Non-motherly musings: what happens when your friends’ kids suddenly become adults
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in possession of a voluntarily unused womb must be in want of a hassle-free life.
In other words: you do a certain amount of breezing through your days when you haven’t got any kids.
There are no screaming toddler tantrums, no agonising parent/teacher evenings (in which you’re compelled to discover that your little genius is in fact mediocre at best), and no fretting over prom outfits and first dates.
There’s no empty nest syndrome to await fearfully, as you wonder what the hell you’re going to do with the rest of your life.
So when my best friend’s daughter turned eighteen last month, I wasn’t prepared. At all.
I’ve known little Jessica all her life. I was twenty-three when she was born, and so was her mum Vickie, who was (and still is) my best friend. Jessica was the first of my friends’ many children; the first ‘non-family’ baby I ever visited, bearing gifts of tiny socks and squeaky toys.
At the time I worried, secretly, about losing Vickie to the vagaries of motherhood. What happened instead was that I got to watch Jessica grow up, up close.
I even took part in the process myself occasionally; babysitting, tagging along to glitzy, home-made school productions (Jessica wanted to be a dancer when she grew up), taking her shopping, going to watch her first driving lesson, and helping her navigate the dizzying choice of what subject to study at uni.
Helping with the prep for her eighteenth birthday party was a fun privilege. I got stuck in making sandwiches, slicing pizza, arranging chunks of Cheddar and tinned pineapple onto cocktail sticks (a delicacy strangely back in vogue).
But I still didn’t see Jessica as an adult.
That didn’t happen until the party itself, when it hit me like an express train.
It was partly my own fault. I’d booked a professional make-up artist to do Jessica’s face up for the party. That was my special present to her; my acknowledgement of the fact that looking killer-fantastic on Instagram beats almost everything else.
(I don’t remember what I did when I turned eighteen; that happened in the year 1995 BSS — Before Social Media. I assume I was having such a good time that I forgot to take any photos).
The next little jolt was considering what I should wear, as a forty-one year-old woman going to an eighteenth birthday party.
“You can’t look as though you’re trying to upstage the birthday girl,” went various comments.
Vickie and I discussed it at length. Jessica’s school prom had been a breeding ground for mothers squeezed into too-tight dresses and heavy make-up, as they dropped their daughters off in hired limousines. We wanted to sidestep that landmine, but we weren’t sure how.
In the end Vickie agonised over seven different outfits she’d ordered online, while I plumped for a floaty, calf-length number in funereal black.
“Very appropriate,” said my boyfriend, “you need to blend into the background really, because it’s not about you.”
The event itself was the predictable family party mishmash of the old, the middle-aged and the young. I walked in, past a group of Jessica’s friends. One of them, a girl I vaguely knew, rushed over to me and grabbed my arm.
“This is Nina!” she said to the others in the group. They regarded me in my safe, calf-length, middle-aged woman’s dress, and they gave me a polite, uninterested smile.
There are a lot of fabulous things about getting older, but the yawning chasm that opens up between your mind and your body isn’t one of them. It creeps up on you suddenly; how while you feel exactly the same as you’ve always done, you’ve been subtly altering physically.
You might notice little changes here and there when you look in the mirror. You deal with them as best you can, and then you get on with your day. But it’s the way other people suddenly begin to treat you that really underlines the ageing process.
I remember the way I used to treat ‘older’ people (which was anybody over thirty). I was excessively polite when I had to be, and I avoided them when I didn’t. Their lives had absolutely nothing to do with mine, after all.
Then I saw Jessica, greeting all her guests with that awkward self-consciousness people unsuccessfully try to hide when they’re eighteen. She looked like a beauty queen; twinkling tiara on top of big, bouncy, blow-dried hair — and a beautiful, expertly made-up face that made her look like what she now was.
The DJ was playing weird music I’d never heard of (this is a cliché for anybody over forty, but it’s a cliché because it’s true). Jessica and some of her friends made their way to the dance floor, and as I watched them shuffle to the music it dawned on me.
This is their time, right now. The future is ripe, ready, and rolled out before them.
So much emotion flooded through me then, it almost knocked me off my feet. A catastrophic whirlwind of feeling about my own missed opportunities in life, and how things could have been so different. Fervent hope that Jessica would sidestep all the new-adult anguish that had plagued me. Resignation about where my life is heading, and about how hard it is to be anything new, now.
I know that sounds all woeful and melancholy, but it wasn’t. It was just…overwhelming, when I’d expected to simply go along to an eighteenth birthday party and sink a few weak G&Ts.
Maybe this is what parents feel every day of their lives, as they watch their babies growing up right before their eyes.
Meanwhile, I cracked a few jokes to the other middle-aged people I was standing with. “What d’you think they’d do if we all got up and started dancing with them?” I said, indicating the throng of new adults on the dance floor. We all laughed, as we pictured the look of horror that would spread across their faces.
“We’d better head off now…they’re not going to want too many old people hanging around. We’ll just cramp their style,” my boyfriend said, grabbing our coats.
So we hugged everyone goodbye, and then we went home again.