“I can’t wait to be a grown-up, Mommy!” my 5-year-old daughter frequently exclaims.
A simple statement but one that to me speaks volumes and means so much more than she understands.
“Why do you want to be a grown-up?” I ask her. Because then she can stay up late, do what she wants and have fun whenever, like grown-ups do, she usually replies.
I try to tell her that being a kid is fun – you get to play with your friends and be silly and do fun things. Being a grown-up means, paying bills, working, having lots of responsibilities. But that answer doesn’t seem to resonate, and soon she is wishing away her childhood again.
Hearing her say this immediately brings me back to my own childhood and expressing the same sentiments. I couldn’t wait to be a grown-up, either. At four years old, I remember saying to myself “I can’t wait to be seven!” At seven, I couldn’t wait to be a teenager; then I couldn’t wait to drive because I’d have “real” independence. I recall frequently saying, “My bags will be packed at 11:59 p.m. on the night of my 18th birthday” so I could get outta my parent’s house as quickly as possible and start my real life (I ended up starting college a week shy of my 18th birthday.)
I have spent my entire life wishing for the next phase, thinking “When I am this age life will be better,” and “When I don’t have to listen to my parents anymore I will have so much freedom” or “When I am a ‘grown-up’ I will decide what is best for me and do what I want.”
Part of those feelings came from my fierce independence and distaste for being told what to do, a trait that has both haunted and motivated me throughout my life. When you are a kid, not listening or following the pack makes you a troublemaker. I never tried to be a troublemaker, I just automatically wanted to do the opposite of whatever I was told, which frequently got me into trouble. Being a grown-up, to me, meant making my own rules and not having to follow everyone else’s (or so I thought). My personality also kept me from listening to all the nay-sayers who said I couldn’t be this or make it in this place… I would prove them wrong.
But my always looking ahead also came from my own struggles with my parents, or more specifically my mother. Mental (depression, bipolar disorder) and physical ailments (cancer) plagued my mother’s ability to parent starting when I was six and severely affected our relationship. Growing up was often a roller coaster in our house that I was never good at navigating. During my mom’s tumultuous times, she and I battled constantly and we spent most of my teen years at odds with each other. She didn’t understand me, and I certainly didn’t understand her, not realizing that much of her behavior was not in her control. I felt targeted as a child and adolescent and showed her great disrespect. I took her problems personally, and it made me want to get as far away from her as I could.
As I started college and got my own space, we were able to build a better relationship and actually began to get along pretty well – she was on the right medications to handle her mind and I was past the angry teenager stuff and becoming a young adult. She became my support – pushing me to work hard and pursue my passions – and also my shoulder to cry on when my heart was broken.
But when I was 24, my mother’s breast cancer, which had lurked in our lives for so long, finally got the upper hand and she passed away.
It suddenly felt like I had wasted so many years being angry, wishing for something better in my life, and not realizing what I had when I had it. I was so angry with myself for not appreciating her while she was here and not having the relationship a mother and daughter “should.” I was devastated by all the moments that we had lost while I was growing up and all the future moments that she wouldn’t be part of. Instead of looking forward at how much better things would be someday, all I could do was look back in regret and feel profound sadness for the future and what my mom would miss.
It wasn’t until I had my own children that I was able to stop and “smell the roses.” Suddenly, looking ahead and wishing for the next chapter wasn’t so necessary to survival. And looking back didn’t matter. I wanted to be here, now, holding my babies, watching them reach each milestone and soaking up every sweet moment they offered. Seeing the world through their eyes has been life-changing and healing for me in my own thoughts about my childhood, about my mother.
When my daughter says to me “I can’t wait to be a grown-up,” I feel myself cringe. I don’t want her to feel the way I did about my childhood, about life – always waiting for the next great thing, always thinking things will be better someday.
I realize the little girl I am raising is me, in so many self-critical, fiercely independent ways, and I worry that she will grow up feeling as lost and angry and alone as I did much of the time.
But I also realize that she isn’t me, and that my reaction to her desire to grow-up isn’t about her at all; it’s about me and constantly being so hard on myself. It has taken a long time to forgive myself for the relationship my mother and I had and understand that I was young, and I did the best that I could at the time. Becoming a mother has also helped me to empathize with my own mother and her struggles. I feel a sense of closeness to her now though she isn’t here physically, and I have such admiration for all that she accomplished while battling so many demons. I am grateful for the passion and strength she instilled in me, because even though she wasn’t perfect, she never gave up on herself or on me.
Now my job is to give my daughter a childhood she will enjoy, teach her to live in the moments, and that she is loved, so much. I want her to know that no matter what, she is strong and she is enough. And if the amazing little girl I am raising is like me, maybe that’s not so bad. Because I am pretty amazing too.
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