Damn if I don’t feel like a grown-ass woman today, after a week that included a termite infestation that brought down the bathroom ceiling, finding out that some ePerv called my fifteen-year-old on her phone and said Very Bad Things, and getting my identity stolen.
This very same week also contained these events: I was asked to give a motivational speech for the incoming freshman class of a big university (wait, what?), I handily threw together a casual yet elegant dinner party, and I got to make a young Kenyan woman’s dreams come true by inviting her to speak on a panel about Youth Reproductive Health in New York City.
Are You There God? It’s me, Manya
I was one of those girls who was keen to grow up fast. I wore a sad little bra long before I needed one and loaded responsibility on my skinny little shoulders, enjoying the way the weight made me feel grounded and important. I was president of this and that, reliable as hell, and very interested in boys. I ran headlong toward responsibility, taking on New York as a magazine editor, then serving in the Peace Corps. I met a boy from my village and became an adoptive mom and breadwinner for a little family at the age of twenty-five. I convinced people to give me jobs that I was too young for, and saw things that people should maybe never see. At twenty-six I set up a house and a life, all by myself, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and then ran away from that house with my little family when the country descended into war. I lived my twenties hard. Not alcohol and sex and fun hard. It was more push limits, climb fast, hold dying people in your arms hard.
Looking back, the naiveté behind my self-assurance, the recklessness of my abandon, makes me cringe a bit, though I can’t help but admire that young woman’s spirit. Was I a grown-up then?
By the time I reached thirty-five, I had two kids, had been married and separated, and was making my own life on my own terms in Togo, then Kenya. I had switched careers twice, started my own business, and made ends meet for me and my girls. I was head over heels in love with my now-husband and planning our wedding. Was I a grown-up then?
From the outside, I have been a grown-up for a very long time. But from the inside, I feel like something inside of me has shifted only recently. I do not feel as if I have Arrived anywhere particular, but I no longer feel like I am “growing up.”
Growing up connotes climbing, altitude, higher ground. Grown-ups get stuff off of literal and proverbial shelves. They see over the tops of walls. They rise above petty things. If energy is the hallmark of youth, clarity seems to be the gift of adulthood.
Until recently, my life had been an exercise in discovery through expansion—the pursuit of breadth. I threw a lot of spaghetti against the wall hoping that some of it would stick and I would discover my superpowers and passions, the limits of my strength and the foundational elements of my character.
But now, at thirty-nine, something is shifting. While I still learn things about myself, the epiphanies aren’t coming quite so fast and hard. My discoveries are more nuanced, more complex, less EPIC. I feel like right now I am growing in and around, developing a vast and intricate root system to match the quivering tender branches that once reached higher and higher, chasing the sun.
Major external challenges like health events, tragedies, babies, and marriage have certainly catalyzed and shaped the way I have grown, pruning and sculpting me like a bonsai. But when I think about why I feel like a grown-up now, it is not because I checked those events off of some cosmic adulthood list.
For me, right now, being a grown up is defined more by this list:
1. I know I am a part of something bigger than me. When I was growing up, I was the sun in my solar system—and I was a little defiant about it. Now, I know that I am but one planet in a vast galaxy of shifting, interdependent beings. Sometimes I am the center, and sometimes I revolve around others, and more often than not, I am helping other people (my husband, kids, employees, mentees…) to shine.
2. The demands on my energy, time, and money exceed all three, and yet, somehow, I feel less anxious about all of them.
3. I am practicing being mindful. When I was growing up, I was thinking and doing and feeling, and I was lost inside the experience of those things. As I took risks and flew, I also discovered monsters, demons, and fears. Now I find myself feeling and reflecting on what I am feeling and why at the same time. I am more aware of my triggers, vulnerabilities, and pockets of crazy. None of my demons have gone away, but when they come around, I recognize them and call them by name. I am more likely to see them coming, more able to see through their disguises, and more likely to know how to push them back. Perhaps, most importantly, I know I will survive them, and I know the healing power of time.
4. I have stopped raging against being a cliché. When I was growing up and intent on proving I was one of a kind, oh, how it bothered me to be reminded that I am just like everyone else. As an adult I wonder why I ever thought that I would be exempt from or above the human experience? I confess: I am conflicted about turning forty. Brian and I thought we invented love. Clichés are just supertruths, and finding that you are living one means you are deeply connected to the human experience.
5. I have figured out whose opinion of me truly matters—and why. When I was growing up I strove to have the perfect report card, the stellar performance appraisal, the better job title. These achievements/affirmations reassured me that I was not the fraud I knew myself to be inside. I have not ceased to care what anyone think (ref. interdependence, point one). But I know who is on Team Manya and why, and other opinions are simply less relevant.
6. I am not looking to other people to fill holes in my heart. I was married, but I was not a grown-up in my first marriage because I was hoping it would fill a hole in my heart. I was lonelier in that marriage than I have ever been. My second, grown-up marriage has been deliberate, enriching, and EXTRA. Love isn’t spackle; it’s crown molding.
7. I am figuring out that there is no dress rehearsal, and there is no performance… it’s all practice. Some days I show up and kick unholy ass. Other days I slog around the field, cranky and sore. Being a grown-up means that I keep showing up for practice—even when it is boring and hard—which it is a lot of the time.
If growing up was about energy and enthusiasm and getting to know myself, being a grown-up has been about clarity and perspective—learning to love myself, trust myself, and trust that the practice is paying off. And that, come to find out, is how you get things off of shelves.