Ah, birthdays. For some of us, especially when we are children, each one is the most exciting day of our year, besides Christmas. Not only are we showered with gifts and attention, each one of these milestones is one step closer to being a “grown-up.” As we get older and closer to driving age (16), voting age (18) and drinking age (21), it becomes even more important.
However, at each birthday (yes, I’m talking true childhood and adolescence here), how many of you actually FELT one year older? Did age 6 really feel any different from age 5? What about age 11 vs. age 10? Perhaps 16, 18 and 21 matter more because they are paired with legal privileges we are all eager to have. Other than that, what does a birthday mean? When does “growing up” really happen?
For years, I seemed to be perpetually “stuck” in childhood. Each year felt just like the last in terms of maturity. The only true difference was an increase in grade level, but even that didn’t seem to reflect age or experience—it was just the next set of lessons that I was expected to learn. Everyone around me in my age group never seemed to get older either. Those who acted like reasonable people continued to do so, and those who did not certainly didn’t seem to improve.
I remember that even high school students seemed “old” to me at the age of 10. They seemed to exist in a mythical state of “maturity” that I would never reach. It was simply unimaginable. Whenever I was asked the ubiquitous question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” my answers were always, to me, purely theoretical. I could not imagine myself as a “grownup” and was in no big hurry to get there. Most adults I knew seemed pretty unhappy most of the time, because they had so much in life to worry about.
By the end of high school, I knew that I was sick of all of my school’s bureaucratic rules and regulations. For the first time, I started thinking that I’d had enough of being treated like “a child,” which translated into “being treated like an incompetent person who can’t think for herself.” When I graduated and entered community college, I found academic freedom. I could decide what I wanted to study and do it.
However, I still lived at home to save money. In the long run, that was a very wise decision, economically speaking. While I held part-time jobs whenever possible, my main “occupation” was still being a student. I knew that this still was not “real life,” but at the time I didn’t care. As in K-12, academic learning was all that mattered to me. The biggest difference was that the social pressures and harassment from “peers” were behind me. Community college, university and even my jobs all had a “live-and-let-live” atmosphere. Years passed and I still felt like an 18-year-old, at the most. I did not feel ready to learn to drive at 16. As of this writing, I have a learner’s permit. At age 18 I did vote for the first time. THAT felt like it mattered. On my 21st birthday, someone offered to take me out for my first drink. I had an early Chemistry midterm that day and three other classes after that. All I wanted at the end of the day was to go home and take a nap. To this day, I’m still not much of a drinker.
Even graduating from my university was somewhat anticlimactic. My parents and I went out to dinner afterwards and then home. The next day, I began studying for the GRE and researching graduate schools for my then-major of Psychobiology. The only next logical step for me was grad school. I was 23 then and still did not quite feel like an “adult,” even though I was definitely no longer a mere “child.” I couldn’t quite define what I was, but figured that question would eventually resolve itself.
I did well on the GRE’s and applied to four grad schools in my home state. All four replies were the same: “no.” After the last one arrived, I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do next. Grad school had seemed like my only option. I felt that I was a failure and would never get anywhere.
I got a full-time job working for a dentist that lasted a year and a half. It might have continued longer except that he retired and sold his practice to another dentist who wanted to keep his own staff. After that, I held part-time and temporary positions with other doctors and dentists, mainly filling in when their regular staff was absent.
Meanwhile, even though I did not realize it, other things in my life were changing. Being out of school gave me a different perspective. Life is more than taking classes and getting grades, and I was fully capable of doing more than that. I also spent a lot of that time exploring my spirituality. I had finally found my correct path in 1998 and it was/is largely responsible for where I am now (more on that another time). In other words, I was thinking a lot about where I was, where I wanted to be and how I was going to get there, all pretty big questions. I was finally thinking like an “adult.”
At some point, I realized that I wanted to study Criminal Justice because of the great lack of justice in our society. I considered bypassing more schooling and just applying to my local police department, but they didn’t seem too eager to take a chance on someone of my height (I’m about 5’0”) who was already several years past high school. All of a sudden, I was one of those “older” people I thought I would never be!
Unlike the first time, all four of the graduate schools to which I applied accepted me. The difference may have been economical: they were all out-of-state and very happy to take a student who would pay more fees. Interestingly enough, one offered me in-state tuition anyway, which is the primary reason I chose to go there.
This marked another true milestone: changing residence for the first time in my entire life (by then, I was nearly 28). I traveled to my new state to find somewhere to live. The second place I looked at worked out. I took an apartment, signed the lease and traveled back to pack up and move permanently. I arrived back at my new home only two days before classes started (more on that later, also).
That was two years ago. In that time I feel like I have finally “caught up.” This apartment is mine. I am no longer a child living in her parents’ home. I am an adult woman living her own life in her own home.
In this new state, I met my first, and still only, boyfriend. We have had our problems—after all, who doesn’t?--but are still together. Marriage once seemed as foreign a concept as becoming an adult. Now, I can actually picture it happening, as soon as we both have our individual lives in order.
When I turned 30 this year, I wasn’t feeling that great…because I had the flu. Other than that, for the first time I actually felt “older,” but far from being “over the hill.” I finally feel like my “grown-up” life has begun. I look forward to the next several years, which seem filled with much promise. Okay, so I’m still unemployed, but that won’t be forever. I will finish, defend and publish my thesis (which is taking some interesting turns), graduate and hopefully be accepted to the FBI Academy. If not, well, I’ve learned that life can take many unexpected paths. As a responsible, independent adult, I have the freedom to follow whichever one is truly right for me.
Age is not determined by raw numbers. The law has set ages for certain privileges that society has come to regard as milestones. In reality, we all set our own milestones, which cannot be determined by anyone else’s yardstick. When I finally get my driver’s license in a month or so, I will be as happy and excited as any 16-year-old.