Jennifer O’Connell: Am I ever going to feel like a grown-up?
Instead of being a life-stage, ‘adulthood’ has become a fraught, anxious goal for many of us
I have fleeting moments where I feel wise or calm or in control but, most of the time, I’m winging it. Photograph: iStock
The one thing you can do to improve your life right now. The two simple rules for a life with no regrets. The three things that make a relationship great. The four ways to refocus your mind in 30 seconds. The five things you can do to get your mojo back when work has sucked it dry! The six most important decisions you’ll ever make. The seven surprising things you can do with tumble dryer sheets. The eight things you must do by 8am. The nine things (backed by science!) you can do to reduce stress. The 10 reasons you’re busy all the time. The 11 ways you feel your will to live vanish as you consume another dose of life advice in list form. The 12 better things you could be doing if you put your phone down. The 13 reasons you won’t, though.
I’m not an anthropologist, but it strikes me that never before in the history of humankind has the task of being alive demanded so many rules, such relentless self-examination. Or so many exclamation marks.
If you’re a woman aged between 35 and 50, particularly, the advice comes thick and fast, in magazines, on Instagram, in columns like this. I’ve probably doled it out a bit myself over the years. It’s generally about being calm, getting seven-plus hours’ sleep, saying no, breathing deep, having no regrets, monitoring your children’s smartphone use and creating a sanctuary for the bees in your back garden.
The messaging varies, but the subtext is always the same. Do this, and you’ll finally get where you’re going – the presumption being that we’re all headed for the same place. It’s somewhere that we expected to arrive no later than 2005, but many of us appear to have missed the mark by an embarrassing margin. Adulthood. If there was a way to text our grown-up future selves, we’d probably say, “Running slightly late, sorry! Hope to make it soon xx.”
On paper, I have achieved most of the things a younger version of me would have said constitute adulthood. I have one husband, three children, two cats. I have survived negative equity and emigration. I have passed my driving test. I have qualified for a mortgage and failed to qualify for a mortgage. I have lost a job and found a better one. I have sat on school committees, and had medical exams ending in “oscopy”.
I have started over. I have told people they were being let go, delivered the sex talk, and sent wine back because it was corked (not all at once). I have made mistakes and the world did not end. I have learned new languages and acquired skirting boards that I sometimes dust. But I still don’t feel like a grown-up. I have fleeting moments where I feel wise or calm or in control but, most of the time, I’m winging it.
Recently, I overhead a conversation between two primary school children. The younger one was explaining his plans to take a gap year between his Leaving Cert and college. So he could learn how to be a grown-up, he explained.
I found myself fantasising about having a year off to learn to be a grown-up. I’d get a lot done in even six months. I’d get my finances in order. I’d learn to cook things that don’t involve mince.
I’d discover how to have grown-up discussions with my husband instead of stompy, childish arguments, and we’d go to dinner, and not talk about the kids or work. I’d have proper, uninterrupted conversations with my parents, see more of my friends, get an exercise regime and a hobby, and stick with them for longer than eight weeks. I’d write thank you letters on personalised notepaper I’d buy from Etsy. Actually, I’d probably never do that.
By many objective measures, I’m a bit of a shambles
In the end, would I feel any more like an adult? Does anybody ever? I’m not sure. Instead of being a life-stage or a handy bit of demographic shorthand, “adulthood” has become this fraught, anxious goal for many of us. The self-doubt industry – some call it self-help or self-improvement, but let’s call it what it’s really selling – trades on the gap between our expectations of ourselves and who we really are. We’re so busy trying to navigate the chasm, we’re missing out on the best bits of our lives.
By many objective measures, I’m a bit of a shambles. Nobody will ever write an article for LinkedIn about the 68 things I get done by 6am. Still, I wing it well. I meet my deadlines, I make my payments, I mind my kids and when it all falls apart, which it regularly does, I am reasonably okay with the chaos.
During a particularly shambolic week recently, I told my husband that if I was rating my performance as a parent, I’d give myself a two out of 10. He, kindly, disagreed. But the beautiful thing is my children haven’t got another mother to compare me to. I’m the best two-out-of-10 they’ve ever had. Better still, as far as they’re concerned, I’m a fully fledged, functioning adult and, with luck, I’ve got a few more years before they find me out.