Culture

The Return to Childhood: Growing Older, Not Growing Up

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Editor's Note:

Francesca Segal is an award-winning writer and journalist. Her newest novel, The Awkward Age, explores the complex relationship that evolves between parents and their children, and issues that result from growing older. Here, Francesca discusses how she feels as she transitioned from an adolescent into an adult—less and less like a real adult, and more like a child.

I remember only too well the hot rage of adolescence. The world just did not understand: I was an adult now. AN ADULT! Why wasn’t anyone listening? What I hadn’t known then is that I would never feel more like an adult than I did in those first years of adolescence, when I was anything but. It’s been a steady decline ever since.

For their bar and bat mitzvah, young Jewish men and women stand before their community and read aloud a portion of the Torah, and in doing so mark their symbolic passage from childhood into adulthood. On Saturday morning, we chanted ancient words in synagogue. On Saturday night our parents threw a party, at which we gave speeches (in which the jokes were usually as old and worn as the Torah itself) thanking our parents and teachers and moral guides, and the long-suffering Hebrew tutor who helped us become our new selves. Spotty and flat-chested, probably five foot one, all this is squeaked with great earnestness, and with the assumption that we had arrived somewhere definitive, like a train pulling into its terminus. For the lucky among us, this precocious little address was then followed by a disco, at which we might or might not have slow-danced with a boy, usually one we had known since nursery school. The Grease MegaMix was obligatory, as were Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby and ‘U Can’t Touch This’, tracks ubiquitous at my era of bat mitzvahs, so that the uninitiated gentile might come to take them for part of the religious ceremony. It was all a very serious business and I approached it with appropriate gravity, and fear.

Would the stage fright actually kill me? And how would this remarkable transformation of my status within the community actually play out? Would my mother finally allow me to spend Saturday afternoons in nearby Camden, that den of iniquity where, despite her fear of drug dealers and the swirling rumors that the temporary tattoos on sale were spiked with LSD (my friends are I were rather hazy on the chemistry of how this might work), all I really wanted to do was browse for bottle-green Levi’s, and try on cherry red eight-hole Doc Martens, for the hundredth time.

For liberty, in truth, was the whole point of it all. Apart from the pleasure of the party and the new clothes (I wore, for the record, a chocolate brown crushed velvet body, and a pair of what would now be called ‘mom jeans’ that came up as high as my first rib. Memory of my shoes is lost to posterity), this new, elevated status was the carrot with which I was enticed to study for a bat mitzvah at all. Adulthood was what I was promised in exchange for swotting over incomprehensible verses and my horror of repeating them aloud, in front of humans. It was, I was led to believe, the price of graduating to the next level of life. The train would pull into the station and I would alight, arrived. Good family friends gave me a suitcase as a gift and though it was a very nice piece of luggage, my love for this item was out of all proportion. I could pack it! With it, I would travel the world!

Who, at thirteen, doesn’t crave both responsibility and freedom? It was all I wanted – to self-determine. To decide for myself. And I held my parents to it; after my bat mitzvah, in an argument on almost any subject I would bellow, ‘I’M AN ADULT NOW,’ and with that trump card I would presume to have won my case. I don’t, with hindsight, know how they kept countenance.

By the time I was at university, destroying my clothes with accidental hot washes, sitting down to pasta with soy sauce for the hundredth consecutive dinner, incapable of beginning an essay before the eleventh hour, I began to have my doubts. By the time I had my own children, deep into my thirties, I did not understand how anyone could mistake me for anything but an infant myself. Who had licensed me to care for these humans? Where were the real grownups to would supervise me while I did it? Who is the manager round here? My friends all feel similarly. It’s not quite impostor syndrome – it’s just absolute disbelief that we have, almost without noticing, become the higher authority.

By now we’ve made enough mistakes to know that we don’t know it all. We’ve tripped up over and over. In your twenties and thirties, you learn ambiguity and nuance, you discover that there isn’t always wrong and right. Only children feel like real adults. Most adults secretly feel like children. We don’t believe we know what we are doing. Nevertheless, we’re the ones in charge now, and so we get to have all the fun while we do it.