In the gaze of the other

"My mistress' eyes are nothing…"

When You’re a Grown up

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My daughter and I were at the frozen yogurt store the other day when we overheard a boy about five years old say to presumably his mother, “I can’t wait til I’m a grownup!” Not exactly sure of the context, but I believe his mother had just conditioned his frozen yogurt choices on being old enough to know what was good for him.

Though the exclamation produced a smile on my face, my 19-year-old-off-to-college-this-week daughter quickly turned to the boy and said, “Don’t rush it, kid. You don’t know what you’re asking for.” And she laughed so as not to terrorize the boy.

I turned to her and asked, “Is it that bad?” She nodded, yes.

I know the anxiety of living away from home for the first time preys on her nerves, playing a checklist of to-do’s and what-if’s in her mind on endless repeat. I feel her.

She and I differ that way. When I left home, I had no thoughts. I left on the sheer will of want: whatever I wanted. It was only after I left that I began to worry as I realized I had no idea how to write a check let alone balance a checkbook. I had only one experience with a bank: a savings account my mother opened for me when I was in junior high, one with a little blue, firm-covered, palm-sized bank book in which to register deposits and withdrawals. I remember how grown up I felt then. But that bank book, regulated by my visions of large purchases and the change in my mother’s purse divided by four, did little to teach me about pooling money in time to pay rent, feed myself and pump gas into my car. 

I learned, especially after a few months of barely living on graham crackers and cottage cheese or peanut butter. A visiting uncle, a psychologist  from Texas, remarked to my mother at one family gathering during that time, “Does she have anorexia?”

Burning by my own mistakes was my way. Still is. So long as they were mine. My mother did little to prepare any of us five children for the world as she protected us–wittingly or unwittingly–from the responsibilities of grown-ups, cocooned as we were in our middle class suburban neighborhood.

Maybe it was the time too. She stayed at home and cooked for us, washed our clothes and poured our milk for us. I remember telling her one day in sudden astonished awareness, “Mom, I’m 12. I can pour my own milk.”

My children did not grow up the same way. Their parents worked and so had to fend for themselves more. Even when I worked from home when they were small, I advocated for their independence. As soon as they were old enough to complain about what was for dinner, I let them know they could make their own if they did not like what was on the menu and then showed them how to use the stove. 

I am not suggesting my kids are not over protected or spoiled in other ways, however. While my parents had no means to buy their children things we nevertheless asked for, my kids have had more money given to them than I had. Growing up in a one-wage factory laborer family, we became accustomed early on to the idea that any material items we wanted would have to be purchased by our own means. I worked mowing lawns, helping my brother deliver newspapers and babysitting from the time I was 8.

My daughters, on the other hand, were raised to believe their grades and sports were their jobs, that they had too many years ahead for the paying jobs that they would eventually have to report to daily. “Don’t rush into working,” I always said.  

So my 19 year old has had a job for a year now; she worked part time while attending the local community college to pay for her car, books, concerts and clothes. I know it has been a stretch, the responsibility, though I know it hasn’t been a shock. She is used to budgeting her time and her resources, having been over-scheduled since she was 6 with soccer practice, piano lessons, school, and whatever the day’s playdates or parties brought.

But it is not the practical how-to’s or what-to-do’s that have her worried about moving out. I know it. She can figure things out, and it isn’t as if she is completely cut from the cord. Smart phones have kept us connected for years now anyhow, near or far. I group text my daughters to come down from their upstairs perches (more like second-story caves) to dinner (when I cook).

Nope. What she fears, I imagine, is what we all do. Doing it herself–whatever it is. The psychological state of being on her own, which prefigures the time when she will be truly on her own, no parents to call upon for a word of advice or a few bucks (or few hundred) to carry her over til payday, is the foundational fear–of death, first others and then her own. 

Not to be too dramatic, but Freud did not get everything wrong. Death and sex are primary human motivators. Everything that drives us is rooted in either or both. 

When my daughter goes off to college, it will symbolize that eventuality (hopefully far down the line) of being on her own without the umbrella of parental love. She will experience it as a mix of anxiety and excitement. And even as she will be making her own love, whether parenting or not, which will occupy enormous space in her mind and heart, she will one day yearn–even if it is just for a moment—for a time when the burdens, seemingly too heavy to bear, were barely perceptible just as they were lurking, unnoticed, above her childhood, as she splashed in an inflatable pool in the backyard and wondered what was for lunch and if she would ever not be bored on endless summer days.

I know I have.

And perhaps my mother, sitting among us near motionless in the skin of a fading light, silently reminds her, also symbolically, that connections run deeper than the physical–etched like the voice that called her to dinner at night all those years of play and idle dreaming. Even when the voices are silenced into memory, beginnings and endings forge life forward even as they fall backward in the marching on. 

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