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October 22, 2013

Adolescent adulthood

Navigating the awkward transition between childhood and adulthood can be challenging in college.

It is Friday of Family Weekend and, at the request of my RH, I am attending a dorm-wide reception. I am glad-handing parents, I am taking advantage of the free food, and I am sending everyone to the same tapas bar on the North Side when they ask for dinner recommendations. The families of several first-years in my house with whom I am varying levels of acquainted tell me about how impressive they find the University, how happy their son/daughter is here, and how concerned they are about what kind of coat to buy their child for the winter. My job today is to provide them with the solution to all their thinly veiled anxieties: I become very impressive, very happy, and very prepared for cold weather.

My own family is at home in California. They sent their apologies for not working out travel logistics in time to make it this weekend, and told me they would see me for Thanksgiving. I told them it was fine—attempting to play hostess for my own parents during their visit last year was too stressful a role reversal anyway. It’s difficult to navigate the changes that my moving out has brought to our relationship: How are they supposed to parent someone who is (at the very least) a semi-adult? At home over the summer, we were unsure of the logistics: My mother was amused whenever I asked for permission to go out somewhere; I was taken aback at the idea of sharing a beer with my father. It is easier, in many ways, to renegotiate these boundaries from afar, when I’m not sharing a roof with them. I don’t have to answer their questions about dating, but they at least get to ask. I will still discuss the Project Runway season finale with my mom; my dad will still forward me bizarre chain e-mails from his office. We’ve had a year to get used to this new kind of “opt-in” parenting relationship, and even though it feels strange, we’re getting the hang of it.

My father calls me after visiting his brothers for a family memorial service I couldn’t attend, where he saw my cousins and family friends. Everyone was asking about me, he says. Out of a sick desire to feel like I am successful enough to be bragged about, I want to ask him what he told them in response. I refrain because I am afraid his answer will include words like “difficult time” and “stress crying.” On the one hand, I want to at least pretend to my parents that I have my life together; on the other, I still want to be able to do the aforementioned stress crying over the phone with my mother. I know that my parents will take care of me if I ask them to, but for some reason I feel guilty every time I do. Maybe someday I’ll be able to handle tax forms and basic kitchen skills without needing a loving adult to intercede and tell me exactly how to do things, but that day does not seem to be in the foreseeable future. In the meantime I am torn between the ideas that growing up is about asking for help and that it is about no longer needing that help at all.

I know I am lucky to feel difficulty and strangeness in this gradual separation. Friends of mine dread having to occasionally return to their parents’ houses and their strained relationships; some don’t even have two parents to return to. I sit solidly at the other end of the spectrum, struggling to maintain close bonds while also attempting to create an independent life for myself. The latter is a slow and hard process, full of false starts, which is the impression I am starting to get of adulthood in general. But it is happening, and in the meantime I am unsure of how appropriate it is for my parents to be caring for me while I try to learn how to take care of myself. I also suspect that my parents have felt this way ever since I learned to make myself lunch.

When another mother at the reception asks about parka shopping, I can sense her searching for something to latch on to. Ensuring that your son doesn’t freeze is a solid, tangible way to be a caregiver. I tell her to buy something warmer than her son thinks is necessary, even though I know that’s exactly what she’d do regardless of my advice. I don’t tell her that she should also let him know that she’ll take care of him for longer than he thinks is necessary. In a lot of ways, I think the coat will be her way of doing just that.

Clair Fuller is a second-year in the College majoring in gender and sexuality studies.

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