Like many kids, I grew up thinking that adults had gone through all the stuff, had figured it out in the process, and now dwelled in some distant, long sought land reserved for experienced people who knew the answers, set the rules, and conducted themselves accordingly. I think of my father’s decisiveness, my grandmother’s grasp of Tolstoy, and my mother’s swift cursive script that flowed out of her hand onto the page without stopping. These things just were. I never considered disputing them, primarily because they were not up for dispute. They formed the reliable architecture of my childhood house, and the structure and sturdiness of that space felt reassuring. All these adults, convincing me of their indubitable expertise, meant that I expected to achieve it myself one day.
I had every intention of seeing this grownup thing through. I had no idea how, but figured it probably involved a job and an apartment with actual furnishings, some dishes, maybe even a potted plant or two, in a city far from home. After graduating college, I sat down with my dad and presented him with a plan for how I intended to live my life – or at least the next few years of it. As he politely heard me out, I felt certain he’d agree, and say, “Good job and good luck, oh diligent daughter of mine.” Instead, he laughed. “Great plan, doofus.” (He liked that word, doofus.) My heart dropped. Then I got angry. “I’ve thought this through!” I said. “This can work!” He made a comment about how life doesn’t get solved like a math problem. Then he asked, “Do you think I had any idea what to do with myself when I was your age?” I nodded reflexively. “I didn’t know a damn thing about anything,” he said, “but my father had just died, so I moved up here to be near your grandmother. I got a job at a local bank to hold me over until my real life began. Turns out, I wasn’t half bad at the banking thing, so I kept doing it. Then I met your gorgeous mother, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
This was Dad’s way of saying that none of us start out knowing how to do it. We can take a stab at knowing, but life doesn’t cater to our best-laid plans. We do things because we need to, because they’re the right things to do. Circumstances shove us off what we’ve claimed as our path, but then the detour becomes the path – and maybe it’s the right one. “How are you going to learn if you decide everything now?” he said. “Sure, work hard. Show your worth. But do yourself a favor: Don’t box yourself in before you know who you are.”
Now at 42, 12 years into marriage, and the mom of two sprouting boys, I feel like I’m back there again, at a different yet still dizzying stepping-off point, having recently “graduated” from the structured reality of a full-time package job to embrace the unknowns of working for myself as an editor and writer so I can do what feeds my soul and be more present for my family. After two decades of a career that fit the “grownup” bill, I’ve finally figured out how not to box myself in. I’ve cast off the old reliable shoulds and plunged headlong into the unpredictable what-ifs and why-the-hell-nots. I don’t know what will happen next month, next season, or next year – and I’ve never felt better about not knowing. I care little about anyone’s expectations and even less about what people think. I feel light and free and full of life. My mind, at last, is open.
Here in the middle of a burgeoning life, I turned a corner and found myself waiting. Looking back on earnest 20-something me, so eager to achieve and solve, assert and save, I understand why Dad laughed that day. He saw a kid wanting badly to prove to her father that she could be like him – someone you counted on, someone with a stake in critical affairs, someone who could say things like, “It’s unequivocal!” and, “Beyond the shadow of a doubt!” He saw a girl who expected to arrive, and upon arrival find that everything becomes clear and makes sense. Perhaps he felt it was his duty to prepare me for uncertainty. Either way, uncertainty is what we got.
Not long after that conversation, Dad’s kidneys failed and he went on dialysis for a few months until our family figured out plan B, which – to everyone’s surprise – came in the form of a donated kidney from my mother, even though organ donations from non-blood relations are exceedingly rare. So instead of heading off into my neatly imagined life, I stayed home to care for two parents recovering from transplant surgery. When I did eventually land in that job and find an apartment in that big city far from home, I had already learned a few things: I knew that I could be counted on; I knew what it meant to have a stake in critical affairs; and I had felt what it was to be needed, unequivocally. After so many years of receiving, I had finally given something back. This didn’t make my first foray into “the real world” any less green, less clumsy, or less fantastically self-absorbed. I blundered through my first-job faux pas like an all-star rookie and played at my fledgling love interests like a game of Whac-a-Mole. But through this, I maintained a sense of self-worth, a healthy skepticism of infallibility, and I never expected the F train to drop me off at Adulthood.
I still don’t hold claim to that word, or that state of being. I try to explain to my kids that no one, at any age, has all the answers, that we all make mistakes, and that even grownups with lots of power can be terribly wrong sometimes. Naturally, they’ve gotten pretty good at calling me out – especially my inconsistencies – and they know I’ll defend my position, but only when it’s defensible. I admit when I get angry or sad so my sons won’t feel alone or as if they have failed when they feel these emotions, too. Each time I say that bedtime stories – or dinner, for that matter – can’t happen without their cooperation, they come a little closer to understanding that caring is a two-way street.
And whether I come off as the sharply dressed mom with her shit together or the wildcard mom, unshowered and on-deadline, at the annual school dance, my sons know I will be there. So what of the reliable architecture of their childhood house? It may not feel as indisputable as mine once did with all its assurances and norms. But they know it’s built on respect and love. They also know they play a part in keeping it standing. I don’t want to parent from a separate, quarantined space of mistaken authority and know-how. I want to go through it all with them. I want to feel what they’re feeling and help them sift through the confusion. Of course, I want to teach them, but I also want to learn. I want to show my kids that you can be strong and happy and proud, even in the face of your limitations. When we’re at Tae Kwon Do together and I miss the mark on the focus pad, I want my sons to watch me regain my composure, find balance, and keep striking until I hit the target square on.