I fumble around in the darkness, trying to locate the light switch in the pitch black of the master bathroom. I can’t risk the light waking the baby, who is finally, blessedly asleep in the bassinet next to our bed, so I stand in total blackness until the door is closed and it’s safe to flip the switch. The room suddenly floods with harsh fluorescent light. Through unfocused eyes, I catch a glimpse of myself in the vanity mirror—hair wild, complexion dull, wearing my husband’s decade-old beer league kickball shirt that covers my arms to the elbow and legs to mid-thigh, holey and frayed along the hem.
There is something strangely familiar there in the reflection; a mental image of my mom surfaces, wearing my father’s oversized tee shirts to bed every night as far back as I can remember. In that moment—adorned in the same ridiculous sleepwear as my mother, my consummate picture of adulthood—I realize that, without even really noticing, I have somehow slipped into adulthood myself.
Though that certainly can’t be true, the signs are all there. Within the relatively short span of 18 months, I’ve given birth twice over. I’ve bestowed names upon those children, fed them from my body, changed several thousand diapers, caught puke in my hands. I’ve taught myself how to make a chicken potpie from scratch and learned the hard way how to change a flat tire. That little boy in my bed calls me “mama.”
And yet, there is always a reason to feel like an imposter. I return library books late. We sometimes eat Cinnamon Toast Crunch for dinner. I do my taxes at the last possible minute every year and only pretend to know what most of the financial terms mean.
I’ve spent so much time believing I am light-years away from the kind of adult my mother was during my childhood. Until now, I never once stopped to consider that, maybe, she started out feeling exactly like I do at this moment.
She was 28 when she gave birth to her first baby (me), the same age I am now. Though I just assumed she fell into adulthood easily, it stands to reason that my mother didn’t have everything figured out the morning she started her first real job, the day she walked down the aisle, the minute the nurse placed me in her arms.
Maybe she forgot doctors’ appointments and didn’t know how to sew Halloween costumes.
Maybe her mother had to help her make the turkey the first year she hosted Thanksgiving.
Maybe amidst her fears and frustrations, she sometimes felt more like a little kid playing house than a real adult.
Maybe she just pretended to know what she was doing until she actually did.
So often, I find myself sending up a silent prayer of thanks that my kids will have no recollection of all the ways in which I’ve screwed up so far. There’s got to be a reason why it happens like that: why children don’t remember much of their early years when the majority of their parents’ trial and error occurs. I have to believe that’s true or none of us would have ever taken our parents seriously.
Maybe adulthood is more of a gradual thing than an all at once thing; a concept you learn as you go instead of all in one shot.
Maybe you never completely figure it all out; you just get better at pretending.
Maybe, in the beginning, our parents were just scared kids like us who were totally winging it and hoping like hell that no one noticed.
The past couple years I’ve been fumbling in the dark, trying to find the elusive adult gene that I assumed must have skipped a generation and left me to fend for myself. When the answers weren’t readily apparent, I held my breath through the hard parts, waiting for the real adult to show up and tell me what to do.
But maybe, all that time, she was already there, looking back at me from the mirror; the girl in the too-big tee shirt with the wild hair and tired eyes who feels like she’s just going through the motions until someone else takes over. The real adult who, like so many parents before her, already has the answers, but just doesn’t know it yet.