The Grown Ups. The rule makers. The tea drinkers. The ones who keep the cogs of daily life churning and will always be there ‘in a minute’.
As a child, the Grown Ups were also the ones who would say deeply irritating things.
Like endlessly and predictably commenting on how many inches I had grown (when I hadn’t) and prevaricating about how tall I would be (which I’m not). This happened to me so often that I had to cultivate a special face for dealing with it politely.
That same face was deployed as armour against any adult wafting around a nostalgic mist about how simple life was being a child and ‘if only we knew’. It also came out when presented with Something Disgusting at someone else’s house; Cadbury’s Smash, orange squash, tinned spaghetti hoops or anything in a box labelled Mr Kipling.
It doesn’t seem to be impolite for children today to say they don’t like something but in 1980s suburbia that was unthinkable. If you wanted to be invited round for tea again, you’d coerce down the gullet whatever offending slops were put in front of you.
I couldn’t wait to be a Grown Up so that I’d never have to eat Cadbury’s Smash again, no-one would ever again comment on my height, and life would be simple. I didn’t care for nor heed the humming narrative around me about how I should relish the joy and wonder of my Golden Days of Childhood – (which people don’t really talk about anymore either, I wonder why?)
As a child, most things in life were black and white. I liked my dinner, or I didn’t. My room was tidy, or messy. Becky was my best friend, or she wasn’t. I was good, or naughty. Happy, or sad. Excited, or frightened.
There were distinct and opposite ways of being, which could oscillate wildly in mere minutes, but which had very little grey space in between.
If I have learnt anything about life since that time, about what it means to be a Grown Up in the 22 years since I officially became an adult, it’s that the familiar and comfortable black and white of childhood existence starts to disappear.
Eventually, the grey space in between completely takes over. An unspoken and shapeless emotional jumble that mushrooms with age and experience.
For me, motherhood brought my first real living experience of that emotional jumble. Having a disabled child brought me into a head-on collision of love and joy for the new little person in our lives, tangled inseparably with fear and sadness.
How could I sit amidst this jumble, hitting the top and bottom of the emotional octave, when it felt impossible to play in a major and a minor key at the same time?
I craved the emotional clarity and sharpness of younger years. The simplicity of childhood that wasn’t so much golden, as black and white. Suddenly it made sense, what the Grown Ups had said that I’d found so irritating, and had to put on a special face for.
As I have learnt since, humans are naturally hard wired to become accustomed to this grey space. As we age, our deeper understanding of mortality brings with it a phenomenon known as ‘poignancy’. The wisdom of elders which holds the knowledge that even negative emotions have to play a role in a truly good and fulfilling life.
As we get older, it’s been proven that we get better at navigating seemingly contradictory emotions at the same time. (For the scientifically minded, there’s a brilliant study here).
We have to learn how to do this, otherwise how would we countenance waking up in the morning aged 90, when so many of our nearest and dearest are in holes in the ground?
Sometimes though, we have to get good at juggling and spinning our emotions far sooner than we are ready for. To learn to sit with sadness and happiness at the same time. To hold on to hope when we are afraid. To show compassion when we are angry. To stand up when we are weak.
Motherhood has knocked me down more times than I can count. As any parent of a disabled child will tell you, the complicated inner journey of parenthood is all the more frequently shaken and stirred for us. The emotional twists and turns are raw, real and often unexpected.
This also means that the ‘poignancy’ of life, that allows us as humans to co-exist with a jumble of emotions, is very present for us. We find it sooner, perhaps. At some point, it actually starts to feel okay, normal even, to feel sadness in happiness, and happiness in sadness. Emotions that have once been polar opposites now sit alongside each other in a harmonious mash up.
Now I just like to think of it as an early awakening. Because at some point, for pretty much all of us, shit gets real. Uprooted by cancer, disability, loss, grief, our unquestioned foothold on the world will falter. At first we long for solid ground but then we learn that there is no ‘getting back to normal’, just finding a new one.
Being a Grown Up isn’t defined by the appearance of an under neck chin bag (thanks for pointing that out, dear daughter) nor the disquieting ability to purchase alcohol without being asked for ID, it’s learning bit by bit to exist comfortably in the gloriously technicolour grey space.