Tuesday morning, my mom just left town. It’s a strange feeling, suddenly alone in my apartment again. We have such a natural rapport that it seems like she’d always been here, and that something is missing now, in spite of the fact that reality is the opposite. As I drive away from the airport I suddenly remember, with a self-conscious laugh, the panic of a child when you feel alone in the world again; how will I take care of myself, who will protect me? Then I remind myself I’ve been living up here for eight and a half years, by myself. But for the moment I am amused at remembering the feeling of needing mom to take care of me, provide security, buy food, drive me around, etc. Needs that Mom is no longer responsible for meeting. Particularly if I am to be a functional adult and a contributing member of society. Of course she will always be my mom, but it’s no longer appropriate for me to expect her to put my needs before her own, or for her to tell me what to do or how to make decisions. Our relationship has changed, we have become friends.
But the transition from parent to friend can be a rough one. I was pretty precocious. Five years before it was legally tenable (from about the age of 13) I was wanting to make my own decisions and manage all of my time (Depending on who you talk to I’ve been headstrong and stubborn since I was born, but this is my story so I get to tell it the way I want to). This didn’t always work out for me (ha ha) because my mother had to put her foot down when it came to co-ed sleepovers after parties when I was 14, or going on a road trip with my older friends when I was a sophomore in high school. I was a child and it wouldn’t have been appropriate for me to be given the authority to make decisions like that, just as it wouldn’t have been appropriate for her to expect me to like her for it and be her friend. When I graduated high school my parents began to treat me differently. Though I waited six months before leaving for college, after graduation in their eyes I was an adult who had to make her own decisions and take greater responsibility for the consequences. And I was ready for that. I really pushed the envelope when I was 19 and decided that I was going to leave school at Berkeley, save money, and travel to India, with or without a travel partner. Friends’ parents told me if I left school I wouldn’t go back. My grandparents fretted about the safety of international travel to a “third world” country. My parents said “We trust that you want to finish school, we’re uncomfortable with where you want to go, but it’s your decision.”
It’s not easy to let go of the control you have concerning a person you care so deeply about; a person whom you feel protective of; a person who has had to do what you said for the past 18 years. But that change comes whether you like it or not, the choice is really about how you would like it to unfold. Relationships, especially relationships of kinship created in childhood, all go through transition where individual’s roles change, their responsibilities change, and particularly with young adults who are leaving time, their time spent together with their parents may lessen. My parents got this and embraced it. I’m sure I made decisions that they didn’t agree with or that scared them (mom, Becky doesn’t want to go to India, so I bought a ticket and I’m going by myself). I’m sure that it made them sad to have me move away and begin a new, separate, independent life. But because I was no longer afraid of their reactions I consulted with them on big decisions, was never afraid to be honest, and learned how to make the best decisions for me, not decisions designed to keep them comfortable, or worse, to rebelliously piss them off.
My expectations changed too. I expected other friends of mine to feel empowered to create their own lives as well. I expected my parents to do what was best for them without as much concern over my reactions or needs. I also expected better of myself in relation to them. When I came home from school I took more responsibility for the house, offering to help out, and was better about cleaning up after myself. I figured that if I was an adult, I better act like one and clean up after myself. And contribute some groceries too.
Our resistance to change often prevents us from entering these transitions mindfully and with appropriate expectations. But transition within relationship is not only about allowing a person to bloom and grow (for example when a child grows into a mature individual who is capable of engaging with themselves, you, and the world healthfully). It is about how, together, we create a society.
In many cultures we see that when children are initiated into adulthood they learn a set of new skills, are given new responsibilities, and often are even tested to ensure that they take these new communal responsibilities seriously. These are not just ceremonies. They are a way of communicating to youth the value that their communities place on meaningful contribution to the community’s welfare; i.e. as they enter adulthood they must no longer think of themselves alone. It’s a way of communicating that we change and as we move through life we pass through different stages with different identities. This weaving of the individual into the fabric of the community is considered a beautiful thing, a thing of pride, and a matter of identity.
That is why I think how we celebrate, embrace, actualize and formalize the transitions of life can be windows into what a culture truly values. But the presence of these values is demonstrated not only by a coming of age ceremony or a wedding party; we create that culture every day in the way we relate to each other. My parents communicated to me that they value adulthood as a time of exploration, independence and becoming meaningfully a part of a broader community. I didn’t have a ceremony, other than a birthday party, and my responsibilities didn’t change drastically overnight, but how they felt was communicated nonetheless. I was treated differently and felt less like I needed to assert my adulthood, it was recognized. They knew they would see less of me and that our lives would change and they also never wavered from their belief that as parents their job was to raise children who would go on to become independent adults who contribute. Through the way they treat their parents they also communicate to me the value of our elders, their wisdom, and what that stage of life means. Though we don’t really have ceremonies of initiation into adulthood, or elderhood, like other cultures, it is not beyond us to honor these transitions in our own ways. To begin new traditions or revive old ones. And importantly to allow our decisions to bear out these values in our daily lives by relating to others intentionally.