Marian Keyes: Am I ever going to feel like a grown-up?

Marian Keyes. Photograph: Dean Chalkley
JUST PASSING LIFE MILESTONES DOESN’T ACTUALLY MEAN ANYTHING. PARADOXICALLY, REALISING THAT I WILL NEVER FEEL LIKE A BONA FIDE GROWN-UP IS A VERY GROWN-UP THING

Being a child is fantastic. If you’re ordered to share your Smarties with the nipper from next door, you can hurl yourself to the floor, wriggling and howling, trying to prevent your mortified mother from getting a hold of your precious tube of sweets. But as an adult, you’re obliged to graciously hand them over and it’s very much not okay to fling a snow globe of the Statue of Liberty at your colleague and shriek, These are my Smarties, get your own!

The tragedy is that, as a child, I felt scared, powerless and frustrated at all the things I wasn’t allowed to do. I couldn’t wait to be grown-up when I’d be Confident! Answerable to no one! Powerful! Unafraid! (We’ll call that halcyon state CAPU for short.) No one would have the power to dispatch me to SuperValu on my bike, thereby missing Hong Kong Phooey, to buy a tub of coleslaw for unexpected visitors.

Grown-up me wouldn’t care about money. I’d live in a big, abandoned-but-fabulous house in the woods, with others of my kind

As a sneery teenager, I decided my version of grown-up would be nothing like the existence of the adults around me – those pathetic saps who put a lock on the phone and ran around frantically turning off lights, because of something called “bills”. Or losing their s**t because some fly-by-night merchants had done a shoddy job of cobble-locking their drive, whereby the “cement” dissolved in the first shower of rain and all the neighbours sniggered.

“Tragic f**kers,” I scorned. “You know what I mean, hurhur?” Then I’d suck heavily on a blue biro and stare into the middle distance.

Grown-up me wouldn’t care about money. I’d live in a big, abandoned-but-fabulous house in the woods, with others of my kind. My imaginary housemates and I would be self-sufficient, thanks to our many talents, such as bread making, home brewing and shoplifting. (Sadly, none of that worked out.)

To ensure that we’re growing up correctly, society provides us with milestones: leaving home; getting a job; roasting a chicken; voting; finally admitting in your inner-most heart that your band will never play a gig outside of your own garage; getting excited about a cordless vacuum cleaner; shouting at a child, “Get down off that f**king thing, do you want to break your neck!”; trading short, harsh Anglo-Saxon words with another motorist; playing golf; getting arthritis.

In my 20s, some of those events happened. I left home. I moved to another country. I lived in a squat – one that I liked, that I approved of. I worked as a waitress; that too impressed me. But the paradox was that, as well as freedom, I wanted security. Money would have been nice, lots of it, so I could live somewhere cool, in zone one, where there was no danger of getting trapped in a lift on the 18th floor of a tower block with two strange men and an angry Alsatian. (The novelty of squat living wore off pretty quickly.)

Probably due to my enmeshed relationship with alcohol, the pause button was pressed on my life for my entire 20s. There was no forward propulsion, either materially or emotionally.

Four months after my 30th birthday, I went to rehab for alcoholism. When I came out 30 days later, I felt less like a grown-up than ever

Four months after my 30th birthday, I went to rehab for alcoholism. When I came out 30 days later, I was very aware of my responsibility to behave honestly and respectfully. While this was all “good stuff”, I felt less like a grown-up than ever. Emotionally, I had so much to learn about living as an adult. While I was trying to find paths through my tangled immature attitudes, the outside of my life began to look a lot more age appropriate.

I fell in love with a man and moved in with him. What is that, my friends, if not the act of a grown-up? Suddenly we were functioning as a cohabiting couple: doing the big shop on a Saturday! Paying bills together. But I felt as if I was starring in a reality show where I was the only viewer.

Oh, look at us there, planning our dinners for the week, aren’t we... sort of... gas? And here we are, giving over our weekend to paint the kitchen yellow. What’s this, now? Visitors! For Sunday lunch! Ha ha ha ha ha... No? Seriously..? Wow! And where’d you get that terracotta serving bowl? You bought it? With money that could have been spent on shoes..? Who even are you?

A day came when I was queueing in a chemist and a toddler decided to go through the contents of my handbag. It was grand with me; toddlers don’t tend to judge a person for having 13 lipglosses. But when the babby’s dad said, “Leave the lady alone,” I wondered, What lady? Did he mean... me? I was no lady! I was young and cool and... no, just no.

More life things happened, and suddenly I had a “career”. People “sent cars” for me, they asked my opinion on Important Matters of the Day, I got printed schedules that ran to 19 pages. On the outside I was starting to look like a grown-up, but I just felt like a person who had accidentally infiltrated another person’s life.

Many people say that having a child is the event that divides the grown-ups from the non-grown-ups. As it didn’t happen for me, I can’t comment. But I’ll tell you this: whenever I’m in charge of small children I’m terrified. They’re so fragile. And reckless. And unpredictable. Even though I shouted, “Get down off that f**king thing, do you want to break your neck,” the very last thing I felt was Confident. Answerable to no one. Powerful. Unafraid.

My dad died just over a year ago, and my main feeling was anxious expectation; when were the grown-ups going to step in and tell me what to do?

At the other end of life’s spectrum is death: apparently, you can’t feel truly grown-up until you’ve lost a parent. My dad died just over a year ago, and my main feeling was anxious expectation; when were the grown-ups going to step in and tell me what to do? I felt very, very young. Also, annoyingly, very, very old, because I was the next generation in line to die.

