I have always been a firm believer in Peter Pan’s mantra: “If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree, I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up! Not me!”
While I doubt I shall ever feel too old or dignified to climb (or fall out of) a tree, there are certain things about growing up which I dread – the responsibilities, the expectations, the ever-present reminder that time is running out for you and your loved ones.
How nice it would be to stay this age forever – old enough to move away from home, young and helpless enough to be welcomed back to the nest when need be. Old enough to be trusted to make the right choices, young enough to make the wrong ones now and again.
But we all know things won’t stay the same, we know that the whole ‘I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up’ thing won’t stay cute forever, that our grace period for romantic misadventures will only last so long and really, we’re thankful for it – who wants to stay in shared digs and low-paid employment forever? I have a childish, bouncing up and down in one spot shouting “When I grow up I’m living alone” Macauley Culkin moment at least once a month. To stay 23 forever and exist in a constant stream of nights out and hangovers, how would our bodies, or our parents, stand it?
I turn 24 in the New Year, and with the first echoes of a quarter-life crisis ringing in my ears, I’ve been weighing things up – all the things I’ve achieved, but mostly, all the things I have yet to do. Pass my driving test. Travel. Find a career path can stick to.
All the grown up things my friends have been doing recently seem completely alien to me – getting a mortgage, getting engaged, having a baby, buying a bed… I can’t imagine ever being financially stable or responsible enough to own a home or devote my life to another person, never mind investing in a divan. The prospect of these adventures seems a world away.
But at least, where romantic misadventures are concerned, I feel I have come of age. I have been helplessly, blindly in love and fallen back out of it again; felt the sudden, blunt thud of hitting the ground, and realising, actually, you are strong enough to get back on your own two feet and carry on. I’ve played the games, tried on things that don’t necessarily suit me, made the same mistake more than once, I’ve run away from feeling and stayed where there was none, I’ve indulged in no strings attached, only to find myself tangled up in ribbons, tried to struggle free only to find the knots tighter round my skin. I have no regrets, but I’ve learnt a few lessons.
Wilde told us ‘Wisdom comes with age’ but mostly it comes with misadventure and I have at least learnt to take that wisdom into account when misadventure comes a-knocking. Being grown up has nothing to do with receipts of purchase or contracts binding, being grown up is entirely a matter of the heart. The most grown up I have ever felt was on the rare occasion when my head has managed to steer my heart clear of harm even when it most wants the thrill of the chance.
It’s the same old story – you know that Champagne gives you a sore head the next morning, but you never turn it down when it’s offered. You can say no to that exciting little glass of bubbles and reassure yourself that you will wake up headache free, but there’s still the niggling little wonder ‘Oh, what harm can it do?’ My brain has finally learned how to answer loud enough so that my heart will listen “It will do a great deal of bloody harm! It will feel like your little brain is being passed through a sieve and then repeatedly attacked with a potato masher while Alvin and the Chipmunks sing a never-ending chorus of ‘It’s a Small World After All’. That is exactly how it will feel.” While we might risk this punishment for our heads when someone pops a champagne cork, it is a much greater deterrent when it comes to matters of the heart.*
So perhaps I may not be grown up or financially stable enough to invest in life’s important things, bed frames, family homes or lasting relationships, but at least I have learned how to tell the difference between a relationship that will last, and one which will simply give me a sore head in the morning.
(*Disclaimer: I have never learnt how to turn down a glass of champagne.)