normal selves, at home with our tiny lump of baby watching Project Runway.
“Remember,” I told myself, “this is only playacting.” But plays end, and this did not.
In the many months that followed, I hung on to that thought. The trouble was, we weren’t pretending to fill roles, we were really filling them. The life we’d had together for eight years didn’t exactly resume. The billable hours and staff payroll stuck around, and there was noticeably less time for Project Runway. There were arguments, as we tried to negotiate how much of our identities we were going to give over to this new life. There was not enough sleep, minimal exercise, and probably a little too much whiskey. But there was also good stuff. Great stuff, even. Learning all the ways to love our child, and the new shape of our family. Growing by leaps and bounds in our careers. But the truth is, despite those shining moments, there was a lot of slogging along.
Over the past few years, David’s and my responsibilities have mounted. We’ve had a kid, but it’s hardly that simple. We also entered our thirties, and watched our careers take root—with the accompanying responsibility. Serious family illness and stressors accumulated. We were suddenly at least a third of a way through our working lives, and the generational math of no pensions and no social security became something we could no longer totally ignore. I’d love to tell you that we’ve handled this snowball of stress with charm and grace, but that is not even close to the case. Instead, we handled it by not going to the gym enough, and exploring the variety of ways you can fight with your partner.
I’m not sure what happened to end the awful period of struggle. We didn’t decide to become the new people—the stressed out lawyer father and the carpool driving mother. But we didn’t stay exactly the same either. We got more practiced at the responsibility, in the way you do when you’ve spent a year or two at any new job. We started sleeping through the night after almost a year and a half, and that helped more than we’d imagined. We fought with each other enough that we figured out how to fit together in a new way, again. And also, we just accepted our current version of adulthood, with all its shitty drawbacks, and all its lovely perks. Here it is, we realized, now let’s try to do something we’re proud of.
This Was Our Youth
For as long as I can remember, if I read about something someone was doing that seemed both amazing and unattainable, instead of getting jealous I just thought, “Oh well, I’ll do that someday.” And then I added to the list I kept in my head of things to work toward. It wasn’t a life plan, just a recording of things that I should really consider doing. I figured someday I’d wear a designer dress, have a rewarding creative career, buy a dream house, write a book, give lots of money to inner city arts programs, walk a red carpet.
By its very nature, any recording of this list is going to be incomplete and somewhat inaccurate, because it has always shifted like the sands. But this scattershot list-making has, on the whole, worked well for me. That level of what I’d call self-delusion is the only thing that kept me powering forward, well past what anyone would consider reasonable limits for a kid not born into power or money. But as I watched the opening of the Emmys this weekend from the bleachers, and pondered the fact that I had not, in fact, walked a red carpet, I wondered if it wasn’t time to reconsider. At going-on-thirty-five, wasn’t it time to resign myself to the things I would never get a chance to do? Isn’t that what this period of my life is supposed to be about?
And then I thought, nah.
That’s no way to live.
I spent a good chunk of my twenties facing up to my limits. When forced to make a big decision, my guiding principal has always been that I don’t ever want to look back, and wonder, “What if…?” I would rather know with certainty that I couldn’t, than look back pretending that maybe I could have, if I’d been one of the people brave enough to give it a go.
When I was asked at David’s ten-year college reunion why I quit acting, I said, “I wasn’t good enough.” The question asker gasped, and I shrugged, because I knew it was true. I’d failed, I’d sat on the sidelines for a while recovering, I’d tried something new and hated that far more, and then I’d allowed myself to be surprised by something I was unexpectedly quite good at. Whatever sting there might have been was long gone.
At almost thirty-five, and I’m in the middle ground, these days. I have plenty of time to accomplish all kinds of things, if I’m willing to keep risking failure. But I no longer have seemingly endless time. My life no longer stretches out in front of me as a series of “What if’s?” Some of those questions are asked now, and answered. But to stop asking the questions? That is not a kind of adulthood I’m willing to even play at.
I don’t know when the feeling of being grown-up will arrive for any person. But this month, we’ll discuss the uncertainty of not feeling like an adult, and the gritty reality of acknowledging that life is happening right now. We’ll talk about owning up to our limits, going easy on ourselves, and settling into our own skins. And while the process of growing up is never over, this month we’ll talk about that feeling of arrival.
On the night of our five-year wedding anniversary, I sat looking out a hotel room window, thinking that I always wondered what kind of adult I’d be, and now I know. This is it, for better or worse, and I need to pay attention so I don’t miss it.