Every once in a while it sneaks up behind me and says, “BOO!” in my face. I am a grown up. A genuine, bona fide, (multiple!) card carrying grown up. And I’m not sure how that happened. Of course, aside from the obvious, that I just kept eating, sleeping, breathing and getting bigger without interruption until I reached my full size and now here I am, all grown up. But, the adulthood business. The being an adult woman side of it, that’s still a mystery.
Every step along the way, every new rite of womanhood is met with disbelief and feelings of unworthiness on my part. When I graduated from college, I sat numbly looking at that paper, expecting that any minute, someone would be charging through my door to take it back. I still have dreams, now sixteen years later, that it’s all wrong, I was one credit short, there was one final exam I had failed, there was just something amiss about the whole thing and my degree is not valid. When I got married (which was actually six months before getting the afore mentioned degree, if you must know), it seemed like kind of a game that everyone was in on. Like we were playing wedding, pretending to be getting married, and all our friends and family members were just being good sports by being actors in our big production. In the hospital, I actually protested when they handed my first baby off to me. I said, “Oh, no thanks, I don’t think I can hold that baby right now!” and trembled a little when they ignored me and tucked him into my arms. Granted, I’d just had an emergency c-section and was more than a little stunned and loopy. But, my reaction was the same when they insisted he could go home with us three days later. How could those fools possibly think that I could take care of an infant? After signing all the papers to buy our first house, we ran out to the car and wondered if we should squeal away before they caught whatever mistake they had made leading them to believe that we qualified for our own house. But, none of those bad things has happened. I just keep being swept in by the undertow, venturing further into the deep, until now here I am, up to my neck in adulthood and the shores of my own childhood are small and distorted with distance.
My older kids do Tae Kwon Do, and there are a few seventeen year-old kids who are their teachers and role models. These kids are the definition of “Privileged.” They’re not spoiled. They’re not sprawling McMansion, prep-school, silver-spoon-fed rich kids. But, they’re middle-class, well-loved, nurtured, sheltered, encouraged and healthy. These kids don’t live in a racially divided inner city, they don’t have to worry about being accidentally murdered on their way to or from school, or concern themselves with whether there will be enough money for food or electricity next month. But, they’ve had to work for their successes, which are many and are proudly displayed and appreciated by those around them. One of these kids, the girl, came to the house yesterday to take my 9 year-old daughter out for a day of fun at the mall. The girl is all that I mentioned above, but then add to that sugar, spice and everything nice, stir it with her own blood, sweat and tears and serve it on a God-given bed of beauty, grace and good humor. She is our shiny, sparkling woman of tomorrow. She’s the kind of kid whose future is so bright she’s gotta wear shades. It just makes you feel all proud and optimistic to be around such a person. This is what all of our girls should be like, this is the proof positive of things gone right in a just world.
While she stood in my kitchen making small talk with me as I wrote out a list of emergency numbers, it occurred to me, as it often does when talking to one of these kids, that she is in fact still a KID. Just a child housed inside an adult body. She carries all the accouterments of an adult—palm pilot, cell phone, purse, car keys, and she dresses like an adult and uses words like adults would use, but it’s all pretend. She’s just playing adult. And so am I. I’ve just been playing it longer than she has and am better at it. I mean, if you start playing Monopoly as a novice when you’re a child, and you have people mentor to you and show you some short cuts, and then you devote all your time and energy to the game once you hit eighteen and keep at it for another solid twenty-two years, then by the time you’re forty you will be quite the Monopoly expert. That’s really all we are when you get right down to it, we’re children who have become experts at playing adult, and just like any game, the rules change with the players. There are these house rules over here, and those house rules over there. There are squabbles over whose rules should rule and you learn to compromise and find a way to defeat the cheaters. Sometimes you roll snake-eyes, sometimes you land on Free Parking and sometimes you’re sent directly to jail.
I don’t know whether to be comforted or appalled that this is all it is. That it’s just a big game of make believe, that we all believe. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise. This is how it happens with other mammals. Their childhood play is really just survival skills on a smaller scale. But, just like these kids at Tae Kwon Do, who have been given their pieces, given their play money and given hints on how to succeed, there are others who haven’t been given any play money, are missing a bunch of the properties, are playing with a torn-up board and the manual has been stolen or is in a language they don’t understand. So, the game isn’t exactly fair. Regardless of the luck of the dice or the strategy involved, not everyone starts at the same GO square.
I was someone who started on a decent GO square. My house rules may have been a little different than my peers’. Maybe some of the instructions were mixed up along the way by the time they got to me, but I had most of the pieces that would be required, even if they needed a little rearranging once I got the hang of things. I was one of those lucky girls with a big spotlight on me with the expectation to succeed and I’ve made it work out for me in the long run. I’m a pretty accomplished adult-pretender and I have some prizes on display to prove it.
But, I’m finding myself at an odd place in the game. I always have had guidance in this. When I’ve hit a rough patch, I’ve always had someone to give me the benefit of her wisdom in playing out the game as a woman. And now I don’t. I look at my little three-year-old daughter who looks up to her nine year-old sister for mentoring, who in turn looks up to this seventeen year-old friend for mentoring, who in turn looks up to the adults around her to mentor her and for me, it’s the end of the female line. I look back over my shoulder and there’s nobody else there. I’m it. I have an older sister, who is unmarried, childless and recently estranged. If Monopoly is the game in this analogy, then she was always playing Scrabble by herself anyway, so she’s of no help. I have an aunt who I haven’t seen in twenty-five years, so she’s no help either. My grandmothers are long dead. And now my mother is gone. I am the matriarch in this immediate bloodline and it’s a role I don’t really want to play yet.
How does one change pieces when the game’s half played? How does one go from being daughter to matriarch? Should I start wearing old lady clothes to fit the role? Like when my daughters put on play make-up and type on a play laptop, or when the teen girl pulls out her palm pocket to key in important information? Shouldn’t I have some costume to wear to help me get into character? It seems like there should be some kind of crown or scepter passed on to me to mark my status, but all I feel is rather childlike and lost, quite the opposite of what I believe I should be feeling with this new responsibility.
I guess this is the role I’ve been preparing for since birth. This is the role we’re all destined to play at some point, just some of us sooner than later. We all face the possibility of being the end of the line some day. We just don’t realize that’s what we’re heading towards the first time we cradle and coo to our baby doll and then crawl on our own mother’s lap to be cradled and cooed ourselves. But, as laughable and adorable as my daughters look when they pretend to be women, and as naïve and enviable the teen is on the cusp of grasping her adult self, I know that I, too, will awkwardly fake it until I make it in this role. I am one of the lucky, the privileged and I have the skills to play my own game, so there’s no excuse for me to drop the ball, now that I’m the last one holding it for the female part of my family. I am an adult woman in this new millennium, paving the road, now alone for those behind me to follow. I just hope I don’t fuck it up.
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