But still I didn’t feel grown-up.

It might have been then that I accepted – and you might want to sit down for this – that we never grow up. At least not in that CAPU way I hoped for as a child.

Paradoxically, realising that I will never feel like a bona fide grown-up is a very grown-up thing.

Of course, everyone experiences odd pockets of time where, due to the intersection of one-off events and circumstances, our actual life overlaps with that of the life of a mythical grown-up and yes! There we are! CAPU!

They happen for me when, late at night, I’m driving home a carload of drunk people singing Morrissey songs. A) I can drive, and driving is a very grown-up skill. B) I’m sober. And C) I’m not singing Morrissey songs.

Marian Keyes. Photograph: Dean Chalkley
Marian Keyes. Photograph: Dean Chalkley

These episodes are pleasant but fleeting: no one exists in the state of grown-up-ness for long. The fundamental truth is that we’ve simply exchanged the fears of our childhood for a different set.

But we refuse to make our peace with that because we’re certain there are people who are definitely genuine full-time grown-ups.

See, now and again, someone comes along who has a magic combo of a selection of the following: charm; chat; rage; luck; money; timing; a nice smile; profound compassion; hunger for power; sporting prowess; questing intelligence; workaholism; a catchy slogan; criminal connections; misplaced self-belief; an excellent head of hair; shocking naivety; mild aggression; a brass neck; a gift for figures; a loud voice; a quick wit; a low BMI; sincere altruism; contempt for others; attractive forearms; a strong streak of ruthlessness; a great multitasking game; secret nannies; bizarre fearlessness; utopian tendencies; and an ability to delegate. (This list is not exhaustive.)

This person ascends from the seething mass of ordinariness and something about their unique, appealing way prompts a collective decision that they’re deserving of our trust. We permit them to become politicians or Insta mumfluencers or to helicopter into a manufacturing plant and promptly sack half the workforce. (Again, this list is not exhaustive.)

We assume that because a person has been elected to the Dáil, or because they have a clatter of compliant, photo-ready children, their every utterance is gospel

If we ask these people for advice – say, for example, one of us non-grown-ups expresses worry about our housing crisis – and this magic person replies: “The market self-regulates. Don’t worry, it’ll all be fine.” Everyone would say, all impressed, “Ooooh! Grand, I won’t worry, so.”

One of the most important lessons life has taught me is this: when an opinion is delivered with sufficient confidence and charisma, in convincing circumstances, it becomes a fact. Honestly, I wish I could underline this, italicise it and add 8,000 exclamation marks.

We assume that because a person has been elected to the Dáil or because they have a clatter of compliant, photo-ready children or they’re in a helicopter and their nickname is Slasher Larkin, their every utterance is gospel.

But please listen to me: these people are not grown-ups either. They’re aberrations. They’re distractions. They’re outliers. Maybe they genuinely think they know everything? Or maybe, in some small secret little chamber in their heart, they suspect they’re only a chancer and it’s just a matter of time before they’re outed. Who knows?

If it’s any consolation, actual grown-ups are a very different breed.

They’re the people who square their shoulders and break bad news to a loved one, because someone needs to do it.

They’ll say yes when they’d rather say no, out of kindness.

Although now and again they’ll say no when they want to say no, because life is short.

If someone is being bullied they’ll intervene, even though they’re afraid of getting a dig in the head.

No matter what their age, they’ll continue to wake at 4am to worry; at some stage they’ll accept it’s not a phase to be grown out of but more a side effect of being alive.

They’ll apologise, even when they don’t want to – and they’re not convinced it was entirely their fault – because the bad feeling needs to stop.

They’ll go to Centra at 10.35pm to buy milk because it’s needed for the morning.

They know that everybody matters or nobody matters.

Actual grown-ups make decisions, big and small, on behalf of themselves and others, without having any real clue if they’ll work out

If a bottle of red wine shatters on the kitchen tiles, everyone else will vanish like ghosts from the splinters and spatters, leaving the mop-up operation to them.

Sometimes, in a robust exchange of words with another adult, they’ll feel confident enough to stand their ground. At other times they’ll feel as upset as they did at the age of seven. This will surprise them, even shame them.

They make decisions, big and small, on behalf of themselves and others, without having any real clue if they’ll work out. Now and again, proper, freezing fear that they’ve made a terrible mistake will seize them.

Once in a while they’ll lock themselves in the bathroom and lie on the floor, just to escape people clamouring at them.

Or they’ll park on a petrol forecourt and eat a large Cornetto in the dark.

They take quiet pride in their mannerly driving, particularly the fact that they indicate at roundabouts... but can’t help themselves muttering, “Indicate, you selfish feck!” at those motorists who don’t.

Because they’re only human.

And they know it.

They’re flawed, nuanced, well intentioned but prone to gaffes; they know that too.

Although there will be times in their lives when they’re feeling on top of their game, they will never tick all four CAPU boxes at once. If they’re feeling Confident! and Unafraid! they will probably feel Answerable to someone, too. Or a short spell of feeling Powerful! is often followed by a long spell of Afraid! in case they abused the power.

The person who accepts that in themselves and others is probably the most grown-up person we can ever meet.

Grown Ups is published by Michael Joseph on Thursday. Marian Keyes will be in conversation with Róisín Ingle at the National Concert Hall, in Dublin, on Monday