When you live in your hometown you have this funny dynamic with the people who are your parents’ peers. On the one hand, you’re a fully formed adult and so are they, so to an extent you’re now peers. You might find yourself teaching their children or having them on a volunteer team with you. The previous boundaries get mixed up.
But on the other hand, you feel a strong sense of generational boundaries – or at least, I do. I grew up with a very strong value of “respect your elders.” We NEVER called our parents’ friends by their first names and we certainly weren’t their pals.
So what happens when you grow up and the boundaries blur?
When we moved back to Cleveland in 2000, I became a teacher at the then Mosdos School. My fellow teacher was a woman who ran an organization that I had volunteered for when I was a high school senior. She was my mother’s generation, not mine, so of course I called her formally “Mrs. X.” But she came over to me at the first teacher’s meeting and said, “You know, we are peers now. Please feel free to call me Sara.”
“Oh no!” I impulsively answered. “I could never do that.” (Mind you, I was only 25, so while technically an adult, I was really still playing house.)
But time goes on and you grow into your adulthood. You start to establish your own identity in your community apart from being this one’s daughter and that one’s daughter-in-law.
Then you realize that you and your peers, indeed, are the parents of your community. And you feel funny calling your fellow adults Mr. this and Mrs. that. But something about it still feels good and right and respectful. And safe, because maybe you don’t have to adult all the time.
Then you notice something else: 25-year-olds are calling you Mrs. this and that and you’re like WHAT? I’m just me. And the desire to bring those boundaries down is strong, but you’re facing resistance on their end because you’re, you know, old. You’re their parents’ friends. And something about it feels weird and strange, and also somehow right and respectful and safe.
In David Litt’s memoir Thanks, Obama he recounts his years as a speechwriter for the White House from the age of 21 to 26. He writes profoundly about emerging from this five-year bubble aged in a number of ways – but specifically, he says, “Once you reach a certain age, the world has no more parents. But it contains a truly shocking number of children. These children come in all ages, in all sizes, from every walk of life and every corner of the political map.”
Realizing that YOU ARE THE GROWNUP is sobering, whether it happens at 26, 43, or perhaps even older when you realize, as one friend recently shared with me, that you are the oldest living member of your family. But when it happens within your own home community, it’s like a virtual reality game. Am I really older than my parents were when I got married? Am I really older than my sixth grade teacher was when she taught me? Did the kid I babysat for when her baby brother was born just have a baby of her own? The comparisons become skewed, like a funhouse mirror.
And that is what we call in 2018… “adulting.”