Remember when you were a kid and thought about what it meant to be a "grown up"? It was one of those difficult concepts -- for me, anyway. I mean, I knew plenty of grown ups, but I never could quite wrap my brain around what it would be like to be one myself. The closest I could get was this sort of abstract combination of my mother and myself. Even then, I never gave much thought to what being a grown up actually meant, aside from being bigger and being old enough to drive and do other age-restricted things.
I'm not certain at what point one actually qualifies for "grown up" status. If it's purely a chronological thing, then I would think by age 21. Certainly, for those who take the traditional collegiate path post-highschool, by the time one graduates and either moves on to graduate school or enters the full-time job market. Psychologially, I suspect the answer is a bit murkier. I have friends who had their own places and were largely self-sufficient by the time they were 22 or so. I, on the other hand, was still a student, in large part dependent on my parents.
And even though much of my law school years were spent essentially "on my own" in Chicago, I don't know that I can rightfully characterize that time as one of true independence. After all, I still traveled "home" to my parents' on holidays and summer break and still was dependent upon them, to a minimal extent, financially. Upon graduation, I moved back to St. Louis and continued living at home with them for two-and-a-half years. Though chronologically of age, I remained the child in that relationship dynamic.
Moving from their house into the one I shared with my now-ex failed to clearly define my grown upness. One would think that home ownership, marriage, and if nothing else, parenthood, might serve as bright line indicators. But I don't know that I ever reached a point where I thought, "Okay...NOW I'm a grown up." Hard to say if that's a reflection of immaturity, or simply a recognition that I still was not the singular captain of my ship. When you're in a partnership like that, you do have (and hopefully meet) certain responsibilities, but there is still a sense of dependence on the other person to help steer and chart your life's course.
Professionally, I've worked for/with the same people for 18 years now. In particular, my mentor, Sam, has been much like a second father to me. A "work father," if you will. I have been and remain perhaps too dependent on him.
And it's occurred to me in recent months that I've never fully stepped up and taken ownership of my own life. I've always looked to others to guide me and depended on them for their direction - professionally, familially and romantically. The realization that I'm really no longer in a position to expect such guidance from anyone on any of those counts has been an unsettling one. In truth, it's left me feeling adrift.
And it's forced me to re-evaluate what it truly means to be a "grown up", part of which, quite literally, is "own up." Own up to your mistakes. Own up to your faults. Take ownership of your actions. Take ownership of your outlook. Take stock of where you are and where you want to be. Take responsibility for all of it. Quit looking to someone else (aside from God) to lead the way.
It surprises me, I think, to be the age I am and only now fully coming to these realizations. I look around and see plenty of my contemporaries whom I consider "grown ups" -- whom I have considered grown up for quite some time. In fact, I see plenty of my not-so-contemporaries who qualify, as well -- people who seem to have little difficulty acknowledging that they have dues to pay, responsibilities to meet, and don't seem particularly unsettled by this. (They stand, of course, in stark contrast to those folks we all know -- the perpetual children who remain convinced that life is a playground and all responsibility and blame lies with others.) I don't think I'd place myself in that latter category. But I've this sense of having been in a state of suspended animation. Perhaps, because of the various protectors I had in my life, insulating me from its harshest realities, I never really understood and accepted all of adulthood's implications.
I'm starting to now. Which isn't to lay claim to any true degree of maturity on my part. Maybe just to the realization that I am the captain of this ship. And whether it sinks or sails is pretty much up to me. No excuses.
Funny thing about that -- not long ago, I was discussing some of these concepts with Riley. Instilling in her the importance of working hard and setting goals and going after what you want in life, instead of being passive and fearful or lazy about it all. After about ten minutes of discussion, she looked over at me and said, "So, basically what you're saying is: 'Don't let your life pass you by waiting for it to happen.'" Kind of scary to think my kid may understand what it means to be a grown up better than I do.